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80 Percent of MOOC Students Already Have a College Degree

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80 Percent of MOOC Students Already Have a College Degree

So far, MOOCs appeal mostly to privileged students. What happened to the education revolution?

posted December 4, 2013

As the name suggests, massive open online courses (MOOCs) should be available to everyone. According to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most MOOC students already have college degrees, and many of those students have completed at least some graduate coursework. No one wants to deny these students the opportunity to further their education, but much of the excitement surrounding MOOCs is about making higher education available to underserved populations, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The Penn researchers sent the survey to students who had registered for a MOOC and viewed at least one video lecture. More than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.

The pattern was true not only of MOOC students in the United States but also learners in other countries. In some foreign countries where MOOCs are popular, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population,” according to the paper.

In other developing countries, about 80 percent of the MOOC students surveyed already held college degrees—a number staggeringly out of proportion with the share of degree holders in the general population.

In addition to finding out who takes MOOCs, the survey also aimed to identify why students take the online courses:

There are two main reasons survey respondents cite for enrolling in a MOOC course: advancing in a current job and curiosity. Nearly half of MOOC students report their reason for enrolling in a course as “curiosity, just for fun” while 43.9% report enrolling to “gain skills to do my job better.”

It's encouraging to know that these students are eager to advance themselves and their careers, but this isn't the revolutionary change we thought MOOCs would spark. So what's the deal?

  • It's too early to judge MOOCs. Higher education has been around for millennia. One new trend isn't going to change the world's outlook on education. While MOOCs have the potential to make college more affordable and accessible, they rely heavily on access to high-speed Internet, which isn't readily available in developing countries. The movement toward MOOCs will happen slowly and gradually.
  • MOOCs aren't going to replace traditional higher education. As this survey makes clear, MOOCs will not supplant traditional higher education in America. Sure, the courses will shake things up, but colleges are responding by hosting their own MOOCs and partnering with platforms like Coursera, edX and Udacity. It's more likely that MOOCs supplement our current education system. Partnerships like this should help guide the development of MOOCs as a learning tool and, eventually, as a career-training tool.
  • Education is ingrained in our culture. Isaas Newton explained that a body in motion stays in motion. This is true for education, not just physics. Some students just like learning, which is why they are experimenting with MOOCs after college. Other students dislike learning, at least in the traditional sense, and aren't going to take MOOCs just for fun. Educators, however, need to ensure that MOOCs don't widen the divide between the educated and the undereducated.

According to the New York Times, 2012 was the year of the MOOC. But in 2013, we finally witnessed progress and results. What does 2014 hold?

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