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The biggest beneficiaries of online education programmes are those least likely to use them, according to data collected by one of the world’s largest providers of such courses.

Learning through the internet via massive open online courses (Moocs) was hailed as a key way to bring education to the majority of people who lack the time or resources to attend university. But to date most of those signing up to complete these courses have already been to university.

Coursera, which has amassed 15m registered users since its co-founders put up their first Mooc four years ago, interviewed 52,000 of participants to find whether they had achieved career or personal goals.

Three quarters of Coursera’s registered learners have a bachelors degree or higher, and most of these hail from developed countries. But this group was significantly less likely to report benefits to their career or personal understanding three months after completing their Coursera course than the much smaller subset of people from emerging economies with no formal qualifications.

Of the 52 per cent who said they had taken a Mooc to advance their careers only a third of those from emerging economies with a bachelors degree reported tangible career benefits, compared with almost four in ten of those with no formal education to degree level.

“The perception has been that Moocs were a help only to the people who already benefited, people who have already been educated,” Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, said. “Our data shows that everybody benefits.”

Among unemployed Coursera learners seeking to advance their career, it was the older learners that reported greater benefits in the Coursera survey.

One case highlighted was that of US-based Patricia Ehrhardt, who was unexpectedly laid off from her job as an office administrator after signing up for Coursera’s Programming for Everybody course.

Ms Ehrhardt quickly found a new part-time position as a developer for a local not-for-profit organisation, which she claims would not have hired her without the technical skills she had acquired via Coursera. She is now pursuing a career as a web developer in San Francisco.

Coursera has invested in multiple language courses and is marketing its services in new jurisdictions, such as Brazil, to attract the sweetspot of learners from emerging markets, Ms Koller noted.

“If you think about it, it is really not surprising that most of our learners are from developed economies and degrees because these are the people who can speak English and have access to computers,” she said.

“We are already seeing adoption by people who have limited access to education. We just need to keep giving them more and more relevant content.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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