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One answer: If 10 registered participants actively participated in a open online course, it might not be massive, but it still could be a meaningful and relevant learning experience under the right context. Let's assume that only 4% of the registered learners finish the MOOC, we would need 250 registered learners (if my figures are correct). But there are so many variables to this scenario that it raises more uncertainty than anything else.
In my view, MOOCs need sustainable discourse to survive - I agree that those on the peripheral "need something to read." But I would consider the following questions in determining whether a MOOC will offer a meaningful and relevant learning experience:
1. How will registered participants who are actively participating in the MOOC present different perspectives around each topic, theme, or subtheme?
2. How many turns (i.e., back-and-forth discussions) around different topics, themes, or subthemes will registered participants who are actively participating in the MOOC produce?
3. How are topics, themes, and sub-themes being applied to different contexts or disciplines?
I feel that the operationalization of a MOOC will ultimately depend on the university or context of each learner. It will depend on the types of assessments and the particular goals of the MOOC, the university, and/or the learner. A MOOC becomes operationalized by the particular educational context that evolves around the MOOC experience, and that could vary from MOOC to MOOC, university to university, and learner to learner. And as we get more universities giving credit to students who are taking a MOOC, I think threshold numbers will become less of an issue. Currently, few universities are offering credit (to my knowledge), but the individuals and universities who are offering MOOCs have the following to sustain continued discourse.
So I would say that what drives a MOOC to be operational is for the most part dependent on how the individuals interact within a given educational context and not the number of registered participants. If we need a threshold number that leads to the likelihood that lurkers will have something to read, then I would refer to it as leaving evidence that a MOOC existed or audit trail with no assumption that it has anything to do with learning.