The Revolution Is Not Being MOOC-ized (Slate)

By Gayle Christensen and Brandon Alcorn

Students are educated, employed, and male.

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.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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