Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses

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Science  04 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6265, pp. 1245-1248
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab3782

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Toward a level playing field?

Do free learning resources benefit the disadvantaged and decrease gaps between rich and poor? Hansen and Reich studied the relationships between socioeconomic status (SES) and enrollment in and completion of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by Harvard and MIT. Students from low-SES backgrounds were less likely to enroll in MOOCs and earn a certificate than their high-SES peers. Thus, although there are many free online learning opportunities, it is not safe to assume that they will “level the playing field.”

Science, this issue p. 1245


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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