Office of Planning & Budgeting

December 10, 2013

Research Suggests MOOCs Primarily Serve the Well-Educated

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently surveyed students who had taken at least one of Penn’s twenty-four MOOCs and viewed at least one online video lecture. Findings from the responses of 34,779 students revealed that 80 percent of the MOOC-takers already had a 2- or 4-year degree and that 44 percent already had some graduate education. This research supports the platitude that MOOCs primarily serve the well-educated.

The trend was observed for MOOC students in the U.S., as well as those in developing countries, and even those in countries where MOOCs are popular. Coursera – the MOOC provider for Penn and several other universities – has made “access” central to its mission of bringing world-class education to everyone. However, The Chronicle notes:

“Coursera has taken a hands-off approach to publicity, relying almost entirely on word of mouth (and its university partners) 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.”

Coursera says they are working on several projects to help reach underserved students, particularly those without internet access. One of these efforts (we assume) are the global “learning hubs” discussed in a prior post and in this NY Times article.

Although the findings are noteworthy, the authors mention two important caveats:

  1. Their findings don’t necessarily mean MOOCs will never reach underrepresented populations, just that they haven’t done so yet; and
  2. The respondents represent only a small percentage of students registered for Penn MOOCs, let alone all MOOCs; thus “the survey may not be generalizable.”