Since Stanford offered the first three MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in 2011, millions of learners around the world have registered for these online video lecture courses. Because of their unlimited and free enrollment, MOOCs have been heralded by many as a tool to enhance the social mobility of underprivileged groups, giving them access to higher education that they wouldn’t receive otherwise. Yet some studies have found the opposite might be true: MOOCs might mainly benefit privileged learners (i.e., those who have had formal higher education experience), therefore increasing the higher education gap.
A research team recently compiled a literature review of 31 studies concerning MOOCs and reports of social inequalities. The results particularly focused on barriers to enrolling in MOOCs, demographic patterns, and factors contributing to course completion.
The compilation suggests that there are three main barriers to enrolling in MOOCs, all of which mainly affect underprivileged learners: internet and technology access, prerequisite knowledge, and cost. Regarding the first, many learners living in rural areas or developing countries (populations that might be most deprived of formal higher education opportunities) do not have reliable access to internet or technology. In addition, 29% of MOOCs offered on the biggest platforms, Coursera, Udacity, and Edx, require subject-specific background knowledge, which could discourage learners with less educational experience. Finally, while most MOOCs are free, they still come with the cost of technology and suggested reading materials, which could prove significant enough to prevent some from registering.
The studies also relayed a few significant demographic details: the majority of MOOC learners are highly educated, have challenging jobs, and live in developed countries. Although most learners live in the U.S., there are still a good number (roughly 22–38%) who live in developing countries, yet of these, most are highly educated. These statistics suggest that MOOC learners with greater educational privilege far outweigh those who are underprivileged.
Finally, the literature review found varying reasons for why people complete MOOC courses. MOOCs have a notoriously low completion rate, yet studies find no conclusive evidence that previous educational experiences affect that rate. In many cases, however, those who spoke English, the language of most MOOCs, are more likely to finish courses than those who have a different native language.
Although many believe MOOCs can decrease the educational gap between the privileged and underprivileged, this literature review suggests the opposite is actually happening. There aren’t many barriers to taking or completing MOOCs, yet all of them affect the underprivileged more than those with formal higher education experience. Interestingly, a few studies found that MOOCs specifically tailored to underprivileged populations saw higher numbers in underprivileged enrollment and completion rates. This included allowing for unlimited exam repeats and making reading material accessible to non-native speakers and low-literacy readers. As this research shows, MOOCs are now mainly helping those who are already privileged. But by changing some instructional design elements, they could have the potential to ameliorate inequality rather than making it worse.Wikimedia Commons