The driving force behind the increasing popularity of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is that they provide — as the term defines it — open access to a massive online audience. Anyone with an Internet connection who wants to learn, can. Whether you’re rich or poor, living in a New York City high-rise or a remote Nepalese village, MOOCs promise to level the higher education playing field. The question is: Does reality reflect this ideal?
A new research study by MIT education researcher Justin Reich and Harvard University’s John Hansen seeks the answer. “Democratizing Education? Examining Access and Usage Patterns in Massive Open Online Courses” takes a close look at how socioeconomic resources influence MOOC enrollment and course completion — and whether online learning is truly opening as many doors as anticipated.
“One way we might democratize education would be to provide more widespread access to academic experiences previously reserved for the elite,” explains Reich, who is the executive director of MIT's PK-12 Initiative. “But historically, emerging learning technologies — even free ones — have often benefitted people with the social, technical, and financial capital to take advantage of new innovations. As we try to bridge the digital divide, we need to carefully examine how new tools are used by learners from different walks of life.”
Reich’s report, published in Science on Dec. 4, demonstrates a novel method for measuring the social and financial resources of MOOC students. It uses demographic data collected during the 2012-2014 academic years and culled from 68 free online courses offered on HarvardX and MITx on edX. Reich’s team examined this data to determine whether a student’s resources provide predictors of performance and course completion.
The study puts socioeconomic status (SES) under the microscope as a way to identify those students who need the most support — and those who don’t. SES is typically measured through a combination of factors to reflect an individual’s means and resources. Reich’s study uses three indicators: parental educational attainment, neighborhood average educational attainment, and neighborhood median income.
The research finds that these indicators are correlated with student enrollment and success in MOOCs, especially among younger students. Young students enrolling in HarvardX and MITx on edX live in neighborhoods where the median income is 38 percent higher than typical American neighborhoods. Among teenagers who register for a HarvardX course, those with a college-educated parent have nearly twice the odds of finishing the course compared to students whose parents did not complete college. At exactly the ages where online learning could offer a new pathway into higher education, already affluent students are more likely to enroll in a course and succeed.
The takeaway is that MOOCs have not yet solved SES-related disparities in educational outcomes, and Reich believes it’s critical to turn these learnings into actions in order to narrow the gaps between MOOC perception and reality.
“MOOCs and other forms of online learning don’t yet live up to their promise to democratize education,” he says. “Closing this digital divide is exactly the kind of grand challenge that the world’s greatest universities should be tackling head on.”