The idea behind offering free MOOCs (massively open online courses) from top universities is a lofty one. They’re ideally a way to reach the massive part of the world’s population who likely won’t ever have a chance to attend a top school, or in many cases, even a bad one.
But, according to a new survey from the University of Pennsylvania highlighted by The Wall Street Journal, the vast majority of people who sign up for the online courses have socioeconomic advantages. Enrollment skews overwhelmingly toward white people, men, the highly educated, and people from developed countries.
In short, it’s the sort of elites who had access in the first place that are taking these courses out of curiosity or to advance their careers.
Of the survey’s respondents, 83% report having some kind of post-secondary education, and at least 79.4% have a bachelor’s degree.
This divide is most pronounced in countries where relatively few people get tertiary education. In Brazil, Russia, India, and China, where only 5.1% of citizens have some college education, nearly 80% of MOOC takers have been to college.
To be sure, the data provides only a snapshot, coming from 32 sessions of 24 different courses that have been offered by the University of Pennsylvania on Coursera. But considering that those courses have covered a full range of subjects, that Coursera is the largest provider of MOOCs, and the University of Pennsylvania is the second-most active school on the platform after Stanford, the trends are concerning.
Here’s its chart showing the difference between overall educational attainment and those who take MOOCs:
Reaching the less educated in underdeveloped countries will always be a challenge. But the vision of granting access to people who otherwise wouldn’t have it and reducing the cost of higher education hasn’t materialised yet.
In fact, Udacity, one of the earliest and most prominent MOOC providers, is now pivoting towards providing corporate training rather than education in general. Udacity is a for-profit company, as is Coursera. It seems that any effort geared towards reaching the most underserved populations isn’t likely to be a money maker.
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