A new study released earlier this month is challenging our assumptions about MOOC users.
Late last year, the University of Pennsylvania released a study looking at the demographics of students taking its courses on Coursera. The students were older, disproportionately male, and better educated than the public at large, and MOOC critics swiftly concluded that online ed was catering to the elite rather than expanding educational opportunity.
Well, not so fast. EdX, Harvard’s and MIT’s nonprofit MOOC venture, released a similar profile of its user base last week, with markedly different results. At Penn, for example, just under 80 percent of all students had at least a bachelor’s degree. At edX, by contrast, that number was only 66; 33 percent had only a high school diploma. At Penn, 41 percent of students were female, compared to only 29 percent at EdX. And although men with college degrees above 26 years old are still edX’s most common users, only one in three actually fits that description. The two groups had similarities as well, the data show clear differences between the two institutions.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about MOOCs as a whole from this information. The classes cover different subjects and were created by different schools, hosting their classes on different platforms. Unsurprisingly, then, their student profile is also different. More than anything, this spotlights how little information we have about MOOCs and serves as a reminder to be wary of partisans reading too much into any one study. We still have a lot to learn.