They promise equality of access to higher learning, but online courses will only succeed with better general education in place first, say two educationalists.
A revolution in education has been promised with a little help from technology. Massive Open Online Courses are free, online, university-level instruction that anyone can access from anywhere, at least in theory. They have dominated headlines in the sector in recent years.
Proponents have made bold claims for a fundamental change in higher education—drastically decreasing price and increasing access. Thomas Friedman, in an article in the New York Times, argued that nothing has greater potential to “lift more people out of poverty” and to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.” Anant Agarwal, founder of MOOC provider edX, believes they are making education “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind, and bank account–blind.”
However, skeptics counter that they may make colleges more exclusive and exacerbate educational inequalities: Affluent students will use the online courses to augment teaching on campus while the less fortunate will be stuck with automated online instruction with little personal guidance. Others worry about the quality of course content, the ability of students to learn outside the classroom, and the creation of a few “super professors” who reach millions of students while others reach none.
Until recently, the debate has been a fact-free zone. Both sides strongly assert their claims but have had little data to draw on. To bring greater clarity to the debate, the University of Pennsylvania conducted a survey of more than 400,000 active students in courses offered by the university through Coursera—the biggest MOOC provider—and received nearly 35,000 responses. The results provide much-needed information on who is participating and why.
At least in their early stages, these courses are not providing the revolution in access that proponents claim. Two-thirds of participants come from the developed world—the United States and other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of leading industrialized countries. This is despite the fact that these 34 countries only account for 18 percent of the world population. And 83 percent of MOOC students already have a two- or four-year diploma or degree, even in regions of the world where less than 10 percent of the adult population has a degree. Meanwhile, 69 percent of them are employed.
Furthermore, 56 percent are male, rising to 68 percent in the emerging BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and to 62 percent in other developing countries. Even more alarming, the gap between male and female participation is far greater for these courses than in traditional education. The 36 percent gap between male and female uptake in BRICS countries is nearly three times as large as in traditional higher education there. The United States is one exception, where males and females participate in equal numbers in both.
With MOOCs generally reaching educated and employed men, the courses are clearly not yet living up to the lofty goals of their supporters. That doesn't diminish the fact that millions have had the chance to access high-quality content from the world’s top universities for free and that for tens of thousands of those students, this may be their only route to higher education. The scale of education that providers such as Coursera are achieving is astounding and provides an even stronger incentive to think critically about how MOOCs can be improved and reach educationally underserved populations more effectively.
It’s no surprise, really, that the wealthy and educated are the first to enroll; this is a similar pattern to the take-up for other technologies. There are several basic requirements for enrolling in and engaging with these courses that are readily available for such populations but are serious barriers for large portions of the world. These include regular access to a computer and high-speed internet, a level of previous education that’s sufficient to understand university-level content, the ability to understand courses offered almost exclusively in English, and enough free time to study for several hours a week.
Recognizing these barriers is important because they are the best guide to harnessing the full potential of MOOCs.
First, we need to bridge the digital divide. Access to computers, better broadband Internet infrastructure and better mobile connectivity are essential. Companies and organizations such as Google, the World Bank, and the U.S. State Department have all started to get involved in course delivery, and it will take their continued involvement and that of other bodies and governments to improve technology infrastructure around the world.
Course providers also need to recognize that in many parts of the world, wired Internet technologies and desktop computers are being bypassed completely by mobile technology.
Coursera recently announced the release of its mobile app that allows a user to register, watch videos, complete assignments, and take quizzes from a mobile device. If MOOCs are going to have a big impact in the developing world, this will be a major avenue for access.
There is also a continued need to focus on basic and secondary education so that more people, especially women, will be able to participate. Finally, more international partnerships and offerings in more languages will provide greater access. Providers are already working on this.
Ultimately, MOOCs are not by themselves a mechanism for development but require certain levels of education and technology. They are reaching millions of people around the world, but to truly revolutionize access, improvements in the broader education and technology ecosystem are vital.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.