Gender gap: Nearly 9 in 10 MOOC participants were male

While massive open online courses (MOOCs) may be making some headway in reaching students all over the world, a new study suggests that they may be having a harder time reaching across the gender gap.


A paper published this month in the journal Research & Practice in Assessment examines the MOOC “Circuits and Electronics,” the first course developed by edX. The researchers found that 88 percent of the MOOC’s participants that responded to a survey said they were male.

The researchers noted that the finding was somewhat predictable. The low number of women typically involved in science, technology, engineering,  and mathematics (STEM) fields is a well-known discrepancy and growing concern in academia.

The MOOC study’s findings closely mirror the gender gap issue and the percentage of undergraduate STEM students who are male. More than 88 percent of those who earn computer science degrees are men, according to the Computing Research Association, and men receive nearly 82 percent of engineering degrees, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

Though not explored in the study, the gap can also be found in the genders of MOOC instructors. Out of the more than 60 courses offered by edX, only 8 are taught by women. Only two of MOOC platform Udacity’s nearly 30 courses are not taught by men.

“[The percentage] was indeed predictable because it tracks historical averages, in particular, in the United States, of STEM participation,” said Jennifer DeBoer, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the authors of the study.  “One should be cautious with using this as generalizable to other MOOCs, though, as this was the first edX course. It is just one specific content area, and the field of MOOCs is rapidly growing and changing.”

The MOOC study, which began in March 2012 and ended that June, analyzed the data created by the 155,000 students who registered for the course, as well as surveys completed by more than 7,000 of the participants.

See Page 2 for how international diversity fared in the study. 

The authors of the study said that they found some signs of MOOCs’ potential to allow a course or area of study to reach new audiences.

Using a geolocation database to identify where students were logging in, the researchers could pinpoint what country a student was in and, in some cases, even the city. Students logged in from 194 countries around the world.

With 26,333 students, the largest number of participants came from the United States. India had the second highest number of students with 13,044.

Rounding out the top five countries were the United Kingdom, with 8,430 students; Columbia, with 5,900 students; and Spain, with 3,684 students. While there had been speculation that the course would have a large number of participants from China, the study noted, only 622 of the registrants were Chinese.

Sixty-seven percent of the students spoke English and 16 percent spoke Spanish.

The study concluded that MOOCs are a “different animal” than traditional college courses and that they pose a particular challenge to researchers.

“The data are more numerous and at a finer grain than have ever been generated from one single course before,” the authors wrote. “The students are more diverse in far more ways—in their countries of origin, the languages they speak, the prior knowledge the come to the classroom with, their age, their reasons for enrolling in the course. They do not follow the norms and rules that have governed university courses for centuries nor do they need to.”

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