Who’s Taking MOOCs?

Higher education soothsayers are eying MOOCs — massive open online courses, like those provided by Coursera and MIT and Harvard’s edX — with equal parts fascination and wariness. Proponents have argued that MOOCs will bring upon us a new golden age of education, where Tuvan goat herders can take literature courses from Ivy League professors. Pessimists foretell that MOOCs will end up as a cost-cutting measure that replaces valuable class time with cut-rate video lectures at financially strained public universities.

But those visions both make presumptions about who is taking MOOCs. Utopians hope that MOOCs can reach new audiences that have never before had access to quality higher education, while MOOCs’ detractors assume they’ll draw traditional students away from current major players, particularly public schools. While MOOCs are still young and user data is sparse, initial surveys don’t seem to bear out either vision.

I don’t doubt that there are anecdotal tales of MOOCs reaching people across the globe who always wanted a college education but were too geographically isolated to get it. I’m sure it would be possible to pull IP address locations for Coursera users, but since I don’t have access to that data, I took a somewhat sloppier approach: pulling and analyzing stats from the “study groups” forum from Statistics One, Coursera’s largest class to date. When the class started, it had 75,000 users signed up, according to emails from professor Andrew Conway, so I believe its a good sample case.

By the end of the class, there were nearly 90 threads about starting study groups, featuring 844 individual posts. I used these replies as a proxy for how many users might be interested in joining groups, presumably indicating they were in the geographic area where the starting user wanted to set up a group. I realize this is not a very reliable approach, given that users could respond multiple times, and many of these posts were in languages I didn’t understand, so I haven’t a foggy what they were actually saying. I’m assuming, however, that they can give us meaningful reads of user interest in certain groups.

At 157, the plurality of thread posts were for groups scattered across the US, from Washington DC to Texas and Seattle. The second runner up was for a single post for a Spanish-language online study group that garnered 135 replies. After that, online study groups (for example, Google + hangouts and Facebook groups) were the most popular, followed by posts in India and Russia. Of course, India already has a reputation for churning out a technologically savvy workforce, at least in urban areas, and Russia is still riding the legacy of free science-heavy education from the Cold War. I’m skeptical that the MOOC users in those countries would not have had access to these kinds of courses otherwise.

There were several other posts from Western Europe and former Eastern-bloc countries, as well as Australia, Canada and Vietnam. And then one lonely little post from Khartoum. It received no replies.

There are obvious reasons why villagers in rural Mongolia are not MOOCs’ primary users. For one, users must speak English fluently to get anything out of the course. That might not be a high bar to leap in Western Europe or the former Soviet Union, where nearly everyone gets through primary and secondary education, and that education nearly always includes at least some instruction and English. But in developing countries with wide income disparities, there is a massive gap between the urban elite who usually send their kids abroad for college and the largely illiterate poor. The latter often don’t even speak the official colonial language, let alone speak and read a second one fluently.
Add onto that the need for an internet connection and basic math and study skills, and your average villager’s chances of learning from a MOOC become infinitesimal.

So what about American students? Are MOOCs really a threat to US public universities?

In some public systems like the University of Texas, professors are looking to MOOCs to replace undergraduate courses are are already massive and provide little individualized support for students. But that’s not the demographic that’s voluntarily taking MOOCs right now.

Coursera’s Computing for Data Analysis class sent out a survey at the beginning of the course a month ago and published the results. Of more than 6,000 survey respondents, 76 percent already had their bachelors degree. Forty-seven percent had done some graduate studies. About three quarters of the respondents also said they were already familiar with at least one other programming language besides R, which was the focus of the course. Coursera’s “Learn to Program” introductory course also, perhaps surprisingly, found through a survey of 12,000 registered users that only about a third described themselves as true beginners with no prior experience in programming. Twenty-two percent had already taken some kind of programming course, and an additional 15 percent described themselves as experienced programmers.

I would argue this demonstrates that the self-guided learning demanded by MOOCs is difficult for people who have never been in a college setting before. Speaking from personal experience, I could also speculate that the kind of skills and certifications provided by MOOCs are most useful for people at a point in their career where demonstrated capacities are more important than certifications, and if they say they know how to do something, they’ll be believed. I don’t think most people can reach that stage without a college degree or a lot of experience.

MOOCs may offer the most competition for high-cost low-quality online for-profit schools, particularly those offering graduate degrees. I know that the lure of completing a graduate degree online is tempting for many people who are too busy to attend classes in person. But, for now at least, schools like University of Phoenix and Capella do offer one thing that MOOCs don’t: a degree. In many fields, particularly the military and other federal employment, having a master’s degree from any university is more important than any palpable skills gained, since that degree automatically qualifies you for raises or promotions.

None of this is meant to denigrate MOOCs. I have taken several myself, starting with Stanford’s database course, which has been a great career booster. They are at least as rigorous as some of the courses I took at Grinnell College, which is a solid academic institution by any measure, and I believe there are many people like me who stand to gain much from MOOCs. But I don’t think, sadly, that they are the beginning of a revolution in education.


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