Most needy don’t attend free online courses

People who take MOOCs — free online college courses — are more likely to be wealthy and already well-educated

mooc graph


The two lines on this graph show the income for a general neighborhood population (in blue), and for the population of students who take massive open online courses (in brown). The average person who takes a MOOC tends to be from a wealthier neighborhood than average. 

John Hansen and Justin Reich

Massive open online courses— or MOOCs — are free classes that anyone can sign up for. Students can follow along with course videos, do homework and have discussions with other students, all from their own computers or smartphones. Even Ivy League universities offer popular courses by famous professors. This would seem like a great opportunity for people who might not otherwise have access to the best education — especially low-income teens. But a new study shows that those who take MOOCs tend to live in neighborhoods where families are well-off and well-educated.

People promoting MOOCs as great equalizers should probably look at these data before making big claims about who they really help. That’s the conclusion of John Hansen. He’s a graduate student in education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He also is an author of a new study on MOOC use by teens.

Companies that produce MOOCs have claimed their courses will close gaps in student achievement. They argue MOOCs will give students everywhere access to the same classes. Indeed, Anant Agarwal, the head of EdX — a MOOC site — made such a claim. Last year, he said he envisioned a future in which MOOCs “transform education, making it accessible on a global level to everyone regardless of social status or income.”

But if MOOCs attracted people who were less wealthy or less well educated, these people should have been over-represented in the MOOCs. They weren’t. Hansen and Justin Reich of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead found that most people who complete a MOOC and earn a class-completion certificate come from higher-income households. And among teens signing up for MOOCs, those with a college-educated parent “had almost twice the chance of completing a course,” as did kids whose parents hadn’t finished college.

Hansen and Reich shared their findings December 3 in the journal Science.

Combing through lots of data

Hansen and Reich looked at data for edX. It’s a website that provides MOOCs. Founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this site also includes courses from other well-known schools. Among them are the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University in New York City. The two researchers pored over data on 164,198 people. They had participated in at least one of 68 MOOCs. All had been offered between 2012 and 2014. 

Among these participants, 8,481 were teens 17 and under. The researchers especially wanted to look those younger users. Many groups want to promote Internet courses to low-income teens or those who may be the first in their family to consider college. MOOCs might just be the ticket to send such kids on a path to a career in science, technology, engineering and math. But until now, Hansen says, no one had investigated MOOC use by teen learners.

To find out how advantaged or disadvantaged MOOC students were, the scientists studied what neighborhoods the teens lived in. Data exist to show how much money most people in these neighborhoods make each year. From this, the researchers could estimate the income of a student’s household. The scientists also looked up information on how educated the students’ parents were. The researchers then compared the MOOC students’ income and parental education against a random sample of others their age who lived in similar places. 

This new study “confirms what we found,” says Ezekial Emanuel. He works at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. And he, too, has studied who takes MOOCs.

“People who do MOOCs and who do well in MOOCs are better off [financially],” he’s found. Just because a class is free and on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s actually easier to access if you’re not wealthy and well-educated, Emanuel says. To take a MOOC, people need a computer and access to the Internet. Not everyone has that. What’s more, he adds, MOOCs won’t help people without the education to do work at the college level. At a minimum, he notes, “Many people don’t have sufficient English.”

It also can be hard to stick with a tough class all of the way to the end. “Here at the University of Pennsylvania there are social supports for students to make them stick to classes. And still we have people who have trouble,” Emanuel observes. Doing a MOOC in your free time means you have only yourself for motivation.

Still, Emanuel argues, MOOCs can be useful. “They are best understood as skill building and training for people who want to advance in their careers,” he says. He does not, however, see them as a way to level the playing field between rich and poor communities.

MOOCs aren’t the first to claim they could cure differences in education. “There were very similar expectations … going back to radio and television,” Hansen says. The big question for scientists and educators, he says, is to identify precisely why people from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t take these free courses.

In the meantime, people should be cautious about promoting the benefits of online learning, he says.  Speaking of MOOCs, he says educators may be able to build them, and students may come. But right now they do not appear to be the students who need MOOCs most.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

ethics  (adj. ethical) A code of conduct for how people interact with others and their environment. To be ethical, people should treat others fairly, avoid cheating or dishonesty in any form and avoid taking or using more than their fair share of resources (which means, to avoid greed). Ethical behavior also would not put others at risk without alerting people to the dangers beforehand and having them choose to accept the potential risks.

graduate student  Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

massive open online courses (MOOCs)  An online class that offers unlimited and free participation on the Internet. Lectures can be presented as notes or videos, and students can follow along at their own pace, completing assignments and participating in class discussion in online forums. 

motivation  The drive to behave or act in a particular way.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.