Our recent foray into the MOOC world, a systems engineering course produced in partnership with NASA personnel, was an astronomical success (pardon the pun). Over 9,000 students from 143 countries enrolled and nearly 600 completed the final exam; nine students who completed the Mars Sample Return Mission project took a VIP tour of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

While the scheduled version of the course has ended, SSE101 is still available 24/7 for asynchronous learners, and the materials are all public domain (United States).

Map of students’ countries

Enrollment map for SSE101

The project began nearly a year ago in June 2013, when the first meeting between Saylor and NASA staff was held out at Goddard. Filming began shortly on August 1, 2013 and a first draft of the course was ready by December 2013. We sent a private invitation out to part of our mailing list before the end of the year. With polishing, assessment-building, and re-filming, we were ready for our March kick-off, but we did not quite know what to expect. A broader invitation went out, even a press release (so quaint), but the real magic happened with just one tweet:

We knew we were in for success — or big trouble — when our inboxes lit up with re-tweets.

SSE101: The Numbers

Original enrollment: 9,148
Final enrollment: 8,120
Nations represented: 143
Mars Sample Return Mission proposals submitted: 22
Exams attempted: 583 (6.3%)
Certificates issued: 425 (4.6%)
Forums post: 2100+

Email engagement (percent of recipients who read the messages)
Median: 36%
Mean: 40%

Email engagement for SSE101

Of students who completed the survey:

  • 40% of students were 18-24 year olds
  • 52% said their goal in taking the course was to enter the SSE field
  • 30% held Bachelor’s degree, 25% have some college complete
  • 93% said this was their first Saylor.org course (that means 1,400 new Saylor.org students!)
  • 50/50 on prior online course/training experience
  • Only 33% said they planned on participating in the forums and Google Hangouts on Air.
  • 62% said they planned on taking the final exam. 44% actually did.

A common criticism of MOOCs is their low completion rates. But a meaningful distinction can be made between the number of students enrolled (8K), the number of active participants (~1.5K), and the number who had the goal of completing the whole course and getting a certificate (1K). Using the total number who originally enrolled, the 425 who passed the final exam results in only a 4.6% completion rate. This would be misleading, however. A more representative number of student retention would be the 44% who wanted to complete the course and actually did.

We feel confident that this course performed as well as or better than the average MOOC in terms of students finding what they sought:

  • 85% of students said they met their personal goals for this course
  • 94% said they would take another Saylor.org course
  • 95% said they would recommend this course to others

Explore more

Mars Sample Return Mission Essay Gallery
Archived Hangouts on Air:

Student introductions and forums