MOOCs Are Largely Reaching Privileged Learners

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Most people who take massive open online courses — surprise! — already hold a degree from a traditional institution. Or, as The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, MOOCs are largely reaching privileged learners:

The paper is based on a survey of 34,779 students worldwide who took 24 courses offered by Penn professors on the Coursera platform. The findings — among the first from outside researchers, rather than MOOC providers — reinforce the truism that most people who take MOOCs are already well educated.

The Penn researchers sent the survey to students who had registered for a MOOC and viewed at least one video lecture. More than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.

The pattern was true not only of MOOC students in the United States but also learners in other countries. In some foreign countries where MOOCs are popular, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population,” according to the paper.

In other developing countries, about 80 percent of the MOOC students surveyed already held college degrees — a number staggeringly out of proportion with the share of degree holders in the general population.

“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.

It’s the strangest thing…


  1. Chris C. says:

    Saw this illustrated on a much smaller scale. Back in 1987, I taught a semester of microeconomics at a community college just for the experience (pay was $99). Near the end of the course, I was told by the dean to offer some kind of massive extra credit because I was grading like I expected the little darlings to actually read the book and answer questions correctly. So I did, and the ones who turned in the assignment were the people who already had an A (or were close to it).

  2. Kudzu Bob says:

    The more equality of opportunity there is, the more important heredity becomes.

  3. Analogous to the so-called ‘Gender Equality Paradox’ in Norway.

  4. William Newman says:

    While heredity sure does seem to be very important, you’d do better with “the more important differences in ability and attitude become” rather than arbitrarily narrowing an observation of differences in ability and attitude (at least; also contributions from poorly understood heritable traits and from nonheritable opportunity and incentives) to “heredity”. As correlations go in the social sciences, heritability of various important things (including ability and attitude) is impressively strong … which means there’s quite a lot of slop after heredity is taken into account, because “as correlations go in the social sciences” is an impressively strong qualifier.

  5. Kudzu Bob says:

    Biology is prior to ability and attitude.

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