Massive open online courses, or Moocs, have promised to throw open access to university-level content.

By offering online courses on demand and without charge, Moocs give students anywhere in the world the chance to learn irrespective of their circumstances – so long as they have an internet connection.

Anant Agarwal, president of edX – a non-profit Mooc platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – emphasises their capacity for “incredible democratisation of education”. Every country is represented among the platform’s 1.9m learners, who are “from all walks of life …all ages and qualifications”, he says.

Prof Agarwal concedes, however, that, despite the potential, two years after their launch, Moocs are far from achieving their target of universal franchise.

Among students who have enrolled on edX courses, 72 per cent are university graduates. Almost one-third (31 per cent) have masters degrees, and a further 7 per cent doctorates.

Students enrolled on courses offered by Coursera, a Mooc platform that boasts more than 6.6m users, are similarly qualified – 77 per cent have a university degree, with 43 per cent educated to masters level or above. The average age of Coursera’s students is 37 years.

Moreover, the majority of students live in developed countries. The US accounts for 28 per cent and 29 per cent of Coursera and edX participants, respectively.

A working paper published last year by the University of Pennsylvania, an early partner of Coursera, examined the student population of its first 32 courses. “The individuals the Mooc revolution is supposed to help the most, those without access to higher education in developing countries, are conspicuously under-represented,” the authors concluded.

Harvard and MIT conducted a similar study of the student demographic on edX courses. Andrew Ho, an associate professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and one of the report’s authors, says it is not surprising that the well-educated form the majority of participants.

Gayle Christensen, executive director for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, concurs, noting that most participants have been well educated and tech-savvy.

Pennsylvania’s survey of its Mooc students found that the most cited reason for enrolment was curiosity. Half of respondents reported that they chose to join one of the university’s courses “just for fun”.

That the main beneficiaries of Moocs to date have been educated recreational learners is contentious, particularly as the costs of developing courses have been partially shouldered by the universities offering them, rather than consumers of the content.

Diana Laurillard, professor of learning at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London, is dismissive of the “hype” about Moocs transforming access to higher education.

She sees the free provision of these courses by universities as “irrational” in the context of high and rising tuition costs for undergraduates in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

“These courses are being taken largely by competent learners …who often have plenty of money and are capable of paying for education,” she says.

Despite the number of educated recreational students, universities and platforms emphasise the capacity of Moocs to connect with very large numbers who would otherwise be beyond their reach.

EdX says about 48 per cent of its students come from developing countries. India accounts for 12 per cent of enrolments.

The University of Pennsylvania’s analysis indicates significantly higher engagement by younger learners in big developing countries. Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of students in Brazil, China, India and Russia are under 30. Among US students, under-30s only account for 24 per cent of those enrolling.

There is also circumstantial evidence that engagement levels may be higher in countries where significant shifts in employment are under way. Harvard and MIT found that the rates of optional certification for their courses were highest in Spain and Greece, two countries where unemployment exceeds one in four.

Mike Kerrison, director of academic development at the University of London International Programmes, pointed to “the surprising number of students” from these countries on its Coursera courses as an illustration that “Moocs can provide opportunities to gain skills”.

Prof Agarwal of edX points to the advanced content of early Moocs, and the absence of elementary courses, to explain the highly qualified study cohort on his platform.

“Initially, we did not think very carefully about who is taking our courses.” Analysis of demographic data will allow providers to target specific groups.

A priority for the platform may well be to address the gender gap. Females currently account for only 29 per cent of students enrolled on edX courses.

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