If Online Courses Don't Democratize Education, What Will?

Pitched as education for the people, MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — turn out to be anything but.
Publish date:
December 14, 2015
education, higher education

In 2008, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) burst onto the scene, almost immediately hailed as the savior of modern higher education. The concept sounded radically appealing: For those who couldn't afford to attend conventional colleges and universities, the MOOC provided tools for self-guided education and industry networking that would give nontraditional students a better chance at success. MOOCs could fight social inequalities, bring bright new minds to bear on complex institutional problems, and more.

Unfortunately, a growing body of research suggests that MOOCs don't actually level the educational playing field, and that in fact they may exacerbate existing problems when it comes to who takes coursework, who actually completes it, and who benefits from it. Even as a growing number of educational startups pledge to "disrupt" education through MOOCs, some offered by highly reputable institutions like MIT and Stanford, the people behind the screen are some very familiar faces, because they look a great deal like the people already going to colleges and universities.

One of the early MOOC pioneers was, perhaps unsurprisingly, MIT, which committed to putting coursework online as early as 2006. Initially, the field allowed people to enroll in and take classes at no charge, with content provided under open source licenses so anyone could use, access, and adapt it. Over time, that's shifted, because as MOOCs got more popular, the tech industry in particular realized that they could also be highly profitable. Even before the tech industry's tipping point, though, there were warning signs about the future of the MOOC.

As the name implies, MOOCs are massive, with some including thousands of students from all over the world. In a 2012 article, the New York Times waxed enthusiastic about the concept, saying that they would "knock down campus walls." In a lengthy feature presenting such courses as the wave of the future, the paper asserted that "in the past few months hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree."

But is that necessarily what happened during the peak of the MOOC era — which critic Robert Zemsky claims has come and gone — and is that a good thing?

The question of college credit is perhaps a critical one, because without college credit, MOOCs can be of varying value, depending on a student's goals. Unlike diploma mills like the University of Phoenix, which prey on low-income people with promises of glittering careers, MOOCs at least don't charge people — for the most part, anyway.

But they also don't offer degrees, and usually they don't provide college credit, either. A certificate from a MOOC may be useful in some settings, but many career paths still prioritize college graduates rather than people who have taken online courses. Not having a degree is still a considerable social disadvantage: For example, those holding undergraduate degrees earned roughly $48,000 to the $30,000 earned by high school graduates in 2013. HR personnel rapidly flipping through resumes check for degrees, not MOOC attendance, and given the variable scope and quality of MOOCs, they don't necessarily provide much information about educational attainment.

Moreover, the vast majority of students in MOOCs don't actually bother to complete them. Some are just there to observe, or pop in and out for lectures. Others start with good intentions but rapidly lose interest. The MOOC completion rate hovers around seven percent, which doesn't recommend such learning, no matter what the Times thinks. It asserts that MOOCs take education outside the classroom, providing a broader spectrum of networked learning opportunities that better reflect the modern era, with students participating in social media and other settings, not just the campus. But the deconstructed nature of learning could do more harm than good, except for very self-motivated students.

Perhaps most importantly, multiple studies have looked at who takes MOOCs to determine which population is actually benefiting from such courses. If normally underserved student populations like people of color, single mothers, older adults, and others who struggle to access a college education are taking MOOCs, that would suggest that they're working as intended by opening up educational horizons.

However, that's not what's happening. A recent study in Science found that participants were mainly from wealthy, well-educated backgrounds — the people who, in other words, can already afford to attend college and may in fact be doing so alongside taking MOOCs for general interest. Completion rates increased radically for "those with more socioeconomic resources," and the researchers found that rather than narrowing the educational and social attainment gap, MOOCs might be compounding it. A 2014 study in the International Review of Research In Open and Distributed Learning also found that the bulk of students — roughly seven to one — taking MOOCs were able to afford college, and were often taking them alongside their college coursework. Researchers at Northern Illinois University, meanwhile, found a statistical underrepresentation of people of color in MOOC settings, one that mirrors racial disparities on physical college campuses.

Clearly, the people who could potentially benefit from MOOCs aren't taking advantage of what they have to offer. This shoots down the notion that with higher education getting more expensive by the year, the accessibility of free courses for those who want them is a net good.

But aside from the problems of certifications and degrees alongside who actually participates in such courses, there are other grave flaws with the MOOC model. It's currently focused on STEM, which can in many instances be taught remotely, but the hands-on aspects of STEM learning — like telescope time, lab time, and fieldwork — lose out.

Furthermore, the social sciences, an equally important part of the educational landscape, are a trickier matter, as they tend to benefit from a low teacher-student ratio and a more intimate environment, not least because students are expected to complete multiple thoughtful, complex, and detailed research papers each semester. The social sciences require active engagement in addition to lecture formatting, and that's not possible with thousands of attendees.

