The MOOC Demographic

Rachelle Peterson

Is a MOOC more like an ATM or an American Express Centurian card? The former provides a service to everyone with a bank account. The latter serves a smaller niche of the prosperous few.

Like an ATM, MOOCs are automated dispensers providing accessible, on-demand service to thousands of users. They faithfully output course material, input student performance, and churn out a receipt of transaction at the end. MOOCs share another trait with ATMs: a sluggishness to capture significant market share. Automated teller machines, now a standard feature in drug stores and on street corners, initially faced suspicion. Could they replicate the human teller in reliability and accuracy? Could you be sure, after inserting your cash, that the money really wound up in your bank account? What if your account number and identifying information got hacked? 

MOOCs face similar skepticism. Can they replace classroom professors in delivering high quality education to individual students who have distinct needs and varying backgrounds? Will automated grading adequately assess student work? What about anti-cheating measures to verify the student’s identity?

Perhaps it sounds odd to speak of lethargic public response to MOOCs. In the two brief years since they were conjured up by a handful of Stanford computer scientists, MOOCs have attracted scores of universities eager to give away their course content and millions of students eager to take it. But while MOOCs have benefited from administrative agitation over the Internet’s potential to reinvent higher ed, and from media hype declaring “The Year of the MOOC” or “The Campus Tsunami,” MOOCs have accomplished few of their inventors’ initial goals. Drop-out rates are sky high, and MOOC usage is densely concentrated among college degreed professionals—not the underprivileged demographic that MOOCs intended to reach, and not the typical college students that MOOCs hoped to siphon off from the academic establishment.  These days the better analogy is the AmEx card. MOOCs are serving mainly the “haves”—though perhaps the ATM analogy may prove right in the long run.

Unintended Consequences

MOOCs came onto the education tech scene with two major objects: to pry open expensive, elite education for the underprivileged in the U.S. and abroad, and to reshape the default medium of that education for everyone else as well. The idea was that students previously unable to go to college would jump at the opportunity for free online education. Simultaneously a significant share of the regular college demographic would opt for high-quality free courses over pricey credentials at campus. That exodus would undermine admissions in brick and mortar institutions, many of which would collapse. Stanford president John Hennessey warned of the coming tsunami about to batter academia to bits. Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford prof and Google engineer who invented the self-driving car before launching his MOOC company Udacity, predicted that within fifty years, the higher education establishment would crumble to a paltry ten institutions, with MOOCs becoming the dominant model.

Thrun’s predictions were probably the most radically optimistic of the group, but the idealism of the others wasn’t too far behind. “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few,” reads Coursera’s vision statement. “We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.” EdX, the Harvard-MIT partnership, governs itself by three goals, the first of which is, boldly, to “expand access to education for everyone.” The other two goals, “enhance teaching and learning on campus and online” and “advance teaching and learning through research,” get to the heart of the MOOC movement: figuring out how to make massive Internet courses realistic for higher ed at large.

But while millions of students have registered for MOOCs, and some classes continue to draw tens of thousands of students, MOOCs haven’t yet graduated to full college market status. Last week the University of Pennsylvania released a study showing that most MOOC users don’t fit the model student that colleges vie for: They’re college graduates looking for specific career training or refresher courses, not recent high school grads seeking the liberal arts. The study looked at 34,779 students enrolled in MOOCs offered by Penn via Coursera, and found that more than 80 percent had a two- or a four-year degree, and 44 percent had completed some graduate education. Even in developing countries, which have significantly fewer college educated members of the population, 80 percent of the international users had already graduated from college. Nor are these data points from the Penn study recent outliers. An early survey of MOOC users in June 2012, shortly after Coursera and Udacity launched, showed that most students already held career-track jobs and almost all of the remainder were currently attending college.

Perhaps college grads are the people most likely to have the requisite self-discipline for online classes. San Jose State University partnered with Udacity last summer in a high-profile pilot to provide credit-bearing MOOC versions of introductory and remedial courses to a pool of largely at-risk and first-time college attendees. Drop-out and failure rates outpaced those in regular classrooms, even as Udacity added course mentors and tutors to help students persevere. Though one recent study has concluded that some students can perform better online under certain conditions such as long-term commitment to the courses and fewer interruptions in enrollment, in most courses under most circumstances, online drop-out rates are significantly higher than in-person classes.

San Jose’s trouble can be partly attributed to a technology gap among lower income levels, where high-speed Internet service and regular access to a reliable computer aren’t always ready. But even with adequate computer access, online courses can feel isolating, especially when college is a new and daunting prospect.  

Ezekiel J. Emanuel, lead author of the U Penn report, summarizes: “MOOCs seem to be reinforcing the advantages of the ‘haves’ rather than educating the ‘have-nots.’” That kind of social-justice ideology reinforces a victim mentality that may stymie student participation, but Emanuel’s concern points to a chasm between MOOCs’ ideals and realities. Once conceived as a way to level the more and less privileged by stripping away prohibitive costs and commute of going to college, and instead letting individuals compete solely on merit, MOOCs have instead found it vastly easier to attract well-educated professionals.

Course Correction?

In other words, MOOCs are gaining a following, but that following is among a distinct, newly expanding market for continuing education. That realization led Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun to turn a 180, retreating from his goals to educate the world and replace the university. Two weeks ago he told Fast Company that Udacity is bracing for "the biggest shift in the history of the company” as it regroups to narrowly concentrate on technical, vocational fields, often at the advanced level for students who already have a degree in hand. Thrun’s new vision is on display at Georgia Tech, where Udacity is working to launch a new MOOC master’s degree in computer science.

But others take the ATM approach, holding out for the day when MOOCs garner wider student appeal. Walter Russell Mead has suggested that historically, new technologies appeal first to the highly educated, and later gain more widespread acceptance. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, says that his company is still analyzing how they can better reach students in developing countries and at-risk students in the United States. Coursera and EdX both remain committed, at least for now, to offering the liberal arts and general education courses akin to those offered in undergraduate programs.

Playing seer is tough, but the future make-up of higher ed and the role that MOOCs play in it depends on how we as a society view education. Is it a transaction or a relationship? The history of higher education suggests that, at its best, it’s a relationship founded in discourse and intellectual mentorship. In that sense, I suppose, education’s not much like ATMs or like credit cards.  If we need a metaphor from the world of finance, it is perhaps like a rich uncle who may leave you a splendid legacy, but only if you take the trouble to get to know him, and to develop respect for what he knows. That’s the sort of thing that can’t be automated.

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on November 26, 2013. 

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