Study shows Massive Open Online Courses used mostly by wealthier people

December 4, 2015 by Bob Yirka, report

Neighborhood income for US Harvard/MIT MOOC participants compared to general US population. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015, issue of Science, published by AAAS. The paper, by J.D. Hansen at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, and colleagues was titled, "Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses." Credit: John Hansen and Justin Reich
(—A pair of researchers looking into whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are helping to bridge the disparity gap in education access in the U.S. has found that those who take the courses tend to be from wealthier neighborhoods. In their paper published in the journal Science, John Hansen, with Harvard University and Justin Reich, with MIT describe their research efforts and why they came to believe that MOOCs are not the remedy to educational disparity that many had hoped.

Access to a high quality is not guaranteed in the U.S. People who live in tend to live in less well funded schools with lower success rates. Over the years some have espoused technological advances as the key to leveling the playing field—some believed radio could change things by offering educational programming, others believed television would help, offering even more programming such as that provided by PBS. Unfortunately, such hopes have not been realized as the disparity gap in education has only grown wider between people living in rich versus those living in . More recently, some have suggested that the Internet might finally provide the path to change—universities such as Harvard and MIT began offering free courses online, which over time have come to be known as MOOCs. But now, Hansen and Reich have found that the majority of young people taking advantage of such coursework are kids living in wealthy neighborhoods, suggesting that instead of shrinking the disparity gap, they are actually making it wider.

To come to these conclusions, the research pair obtained data on 68 students enrolled in MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT covering the years 2012 to 2014, which included student addresses. Those addresses when compared with census data allowed the researchers to identify the average wealth and education level of adults in the neighborhoods where the students lived. The researchers looked at both registration and completion rates of the student enrollees, and found that the people using MOOCs to further their education were primarily from wealthier neighborhoods, thus it was no surprise that most of those that completed the courses and received a certificate, were also from those same wealthy neighborhoods.

Two stylized representations of the possible effects of a technological innovation on educational outcomes for students from high- and low-socioeconomic backgrounds are shown. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the Dec. 4, 2015, issue of Science, published by AAAS. The paper, by J.D. Hansen at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, and colleagues was titled, "Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses." Credit: John Hansen and Justin Reich

The study suggests that there are obstacles that prevent students from less wealthy neighborhoods from accessing free online education and presumably the better economic opportunities that would follow were those obstacles to be removed.

Explore further: Massive open online courses haven't lived up to the hopes and the hype, professors say

More information: J. D. Hansen et al. Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses, Science (2015). DOI: 10.1126/science.aab3782

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are often characterized as remedies to educational disparities related to social class. Using data from 68 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT between 2012 and 2014, we found that course participants from the United States tended to live in more-affluent and better-educated neighborhoods than the average U.S. resident. Among those who did register for courses, students with greater socioeconomic resources were more likely to earn a certificate. Furthermore, these differences in MOOC access and completion were larger for adolescents and young adults, the traditional ages where people find on-ramps into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coursework and careers. Our findings raise concerns that MOOCs and similar approaches to online learning can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status.

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5 / 5 (1) Dec 04, 2015
Certainly is true for me. Love taking good MOOCs.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 05, 2015
I could see nontechnical obstacles possibly as a root cause for the disparity. Wealthier people may rend to be self programmed to reach higher, seeking paths and tools for advancement.
Poorer demographics may be more focused on day to day survival.
The arena of higher education may just be too far removed from their reality to be seen as any worthwhile endeavor. A foreign concept.
One can only shoot as high as their aim.
1 / 5 (4) Dec 06, 2015
Food insecurity has a lot of cognitive and other physical consequences that could easily impact this, as well as the working poor's lack of free time due to needing two jobs that pay nothing to just fail to survive enough to maintain their food insecurity. In the USA, this state is intentionally engineered to create a populace that can't challenge power, and shockingly few people here would ever take steps to alleviate it if they themselves weren't directly impacted. Compassion is a metaphysical concept here, considered the very pinnacle of impractical nonsense, and way beyond the capacities of most of us anyway.
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2015
SuperThunder is just being silly. The real answer to the conundrum is that MOOCs work well for self-motivated people, but they are a tiny minority of the population. (The MOOCs and other non-traditional education programs serve a definite need, and the people who are served are also among the most innovative in STEM fields.)

What about the 99% or maybe 92 or 93%? Provide programs that encourage teachers to use MOOCs probably in group study projects, to improve their grasp of the material they are teaching. There is also a huge window for cross-field propagation of information.

I was part of the effort that took computer programming languages from ad-hoc grammars to a science field that primary school teachers need to tap. I can tell you what is wrong with the way grammar is taught in elementary schools, but getting anything published where it would be useful is unlikely. (My credentials are in math, ccmputer science, and statistics.)
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2015
I shouldn't stop there but there wasn't room for an example. Of course, I could just point to: http://medicalxpr...mar.html and asked where have neuroscientists been for the last thirty years. Grammars are not just a way to describe languages, they are a guide to parsing the language to extract meaning. If you can't fit a grammar, you just have a meaningless collection of symbols.

Grammars also tell you how easy a sentence is to understand. As a nice example of a tough sentence to parse, take Macbeth Act I, Scene 2 second sentence: "He can report, As seemeth by his plight, of the revolt, the newest state." Turn it around, "As seemeth by his plight he can report the newest state of the revolt." It is much easier to understand, and requires fewer commas. ;-) Any decent programmer can write a program which will suggest to an author this sort of structural reorganization. All it takes is a decent, recognizable and unambiguous English grammar.

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