Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why (UW Today)

SEPTEMBER 22, 2015
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.)

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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