MOOCs aren’t reaching their target audience

It was already known that a vast majority of students in massive open online courses (MOOCs) were male, but a newly released survey has more cringe-worthy news for MOOC advocates.

A recent survey showed nine in 10 MOOC students were male.

The University of Pennsylvania published an item in the journal Nature Nov. 20 that said MOOC students were predominantly male, well-educated, and young — a far cry from the under-educated diverse masses for which many MOOC platforms were first designed.

The Nature survey, which included more than 35,000 MOOC students from 200 countries who took a Coursera class, found that most people signed up to take the massive courses were young men looking to complete the class as a resume builder.

The MOOC survey charged that the disparity in education levels was “particularly stark” in Russia, China, South Africa, India, and Brazil, with eight in 10 students from those countries coming from the richest 6 percent of the population.

Study author Ezekiel J. Emanuel wrote that unlike many in higher education hoped, MOOCs have not bolstered the democratization of education. The direct opposite is true, Emanuel said.

“Far from realizing the high ideals of their advocates, MOOCs seem to be reinforcing the advantages of the ‘haves’ rather than educating the ‘have-nots’,” he wrote. “Better access to technology and improved basic education are needed world-wide before MOOCs can genuinely live up to their promise.”

Brandon Alcorn, project manager for global initiatives at Penn, blamed lack of access to technology as a main reason poor people aren’t availing themselves of the opportunity to study online. Many people don’t have the time or basic levels of education required to take the college level courses, he said.

The researchers found that 70 percent of MOOC students are already employed.

“They’re using it as a job training tool rather than an educational tool,” Alcorn said.

Educators can join the conversation with the hashtag #eCNMOOCs. See page 2 for more on the gender gap in MOOCs…

A paper published in June in the journal Research & Practice in Assessment examined 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.

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.”

Material from McClatchy was used in this report.

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