From education to employment

Are MOOCs making or breaking privilege?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were heralded as once-in-a-generation game changers. Coursera, one of the biggest providers of these free, online courses from some of the world’s leading universities, aims to “envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education”.

They were meant to bring the benefits of world-class education to those excluded from it. This doesn’t just cover prospective students in developing countries either. As the cost of higher education in the UK and US accelerates, so that a British family with a newborn would need to save £183 a month to cover the current £53,000 cost of a degree, while getting a college degree in American is now 500% more expensive than in 1985, MOOCs are seen as a way to for socially underprivileged learners from London and Louisiana to access higher education too.

But a few years in to the great MOOC experiment, commentators are saying that, far from ameliorating privilege, MOOCs are aiding and enhancing it. Writing in The Times Higher Education Supplement, Dina Laurillard, a professor of learning at the University of London, describes MOOC provider’s belief that they can solve the problem of scarce or expensive education as a “cruel myth”.

Ammunition for this viewpoint comes from studies which show that the majority of MOOC participants are degree educated and from developed countries. According to a survey by the University of Pennsylvania, 79% of MOOC participants on their courses already held a bachelor’s degree or equivalent and the majority come from developed countries. When courses are taken by learners in developing and BRIC countries, over 60% are male.

Reflecting educational opportunity

To access MOOCs, particularly those degree-level offerings on a platform like Coursera, learners need to have already achieved a certain level of education attainment.

“Self-directed learning is an incredible skill but is far easier once you have had support to learn how you best learn,” says Amy Woodgate, Project Manager responsible for online learning special projects the University of Edinburgh. “Many of the MOOC platforms encourage a flexibility to engage with the resources in any order, which for some learners who are either new to degree-level education or new to online deliver methods, or both, could be overwhelming for some.”

As well as this level of self-awareness, participants need to have sufficient education to comprehend degree-level assignments, not to mention be able to use a computer and, frequently, be able to speak English.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those in OECD countries are most likely to have access to these three opportunities, and it is developing countries who tend to rank worst when it comes educational gender inbalances which favour men.

There are programmes which are trying to redress this imbalance though. In Rwanda, a pilot is underway which combines MOOCs with in-class tuition and support to widen access to quality higher education. Meanwhile Future Learn, owned by the Open University, offers some basic introductory courses.

Infastructure inequalities matter

Education isn’t the only area where existing inequalities are reflected in the ease with which leaners can access MOOCs. To do so, you need a computer, electricity and an internet connection. As so many courses rely on delivering content via video streaming, those with broadband are at a considerable advantage.

“Not having access to broadband is a particularly limiting factor for typical MOOCs which are based around high-quality videos, which are large files,” says Woodgate. “However, there are mechanisms in place for learners to download content such as transcripts and videos (if they have the bandwidth) for access offline which is particularly useful.”

It’s a problem which MOOC developers at the University are aware of and trying to address. “We are looking into building courses with this demographic in mind first, rather than trying to retro-fit an offline function,” Woodgate continues.

This isn’t just a pressing issue for making MOOCs more accessible to people in the developing world: the lack of broadband access in rural Britain is cited as one of the most pressing disadvantages facing these countryside communities.

Does non-completion equal non-engagement?

MOOCs notoriously low completion rates – which hover around 10% – are frequently held up as proof that they aren’t working. This translates success metrics from conventional degree courses to MOOCs without questioning whether it’s entirely appropriate.

“People come to MOOCs for many different reasons – not everyone wants to complete the course, so to measure success on this gives a skewed picture of success,” argues Woodgate. “It is important to ask ‘what do you wish to achieve — and did you achieve it?’ rather than an arbitrary measure applied to all.

“Also they are very new to everyone – unless we do more to help the learner community better understand what they themselves could achieve in this space, it is unfair to see non-completion as failure. The learners may wish to complete but not know how best to do so as they are new to online learning or have personal commitments that impact on their ability to keep up with the course.”

Looking at the University of Edinburgh’s Coursera survey data, while around 95% of participants were motivated by the desire to learn new things, only 35% wanted to gain a certificate and 30% wanted to improve their career options. As certificates which can be shown to employers are only issued once the course is fully completed, this suggests that for the majority of learners non-completion is not necessarily a sign that they have not fulfilled their personal objectives in taking the course.

However, a more detailed breakdown showing what learners from different countries want to get out of the course shows that those from developing or BRIC countries are most likely to say that they hoped to gain a certificate or improve their career. Learners located in Africa or Asia have slightly lower than average completion rates, although for some courses African students are on par with the global completion rate.

This indicates that boosting completion rates would help some of the least geographically privileged learners achieve their objectives, but just because a learner has not completed and received a certificate doesn’t mean that a learner hasn’t achieved other objectives during the course.

Perhaps somewhat inevitably, the accessibility of MOOCs does reflect existing privileges, whether it’s that someone in rural England is less likely to have broadband than someone in a city, or than men in developing countries have better educational opportunities than women.

But this doesn’t mean that we should write MOOCs off as a failure, particularly when confronted with successes like the Rwandan Kepler project or Daniel, whose severe autism effectively excluded him from mainstream learning, for whom MOOCs opened the door to higher education. Across the world, each course givens tens or hundreds of thousands of people an opportunity that didn’t exist a decade ago. It is also somewhat unrealistic to expect MOOCs to compensate entirely for global educational inequalities, given their complex causes.

As Woodgate says: “We’re all learning and it is important to reflect and revise developments continually as a result rather than assume the shape of MOOCs we have currently is the best model and should not be challenged.”

Sarah Willis is a freelance writer

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