While the ability to develop STEM skills is important, with a growing market for such skills, the social sciences can't and shouldn't be left behind. Moreover, while students may be sold on evidence that people can get jobs in places like Silicon Valley without degrees, those who hold degrees make more — sometimes a lot more — and the army of underpaid and exploited coders in Silicon Valley is growing. For every web developer taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and buying $1.5 million homes in the Mission, there are eight crammed together in cramped housing in the Tenderloin, fighting for their chance at the American Dream.

MOOCs also of course highlight and exacerbate the digital divide, as not everyone has the resources to access and use digital education. Historically, some community colleges hosted distance learning courses that supplemented their on-site offerings, but they can't accommodate the sheer volume of students taking MOOCs, nor should they — it would be a disservice to their student body to promote classes that don't provide school credit and offer progress towards a degree.

Critics also fear that MOOCs may increase the economic stratification of the college landscape as the costs of higher education grow higher each year. They fear a situation where low-income people may be squeezed out of college campuses altogether, and if they can't find jobs that pay well, they'll be stuck in the same cycle of poverty that trapped their parents.

Even the typically conservative Wall Street Journal notes that if MOOCs continue to grow, particularly if they're monetized — something that's already happening — they could be the death knell of community college campuses, which are the backbone of entry into higher education and better-paid careers for many low-income Americans and nontraditional students.

The MOOC, contrary to popular hype, may not be performing as advertised when it comes to radically disrupting the state of education in America and providing opportunities to those who need them most. If the MOOC isn't working — and a growing body of evidence suggests this may be the case — it's time for another radical reevaluation of the college landscape to provide tools for reform that will address the educational attainment gap.

MOOCs are not necessarily a lost cause. For students in STEM fields, courses that provide actual credit and progress towards a degree in association with a specific school could be highly beneficial. Such low-residency and correspondence programs have been in use for over a century, and many do specifically provide opportunities for nontraditional learners. People who cannot be in class on a consistent daily basis due to the need to work, care for family members, and manage other obligations can balance an online courseload when they can't attend a physical campus — but these classes need to be accredited and they should provide progress towards a degree.

For social sciences or STEM pursuits that require hands-on learning, however, the MOOC falls short, and people must return to discussions about how to reform the existing educational structure. Providing free public education through, at the very least, undergraduate degrees is a critical step in the right direction, and one promoted by President Obama, who has repeatedly introduced proposals to radically lower the costs of community college attendance.

Such proposals must, however, acknowledge that costs aren't just about tuition, fees, and supplies, but also housing, food, transit expenses, and other necessities for those who cannot live on college campuses for a variety of reasons. It doesn't matter if tuition is free when students need to cover substantial expenses outside of college each month — this forces them to work, sometimes upwards of forty hours a week, while also managing their college classes.

Reassessing schedules is also a key component of effective college reform. For those who are able to be full-time students with no other needs or distractions, course schedules aren't as critical, but for those adding college to an existing burden of life tasks, that doesn't hold true. Single parents can't attend evening classes because they cannot afford childcare, and yet, people working day jobs need the same classes. Offering the same course at different times of the day expands access while accommodating students.

Increasing access for disabled students is another area where the American education system repeatedly falls short, in terms of both physical and emotional access. Many campuses continue to have substantial ADA violations, at times meaning that students can't access entire blocks of classes because they can't get into buildings. Meanwhile, many schools don't offer accommodations like more time on tests, assistance with taking notes, sign language interpretation, and more — and support for disabled students in the form of a comprehensive student center that provides information on available accommodations and how to request them is often absent.

Similarly, many schools don't recognize the social and cultural barriers faced by lower and working class students along with those from different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, with the culture on some campuses making students uncomfortable.

It's hard to focus on learning when people are putting up swastikas in a Jewish dorm, harassing students of color, refusing to allow students to use restrooms appropriate for their gender, or mocking students perceived to be from low-income backgrounds. And, of course, the epidemic of campus rape proves that college in many cases is flat-out dangerous for women. When campuses don't provide a safe and collegial environment, at-risk students aren't going to go to school, and that makes the achievement divide even worse.

A commitment to diversifying college campuses and increasing completion rates also comes down to this: Colleges need to ask the populations they are failing what they can do to meet their needs better. We know who's dropping out of college, and often, we know why — economic pressures, not fitting in with campus culture — but what colleges aren't doing is responding directly to students calling for reforms, such as multiple Black Lives Matter actions at campuses across the U.S., or sitting down for dialogues with students who live on the margins and know what they need for educational success. To fix the problem of educational disparities in the U.S., colleges need to confront it, and few are doing so.