Study Finds MOOCs Mostly Attract ‘Privileged’ Students

Millions of people are taking advantage of massive open online course (MOOC) offered by the world’s leading schools through the platforms of Coursera, Udacity and other MOOC providers, but a new report reveals that most of the people taking and successfully completing MOOCs already hold a degree from a traditional institution.

The report, which was released by the University of Pennsylvania, found that more than 80% students who take MOOCs offered by Penn professors on Coursera had a two- or four-year degree, while 44% had some graduate education. The researchers surveyed 34,779 students worldwide who took 24 courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania, writes Steve Kolowich of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

These findings further reinforce the perception that most people who take MOOCs are already well educated. The researchers surveyed students who had registered for a MOOC and viewed at least one video lecture.

In developing countries, Internet service is mostly available in the big cities and also majority of population in those countries cannot afford to have a computer and Internet service. In some countries where MOOCs are popular, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa, 80% of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6% of the population, according to the report.

In other developing countries, about 80% of the MOOC students surveyed already held college degrees.

“The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” write the paper’s six authors.

Andrew Ng, a founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Coursera, said the company is aware of the demographic trends and is working on a number of projects aimed at helping reach more needy students. The company recently announced plans to launch the Learning Hubs program, which adds a social layer to online learning.

The Learning Hubs program offers physical spaces to people who sign up for courses to access the Internet while learning alongside their peers and will offer physical spaces in a number of cities. The Learning Hubs will help facilitate learning in locations around the world.

Coursera has taken a hands-off approach to publicity, relying almost entirely on word of mouth to spread awareness of MOOCs. It stands to reason that much of the hubbub about MOOCs has occurred in well-educated circles. Combine that with spotty Internet availability in underprivileged communities, and it makes sense that only the most privileged populations have had occasion to take a MOOC.

According to the researchers, the trend does not mean MOOCs will never reach underrepresented populations. They also caution that, because the study examined only a slim percentage of the students registered for Penn courses, let alone all MOOCs, “the survey may not be generalizable.”

In October, Coursera announced that it partnered with over 100 academic institutions from all over the world. The company now offers 500 courses and boasts five million students.