Survey of MOOC Students Suggests Their Power To End Inequality Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have lately been touted as the next big thing in education, and proponents claim that they will eventually end educational inequality by giving anyone with an internet connection access to higher education. It's a noble idea, but the data now paints a different picture. According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, MOOCs might be the "future of education," but the future looks about as deeply unequal as the past.

MOOCs are so new that there's so far very little data on the subject. So while the University of Pennsylvania survey is far, far from conclusive, it is one of the first pieces of evidence of its kind. The university sent out a survey to the 400,000 active students using MOOCs run through the company they partner with, Coursera, which is also one of the world's largest MOOC providers. They received about 35,000 responses, and from these, a picture emerged, one of a student body that is primarily made up of male students from highly developed nations.

So if MOOCs are going to provide an education revolution, they don't seem to be doing it now.

Of course, it's hard to say anything definitive based on this survey. For one thing, the 35,000 students who responded might not be representative of the overall makeup of Coursera students. For another, it's also possible that Coursera, though it might be very large, is itself not representative of most MOOC providers in terms of student demographics.

Still, it isn't surprising that MOOCs would be most attractive to wealthier students, especially initially. As Slate points out, "this is a similar pattern to the take-up for other technologies." Besides which, almost all MOOCs are in English, which means that students in less developed countries where English is not the primary language would already have to be educated enough to speak English.

Courses can be translated, however – and most likely will be as time passes – but there are also other, more fundamental reasons to believe that MOOCs will continue to benefit primarily wealthier students. For one thing, taking such a course requires a student to have several hours of free time each week to dedicate to studying. And, most obviously, they need reliable access to the Internet and a computer. For many, these things are uncommon luxuries.

There's also the fact that trusting for-profit companies with engineering progressive social change and reduced income inequality is fairly counter-intuitive anyway.

It remains to be seen if MOOCs will become a long-term, established force in global education, but as they continue to expand there will most likely be more studies about just who they benefit. Hopefully, more analysis will show they really are promoting equality and benefitting a diverse array of students. But that prediction is not off to a well-supported start.