New study on the democratizing power of MOOC’s: don’t get your hopes up too high

There is a new study published in Science on the democratizing power of MOOC’s. In it they don’t look at the potential but rather examine who has participated so far, and while it maybe isn’t that surprising,  it’s not the group many people hoped for:

Overall, individuals living in high-SES neighborhoods in the United States were substantially more likely to participate in Harvard’s and MIT’s MOOCs, and, conditional on participation, high-SES students earned certificates at higher rates. These patterns were particularly strong among adolescents, precisely the age at which we hope that students from low-income backgrounds can use education as a gateway to the middle class.

So, this the conclusion by Hansen & Reich:

MOOCs are one of many online learning opportunities, and our findings cannot be generalized to all open educational resources or education technologies. Nevertheless, our research on MOOCs—along with previous decades’ research examining the access and usage patterns of emerging learning technologies—should provoke skepticism of lofty claims regarding democratization, level playing fields, and closing gaps that might accompany new genres of online learning, especially those targeted at younger learners. Freely available learning technologies can offer broad social benefits, but educators and policy-makers should not assume that the underserved or disadvantaged will be the chief beneficiaries. Closing gaps with digital learning resources requires targeting innovation toward the students most in need of additional support and opportunity.

Abstract of the study:

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are often characterized as remedies to educational disparities related to social class. Using data from 68 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT between 2012 and 2014, we found that course participants from the United States tended to live in more-affluent and better-educated neighborhoods than the average U.S. resident. Among those who did register for courses, students with greater socioeconomic resources were more likely to earn a certificate. Furthermore, these differences in MOOC access and completion were larger for adolescents and young adults, the traditional ages where people find on-ramps into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) coursework and careers. Our findings raise concerns that MOOCs and similar approaches to online learning can exacerbate rather than reduce disparities in educational outcomes related to socioeconomic status.

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