While the average online college student is a woman in her early 30s, the massive open online course (MOOC) landscape has been dominated by men since the courses first took hold in 2012.

women-MOOCs-onlineThe MOOC gender gap, as recently as a year ago, was startling for many ed-tech observers, as nine in 10 students in one MOOC identified themselves as male. This while women “see online degrees as more achievable than traditional on-ground program” by a margin of three-to-one, according to a survey released by Western International University.

The lack of women in MOOCs was hardly shocking for many who track the nontraditional classes since science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) — a male dominated area — is so prevalent in MOOCs.

The question remains: which online courses are women taking when they sign up for a MOOC?

Coursera recently sought to answer that question, drilling down into enrollment data to see which classes, exactly, women were taking on the popular Coursera platform.

Food and nutrition topped the list of Coursera classes women prefer, with more than 60 percent of enrollees in those classes identifying as female. Teacher professional development ranked second with almost 60 percent female enrollment.

Medicine, arts, and health and society came in a close third with more than 50 percent female enrollment.

But again, it was STEM courses and related fields that saw low levels of female enrollment and participation, according to Coursera’s findings.

(Next page: See what percentage of women took STEM MOOCs)

Engineering, computer science, and software engineering all saw less than 20 percent female enrollment. Physics and economics and finance also sported an exceedingly low percentage of female students.

Coursera researchers who compiled and analyzed the MOOC data charged that the proliferation of web-connected mobile devices would go a long way in creating gender parity in massive courses. The STEM gap, they said, would likely remain unchanged.

“Over time, advances in technology like mobile devices will eventually reduce gender inequity in access to the internet,” Coursera researchers on the company’s blog. “At the same time, however, there remain disparities in rates of female participation in different subject areas independent of access concerns.”

Women tended to perform better in online courses with higher proportions of women, according to the research, outperforming their male counterparts in classes found to be most popular with those who identified as female.

“It is possible, for example, that when women see more women in a class (through interaction on class forums) it makes them more comfortable and motivates them to try harder,” the researchers noted. “It is also possible that women who enroll in courses with high female proportions start out being more comfortable with the material, or intending to take the course more seriously, and the gender dynamics in the class have no effect on their performance.”

Overall female enrollment, the researchers said, has increased steadily over time, rising from around 20 percent in May 2012 to almost 40 percent in May 2014.


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