MOOC Students More Likely to Be Affluent, Study Shows


Though many believe that online education is a leap forward in democratizing learning and helping low-income people improve their lives, a new study has shown that the wealthy are — for now — more likely to take and complete massive open online courses (MOOCs).

The creators and proponents of MOOCs have touted them as a way to remedy educational differences based in socioeconomic class inequalities, but lower-income people are statistically less likely to take them.

The study was conducted by John D. Hansen, a doctoral student at Harvard University’s School of Education, and his colleagues, writes Sindya N. Bhanoo of the New York Times.

Hansen and his team looked at registration and completion patterns in 68 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT on the online education platform edX. The study covered 164,198 participants aged 13 through 69, though the researchers took particular interest in adolescent participants.

Each increase of $20,000 in someone’s neighborhood median income raised the odds of taking an MOOC by 27%. However, most people who took them were not the very wealthy, but in the middle class.

On average, MOOC students lived in neighborhoods with a median income of $69,641, which is $11,998 above the national average of neighborhoods. If only students aged 13 to 17 were counted, the gap became $23,181, meaning that adolescents who are already likely to go to college are more likely to take MOOCs than their peers.

Hansen concluded that online courses could be redesigned to appeal more to the target audience, lower-income people.

The team based their research on Attewell’s argument that the “digital divide” between students of varying backgrounds is actually two divides: one of access and one of usage. For example, when schools that have computers are compared, schools serving more affluent students are more likely to use them for simulations and modeling, and those with lower income students are more likely to use them for drills and practice exercises. Hansen suspected that the same patterns were repeated with MOOCs: that more affluent students use technology in more educationally effective ways even when cost is not a factor.

Hansen said in the study’s conclusion:

… Our research on MOOCs… should provoke skepticism of lofty claims regarding democratization, level playing fields, and closing gaps that might accompany new genres of online learning, especially those targeted at younger learners. Freely available learning technologies can offer broad social benefits, but educators and policy-makers should not assume that the underserved or disadvantaged will be the chief beneficiaries.

The study, entitled “Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses,” was published in the journal Science. For the full text, you can visit the journal’s website.