In the last three years, over 25 million people from around the world have enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by Coursera, EdX, and other platforms. Initially heralded as a revolution in higher education access, expectations have been tempered as research revealed that only a small percentage of these millions were completing the courses, approximately 80% already had at least a bachelor’s degree, nearly 60% were employed full-time, and 60% came from developed countries (defined as members of the OECD). MOOCs seemed to be serving the most advantaged, the headlines blared, and most people weren’t even completing them.
Are MOOCs merely an intellectual diversion for the well educated and well-off? Do they provide any tangible benefits? We are not neutral parties. Three of us work at Coursera, and the rest of us are from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington, institutions that have offered MOOCs on the Coursera platform. Two of ushavetaught Coursera courses, and we have analyzed Coursera’s data for our research. Nonetheless, we believe we have some evidence that the MOOC skeptics are overly pessimistic. Our latest research demonstrates that among learners who complete courses, MOOCs do have a real impact: 72% of survey respondents reported career benefits and 61% reported educational benefits.
Furthermore, our findings suggest that people from developing countries more frequently report benefits from taking MOOCs and, also in developing countries, people with lower socioeconomic status and with less education are more likely to report benefits. It appears that MOOCs are tangibly helping people who take the time and effort to complete courses.
Who Takes MOOCs?
In December 2014 we sent a survey to 780,000 people, from 212 countries and territories, all of whom had completed a Coursera MOOC prior to September 1, 2014. (For more on the data, see the sidebar.)
The Survey Data
Of the nearly 52,000 respondents, 58% were male, 58% were employed full-time, 22% were full-time or part-time students in a traditional academic setting, and 83% had at least a bachelor’s degree. Thirty-four percent were from the U.S., 39% from other OECD countries, and 26% were from non-OECD countries. The median age of respondents was 41, with a range of 31 to 55 years of age for the 25th and 75th percentiles, respectively. This cohort is similar to previous studies of Coursera users except they are somewhat more educated, less frequently male, and significantly older. They also are somewhat more educated and less male than a recent study of EdX users. (Some people were more likely to respond to the survey than others; for instance, those from OECD countries and those who had completed more than one MOOC filled out our survey in greater numbers. We addressed this potential bias in our survey sample, using iterative proportional fitting to obtain reweighted estimates of reported career and education benefits.) All differences based on survey results included in this paper are statistically significant at p<.01.The critics are right that most people who start a MOOC don’t finish: just 4% of Coursera users who watch at least one course lecture go on to complete the course and receive a credential. However, given the large number of users involved, the absolute reach of MOOCs is still significant. For instance, more than one million people have completed a Coursera course since its inception in 2012, with over 2.1 million course completions as of April 2015.
Career BuildersWe asked Coursera course completers about two types of outcomes: career benefits and educational benefits. Career benefits are the more common reason for taking a MOOC. Fifty-two percent of the people surveyed report a primary goal of improving their current job or finding a new job — they are “career builders.”
Of these career builders, 87% report a career benefit of some kind. We asked about tangible career benefits – getting a raise, finding a new job, or starting a new business – as well as intangible ones such as enhancing skills for a current job or improving their ability to get a new job. Tangible career benefits are more difficult to achieve than more abstract outcomes such as being better equipped to do your current work. Thirty-three percent of career builders report a tangible benefit as a result of completing a MOOC, with the majority of those respondents finding a new job or starting their own business. These data indicate that the vast majority of those who complete MOOCs specifically for career benefits find those benefits, with approximately one-third of course completers reporting a more direct, tangible benefit such as getting a new job.
But which users are receiving these benefits?
Since previous research has shown that MOOC enrollees predominantly are well-educated residents of developed countries, it would not be surprising if advantaged populations from developed countries were deriving the most benefits from completing MOOCs. However, whereas our research confirms the demographics of users taking these courses, the analysis on who is benefiting suggests a very different conclusion. Among all career builders, we find that general career benefits (both tangible and intangible) are more likely to be reported by people with higher socioeconomic status and higher levels of education. The story is different, however, when you look at tangible career benefits specifically. In developed countries, career builders with low socioeconomic status and lower levels of education report tangible career benefits at about the same rate as those with high status and lots of education. And in developing countries, those with lower levels of socioeconomic status and education are significantly more likely to report tangible career benefits.
The differences between general career benefits and tangible career benefits may be attributable to different needs among different populations. People who already have a high-skill job are likely to benefit most from up-skilling to improve at their current job (general career benefits), whereas people who do not have such a job are more likely to benefit from re-skilling to transition to a new job (tangible career benefits).
Twenty-eight percent of all people who completed a MOOC enroll primarily to achieve an academic goal — they are “education seekers.” Of education seekers, 88% report an educational benefit of some kind. Eighty-seven percent report an intangible educational benefit (such as gaining knowledge in their field), and 18% report a tangible educational benefit — either gaining credit toward an academic degree or completing prerequisites for an academic program. People from developing countries are more likely to be education seekers, as are people with lower socioeconomic status.
