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This article originally appeared on Usable Knowledge from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The latest piece of news on MOOCs — massive online open courses — suggests that they may not yet be the great democratizer of education that they were envisioned to be.

One of the driving ideas behind MOOCs is that they are accessible to everyone, everywhere, regardless of previous educational achievement, socioeconomic status, or physical location. A teenager in rural Montana, a construction worker in Atlanta, and a grandmother in India can take the same courses from the same professors as a Harvard student in Cambridge — for free.

Falling Short 

But a new article in Science by Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral candidate John Hansen, Ed.M.’15, and MIT research scientist Justin Reich, Ed.D.’12, shows that, generally, MOOCs have not reached such a demographically broad audience.

Studying 164,198 participants in 68 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT through edX, Hansen and Reich’s research reinforces other findings that the average MOOC participant looks a lot like the average U.S. college graduate. Paying particular attention to high-school and college-age participants, Hansen and Reich found that the majority of MOOC participants lived in more affluent and educated neighborhoods than the average U.S. resident. And the majority of participants — along with their parents — were either on track for college or already held a college or graduate degree.

moocblockquoteMore specifically, the average MOOC participant resided in a neighborhood where the average household income is $11,998 higher than national average. That number nearly doubles, to $23,181 above the national average, for MOOC participants between the ages of 13 and 17. Most of these participants did not reside in geographically isolated areas, either, but more densely populated ones.

For younger learners, the likelihood of completing a MOOC is tied to socioeconomic status, the researchers found. The higher the participants’ parental educational attainment, neighborhood median income, and neighborhood average educational attainment, the more likely that participant was to fully complete the course. Parental educational achievement matters significantly, just as it does in offline education; adolescent participants were approximately 1.75 times more likely to finish their courses if at least one of their parents had obtained a bachelor’s degree than if neither of their parents had.

The Takeaway

A key takeaway of the research, says Hansen, is that “we shouldn’t expect that the mere availability of free online learning resources will level the playing field between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Even when online learning is free, people with greater financial, social, and technological resources are better able to take advantage of these new opportunities.”

The paper is “an important addition to a growing portfolio of Harvard research in online learning,” adds HGSE Professor of Education Andrew Ho, chair of a university committee that supported the work. “The finding of imbalanced MOOC access is a baseline that instructors and institutions can now improve. MOOCs are a testbed for online learning research, but this paper reminds us that we cannot generalize from MOOC research without first considering how unique — and uniquely variable — the MOOC population is. The paper shows the work that we still need to do to fulfill the promise of MOOCs as a force for equity.”

The Futures of MOOCs

The simple availability of MOOCs, it seems, will not be enough to level the educational playing field. So do MOOCs have any transformative power?

The “course” part of MOOCs may not be their key contribution to education, explains Hansen. Instead, “the development of digital materials and platforms that facilitate other innovations in learning at scale may turn out to be more significant,” he says. “For example, in the same way that teachers can select chapters and assignments from a textbook, there are MOOCs designed to allow Advanced Placement teachers to customize and repurpose the materials for their own classroom use.”

And MOOCs, as they exist today, may eventually become more used by less traditional students — if educators purposefully encourage those students to explore them.

“Freely available learning technologies can offer broad social benefits, but educators and policymakers should not assume that the underserved or disadvantaged will be the chief beneficiaries,” Hansen and Reich write. “Closing gaps with digital learning resources requires targeting innovation toward the students most in need of additional support and opportunity.”

A struggling, or isolated, or curious, student may not take control of his education all on his own — but with MOOCs, it may be a little bit easier for teachers and guidance counselors to point that student in the right direction.

To read more research-based articles on education, visit Usable Knowledge.


About Leah Shafer

Leah is a writer for Usable Knowledge.

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