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More Evidence That MOOCs Are Not Great Equalizers

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, March 17 2014

A survey by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reveals that the majority of students enrolled in Coursera's massive open online courses or MOOCs are employed, degree-holding men.

More than 400,000 Coursera students were surveyed in this study, and of the 34,700 or so respondents: a strong majority (83 percent) held two- or four-year degrees and nearly half (44 percent) held advanced degrees. In Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, where only 6 percent of the population has earned a college degree, nearly 80 percent of Coursera students are college graduates and from the wealthiest echelons of society.

If anything, this shows that MOOCs are widening the educational divide, not leveling the playing field, as some have claimed.

Gayle Christenson and Brandon Alcorn of Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania write that there is a significant gender divide as well. More than half of participants are male, and in BRIC countries that rises to more than two-thirds (68 percent):

Even more alarming, the gap between male and female participation is far greater for these courses than in traditional education. The 36 percent gap between male and female uptake in BRICS countries is nearly three times as large as in traditional higher education there.

So much for the “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind” MOOCs described by edX's president, Anant Agarwal.

In a response to Agarwal last June, techPresident's Sam Roudman implored that we “stop selling MOOCs as a cure-all for higher education.”

He pointed out that Agarwal's “techno-utopian rhetoric puts too much weight on MOOCs' shoulders and propels unrealistic expectations.”

Christensen and Alcorn still believe in the value of MOOCs. They recognize that the results of the University of Pennsylvania survey can be attributed to educational and economic barriers that prevent students from accessing and comprehending Coursera material. That means, however, that their recommendations sound a lot like old-fashioned development: build infrastructure, bridge digital divide, provide sufficient basic and secondary education, and offer courses in local languages.

They do not address the concern voiced by Tanzanians to journalist Amanda Sperber, writing about MOOCs in Tanzania for techPresident, that MOOCs are “too Western” and even “neo-colonial.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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