The chart above shows the breakdown of tangible and intangible education benefits from MOOCs. Our research revealed even more insights, including that approximately half (47%) of education seekers are students in a traditional academic setting. Among these traditional students, 94% report some educational benefits from taking a MOOC. Twenty-four percent specifically report a tangible educational benefit. The most common educational benefits are gaining knowledge essential to their field of study (76.6%) and deciding on a field of study (40.3%). Among these traditional students, the findings are consistent across region, education, and socioeconomic status.
Among the education seekers who are not in a traditional academic setting, disadvantaged populations are more likely to report educational benefits. Education seekers from developing countries were more likely to report educational benefits; those with low socioeconomic status were more likely to report benefits than those with higher status; and those without a postgraduate degree were more likely to report benefits than those with one.
In addition, older non-students are using MOOCs to prepare for an eventual return to school. For instance, people aged 25 to 40 who are full-time homemakers or caregivers are more likely to report using MOOCs to refresh key concepts prior to returning to school.
The Results Overall
Seventy-two percent of the Coursera participants we surveyed reported career benefits and 61% reported educational benefits.
Fifty-two percent of the people surveyed reported a primary goal of improving their current job or finding a new job—they are “career builders”. Of these career builders, 87% reported a career benefit of some kind. 33% of career-builders reported a tangible career benefit, like finding a new job or starting a business.
Among career builders, general career benefits are more likely to be reported by people with higher socioeconomic status (90% for the top 30% by SES vs. 81% for the bottom 30%) and higher levels of education (88% for learners with a college degree or higher vs. 86% for learners with no post-secondary degree).
But for tangible career benefits things look different. Career builders from non-OECD countries are more likely to report tangible career benefits (36% vs. 32%).
Of career builders from OECD countries, we see no statistically significant difference in tangible career benefit between the top and bottom 30% by socioeconomic status (34% vs 32%). Strikingly, among career builders from non-OECD countries, learners with low socioeconomic status are actually more likely to report tangible career benefit (39% vs 35%).
Furthermore, career builders with lower levels of education were also more likely to report tangible career benefits (33% for learners with a college degree or higher vs 38% for learners with no post-secondary degree). In particular, among career builders from non-OECD countries, career builders with lower levels of educational attainment are more likely to report career benefits (35% for learners with a college degree or higher vs 42% for learners with no post-secondary degree).
Twenty-eight percent of all people who completed a MOOC enrolled primarily to achieve an academic goal—they are “education seekers”. People from non-OECD countries are more likely to be education seekers (36% vs. 24% from OECD countries), as are people from the bottom 30% by socioeconomic status (37% vs. 22% from the top 30%).
Of education seekers, 88% report any educational benefit and 18% report a tangible educational benefit, like gaining knowledge essential to their field of study.
Approximately half (47%) of education seekers are students in a traditional academic setting. Ninety-four percent of these traditional students report some educational benefits. Twenty-four percent of these students in a traditional academic setting report a tangible educational benefit.
Less-advantaged groups are more likely to report educational benefits. Eighty-seven percent of non-student education seekers from non-OECD countries report educational benefits compared to 80% from OECD countries; 91% with low socioeconomic status report educational benefits, compared to 86% with high socioeconomic status; and 92% without a post-secondary degree report educational benefits, compared to 86% with a post-secondary degree.
Education seekers who were older or full-time homemakers or caregivers were also more likely to report using MOOCs to refresh key concepts prior to returning to school. Thirty-eight percent of education seekers between 25 and 40 report using MOOCs to refresh concepts, compared to 35% for education seekers younger than 25; 53% of full-time homemakers or caretakers reported using MOOCs to refresh key concepts, compared to 36% for other education seekers.
In our survey, the overwhelming majority of people who complete MOOCs report career or educational benefits, and a substantial proportion report tangible benefits such as getting a new job, starting a business, or completing prerequisites for an academic program. Both career and educational benefits are more likely reported by people from developing countries. Economically and academically disadvantaged populations are taking particular advantage of MOOCs. Within developing countries, tangible career benefits are most likely to be reported by people with lower levels of education and lower socioeconomic status. Among non-student MOOC completers, people with lower socioeconomic status, people with lower levels of education, and people from developing countries are all more likely to report educational benefits.
These findings support some of the early hopes that MOOCs would provide a life-changing opportunity for those who are less advantaged and have limited access to education. Of course, MOOCs are still available only to people who have access to the internet, and completion rates remain low. However, there are now over 1 million people who have completed courses from Coursera alone, more than 100,000 people have certified completion from HarvardX and MITx courses, and our findings suggest that many of them derived career or educational benefits from the opportunity.
Continued innovation and research needs to focus on two main issues: First, how should people be supported to complete MOOCs so as to secure desired career and educational benefits? Second, are people who engage with some MOOC content without completing the course also realizing career and educational benefits?
This type of research illustrates the possibilities MOOCs offer to change the educational landscape. The courses are reaching large numbers of people, and disadvantaged learners are more likely to report tangible benefits. Of course they aren’t a cure-all for the myriad problems of global education. But they’re a step in the right direction, providing open access to a learning experience that many find beneficial for furthering their education and careers.