Who Take MOOCs?

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have commanded considerable public attention due to their sudden rise and disruptive potential. But there are no robust, published data that describe who is taking these courses and why they are doing so. As such, we do not yet know how transformative the MOOC phenomenon can or will be.

University of Pennsylvania conducted an online survey of students enrolled in at least one of the University of Pennsylvania’s 32 MOOCs offered on the Coursera platform. The findings—among the first from outside researchers, rather than MOOC providers—reinforce the truism that most people who take MOOCs are already well educated.

Who Take MOOCs

  • 83.0% of students have a post-secondary degree (2 or 4 years), 79.4% of students have a Bachelor’s degree or higher and 44.2% report education beyond a Bachelor’s degree. The educational attainment of MOOC students across the world far surpasses the general educational attainment of their national peers
  • In no area is the disparity more pronounced than in the BRICS countries, where according to the Barro and Lee educational attainment dataset, updated in 2010, 5.1% of the population over 25 years old has a tertiary degree while 79.4% of MOOC students from the same countries have a tertiary degree
  • In addition to being highly educated, the Coursera student population tends to be young, male, and employed, with a majority from developed countries (Table 2). Over 40% of MOOC students are under 30 years of age, with less than 10% over 60.
  • Significantly more males (56.9%) than females take MOOC courses (p<0.001). More than half (62.4%) report being employed full-time or self-employed, while only 13.4% report being unemployed or retired
  • Within the MOOC student population, students from BRICS countries and other non-OECD countries are significantly younger than their OECD counterparts. They are also more likely to be mal
  • Nearly two thirds of BRICS students (63.4%) are under the age of 30 while only 23.5% of US students are under 30 years old and 37.1% of non-US OECD students are under 30
  • In the U.S. nearly 20% of students are over 60 and 14.0% are retired; in BRICS countries only 1.6% of students are over 60 and just 1.2% are retired
  • Over two thirds (67.9%) of BRICS students are male compared to 48.1% male students in the US and 58.4% in non-US OECD countries.

Why Do Students Take MOOCs? And What Courses do They Take?

There are two main reasons survey respondents cite for enrolling in a MOOC course:

  • Advancing in a current job and curiosity. Nearly half of MOOC students report their reason for enrolling in a course as “curiosity, just for fun” while 43.9% report enrolling to “gain skills to do my job better.”
  • This result differs depending on the type of course. For example, 74.6% of respondents report taking humanities courses, such as poetry, Greek mythology, or world music, out of curiosity and only 11.9% report taking such courses to do their job better. Conversely, more than half of respondents (54.1%) report taking social science courses to “gain skills to do my job better” while nearly half did it for curiosity. Similarly, 39.0% of students selected science, health science and math courses for gaining skills to do a job better. In the United States the highest percentage of students (44.6%) enrolled in Science and Healthcare-related classes while in the rest of the world the highest percentage enrolled in Social Science, Economics, and Business courses.

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