It is the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue: are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) really all they’re hyped up to be? Here at The EvoLLLution, we’ve waded through all the noise to find out just that, taking a research- and statistics-based look at the field to find answers to five of the most pressing questions concerning MOOCs. Over the course of this two-part series, we will explore the present and future of massive open online courses, analyzing the demographics and the economics to unearth some truths about this educational phenomenon that may surprise you.
Part I: Are MOOCs truly expanding the reach of higher education?
We begin with a focus on the “who” of Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs are often heralded as the great democratizer of higher education in the U.S. and abroad. However, a closer look at who is enrolling, and where in the world they are enrolling from, reveals that this is not exactly the case. In fact, the really exciting shifts in enrollment are ones that have been largely overlooked so far in the MOOC discourse.
1. What kind of students are taking MOOCs?
Since MOOCs are still fairly new, data on enrollment demographics is somewhat limited. However, several MOOC providers have begun sharing statistics that shed light on this question. In a survey of the 100,000+ students enrolled in Coursera’s pilot course, Machine Learning, 41 percent of respondents were software industry professionals and 9 percent were professionals in the broader tech industry. The next biggest student group, 32 percent, was made up of students enrolled in graduate or undergraduate postsecondary education. Providing a more general indicator of a professional tendency in MOOCs, 75 percent of those enrolled in Udacity’s pilot course said they hoped to “improve their skills relevant for either current or future employment.” EdX conducted a more targeted survey of students who completed their pilot MOOC and found that 80 percent of those surveyed said that they had previously taken a similar course at a traditional postsecondary institution. Moreover, 70 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree, and 50 percent were aged 26 or older.
General national trends in adult education are worth noting here as well. According to data released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2007, the adult education participation rate for those in professional and managerial positions was 70 percent, while for service, sales, support, and trade jobs it was significantly lower. Further, the participation rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was almost double the participation rate of those with their high school diploma, GED certificate, or less.
So what: MOOCs tend to attract adults, and these adults tend to be professionals in the industry that the course topic pertains to. MOOCs also tend to attract those who have already completed some traditional postsecondary education. MOOCs seem to be serving the adults that have already been accessing higher education, and they seem to neglect the underserved populations. These findings suggest that MOOCs are not (yet) revolutionizing the higher education landscape; they are not tapping into entirely new populations, and they are not necessarily bringing about the explosion in access to higher education that the hype would suggest—at least not from a domestic perspective.
2. Where are these students located?
According to data released by Coursera in August, 61.5 percent of Coursera students live outside of the United States. The six countries with the highest enrollment (after the U.S.) are: Brazil (5.9 percent), India (5.2 percent), China (4.1 percent), Canada (4.1 percent), the United Kingdom (4 percent) and Russia (2.4 percent).
In traditional higher education institutions, international students are gaining a foothold as well. Data from the Institute of International Education indicates that in the last 30 years, enrollment of international students at U.S. higher education institutions has doubled. Currently, the overwhelming majority of these students—61 percent—are coming from Asia—mostly from India and China. Canada accounts for 4 percent of enrollment, while Brazil and the United Kingdom trail far behind, both at less than 2 percent.
So what: The MOOCs may not be causing a revolution domestically, but MOOCs have so far proven themselves to be expanding access to high quality postsecondary education for students living outside of the United States. Although India and China share a high percentage of both international post-secondary students and international MOOC participants, there are some striking differences between the two groups. Brazil, the country outside of the U.S. whose citizens are enrolling in MOOCs in the greatest numbers, barely registers when it comes to enrollment at traditional higher education institutions. There is significantly greater MOOC presence from the U.K. and Russia, and Coursera also counts the Ukraine, Colombia, and Mexico in its top 20 countries for students—not typically big international players on the U.S. higher education scene. It is clear that, from an international perspective, MOOCs in fact are successfully tapping into new populations from new countries who do not typically enroll in American higher education.
Check back next week for the conclusion of this series, looking at three questions related to the revenue side of MOOCs.
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 Steve Kolowich, “Who Takes MOOCs?”, Inside Higher Ed, June 5, 2012, accessed November 17, 2012.
 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2007 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007), p. 31.
 Coursera Blog, “Coursera hits 1 million students across 196 countries,” Coursera, August 9,2012, accessed November 24, 2012.
 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2009 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2009), Table 418.