The new generation of free, large-scale college courses offered over the Internet was supposed to make higher education, particularly at elite universities, accessible to to the masses. But a new survey of massive open online course, or MOOC, users show that most people who enroll are “elite, young and male” and already have a college degree.
The courses can enroll tens of thousands of students, though providers says as few as 1 in 10 students typically complete a course.
The University of Pennsylvania surveyed 34,779 students who enrolled in courses taught by Penn professors on Coursera. Both U.S. and international students were likely to already have a college degree, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
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.
“Far from realizing the high ideals of their advocates, MOOCs seem to be reinforcing the advantages of the ‘haves’ rather than educating the ‘have-nots,'” wrote survey author Ezekiel J. Emanuel. “Better access to technology and improved basic education are needed world-wide before MOOCs can genuinely live up to their promise.”
At Slate, Rebecca Schuman notes the changing focus of another MOOC provider, Udacity, from college courses to corporate training. Udacity struck a high-profile deal with San Jose State University earlier this year, but the university put the partnership on hold due to poor student results.
Schuman argues MOOCs are likely to only work for privileged students and criticizes Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun for saying Udacity wasn’t a good fit for San Jose State students because they were “from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives” :
The problem, of course, is that those students represent the precise group MOOCs are meant to serve. “MOOCs were supposed to be the device that would bring higher education to the masses,” Jonathan Rees noted. “However, the masses at San Jose State don’t appear to be ready for the commodified, impersonal higher education that MOOCs offer.” Thrun’s cavalier disregard for the SJSU students reveals his true vision of the target audience for MOOCs: students from the posh suburbs, with 10 tablets apiece and no challenges whatsoever—that is, the exact people who already have access to expensive higher education.
It is more than galling that Thrun blames students for the failure of a medium that was invented to serve them, instead of blaming the medium that, in the storied history of the “correspondence” course (“TV/VCR repair”!), has never worked. For him, MOOCs don’t fail to educate the less privileged because the massive online model is itself a poor tool. No, apparently students fail MOOCs because those students have the gall to be poor, so let’s give up on them and move on to the corporate world, where we don’t have to be accountable to the hoi polloi anymore, or even have to look at them, because gross.