MOOC students are disproportionately educated and male when compared with the country at large according to a University of Pennsylvania study making the rounds this week. The study, which looked at the demographics of students taking the university’s courses through Coursera, found that just under 60 percent of all students were male, and over 80 percent already had a college degree, and were likely looking to brush up on skills for the workplace. This has led to a flurry of criticism suggesting that MOOCs, far from opening education up to the disadvantaged, are in fact only catering to the elites, a take that has been reinforced by the comments of the study’s author:
“Far from realizing the high ideals of their advocates, MOOCs seem to be reinforcing the advantages of the ‘haves’ rather than educating the ‘have-nots’,” said Ezekiel J. Emanuel, the study’s author. “Better access to technology and improved basic education are needed world-wide before MOOCs can genuinely live up to their promise.”
This strikes us as misguided criticism. MOOCs are still an extremely new technology (Udacity and Coursera were both founded last year), and as the Wall Street Journal notes elsewhere in the article, highly-educated men are exactly the sort of people who typically are early adopters of new technology—these kinds of people are exactly who you would expect to see taking a crack at this new form of education at this stage in its development.Furthermore, much of this is likely driven by the lack of official credit available for completing a course. Although MOOC providers are looking at ways to offer official college credit, the vast majority of courses offer nothing more than a certificate of completion to their graduates. Even if MOOCs teach the same information just as effectively as their college counterparts, prospective students are still looking at a job market where an official degree is essential for landing a professional job, so students without a degree are unlikely to choose an online course over classes at a brick-and-mortar school, even if it’s cheaper and more effective. As long as MOOCs remain credit-free, they are likely to be patronized mainly by degreed professionals looking to brush up on their skills. But this could quickly change if for-credit courses become the norm.