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<em>Science</em>: Even for Free Online Education, Socioeconomic Disparities Remain

While the emergence of free online educational courses may seem like an advantage to all, students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to enroll in such programs and earn a certificate than their peers of higher socioeconomic backgrounds, a new study finds.

The results, published in the 4 December issue of Science, are in contrast to the theory that the free and easy-to-access nature of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may close the gap between students from different backgrounds.

"One might hope that free online learning opportunities would be especially appealing to students who wouldn't otherwise have access to high-quality resources," said John Hansen of Harvard Law School, lead author of the study.

But he noted that the problem with the digital divide — the gap between people who use digital technology and information and those who do not — is not just about access.

"The research literature suggests that every digital divide is really two digital divides, one of access and one of usage. People with greater social, technological and financial capital are often more capable of gaining access to new education technologies and using them in richer ways," Hansen said.

The neighborhood income for U.S. Harvard/MIT MOOC participants (red) is higher than the neighborhood income for the general U.S. population (blue). | John Hansen and Justin Reich

"We anticipate that explaining the reasons for these disparities will be much more difficult than identifying them, and we hope that our work will draw more researchers to the question," he said.

To gain more insights into how people of different socioeconomic backgrounds use MOOCs, Hansen and Justin Reich of Harvard University looked at registration and completion patterns in 68 courses offered by Harvard and MIT, combing through data from 164,198 U.S. participants between ages 13 and 69. They used three indicators to determine socioeconomic status (SES): parental educational attainment, neighborhood median income, and neighborhood average educational attainment.

Data suggest that an additional $20,000 in neighborhood median income increased the odds of participation by 27%. Each additional year of neighborhood-average educational attainment increased the odds of participation by 69%.

Among adolescents, the relationship between neighborhood SES and MOOC participation was strongest. For an adolescent participant whose most educated parent received a bachelor's degree, the odds of completing a MOOC with enough points to receive a certificate were roughly 1.75 times those of an otherwise similar adolescent in the same course whose most educated parent held less than a bachelor's. Students from all backgrounds earned certificates in Harvard and MIT MOOCs, but especially among the young, students of higher SES were more likely to earn a certificate.

"The fact that age was important for understanding the relationship between socioeconomic resources and course enrollment and success was a new insight, and one that we think will be helpful in continuing to explore open online learning across the lifespan," Hansen said.

He emphasized that the results of the study did not find that the vast majority of MOOC users live in neighborhoods where everyone is well-educated and high-earning — just that the probability of enrolling increases with higher socioeconomic status.