The MOOC Momentum

An interesting technology and higher education related trend I have been following has been the development and popularity of MOOCs.  The acronym MOOC stands for “massive open online course” – and according to some supporters, MOOCs are revolutionizing the accessibility of higher education. There has definitely been a lot of hype surrounding MOOCs in the past year. Such massive online courses not only make education accessible to anyone with an internet connection and computer, but they are usually offered free of charge. Even more inciting, many well known universities participate, including prestigious institutions such as M.I.T, Stanford, Harvard, and UPenn. For more specific information about MOOCs and the courses/universities offered, visit Coursera, the provider platform that most universities have partnered with to deliver the content.

Personally, I am a little skeptical about MOOCs. I certainly agree that they are a great educational resource and I love their free and low-cost nature. However, I think it is a little too early to praise MOOCs for being an educational equalizer and opening up access to prestigious universities. I feel this way mostly because I know that no employer would acknowledge a resume full of open-access and free MOOC courses from Stanford University as being close to the equivalent of a Stanford degree. So how exactly are MOOCs truly bringing the value and professional prestige of a traditional degree? The more I read, the more I begin to decide that they do not.

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a recent study undertaken by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the majority of people using MOOCs are already highly educated and career minded. The findings of the study are also particularly important, because it is the first research on MOOCs that has been completed by those that are not from the direct MOOC provider platform (ex: Coursera). In addition, the finding from UPenn go directly against the so-called truism that MOOCs are providing educational opportunities to those who would have been unable to take advantage of them otherwise.

In the UPenn study, out of survey results based on answers from nearly 35,000 students worldwide who were enrolled and participating in 24 of Coursera’s offered MOOCs, about 80% had a 2 or 4 year degree, and about 44% had some graduate education. Overall, the research concluded that 80% of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well-educated 6% of the population. These results held true even across user data from developing countries, with 80% of developing-world students enrolled in MOOCs already holding college degrees. Check out the complete paper here.

Sample infographic of UPenn research results:


I am curious to hear your opinions on MOOCs and educational access, especially if you happen to have any of your own direct experience in taking them. According to Coursera in light of the UPenn research study, the company is well aware of their demographic trends and is working on projects to help reach more potential students in need. If anything can be learned, I would say it is that education unfortunately does not easily become boarder-less, gender blind, race blind, class blind, or bank account blind, even with the increased access that technology brings.