The underlying inequality of MOOCs

Anybody who has been paying any small amount of attention to educational headlines in the past few years will be well rehearsed in the proposed benefits of MOOCs. A cursory online search will provide you with endless news articles, blog posts, TED talks and accompanying comments that cite the reasons why MOOCs, enabling global access to Ivy League-standard education, are the biggest thing to shake up education in the United States, if not the world. However, repetition does not establish truth, and unsubstantiated claims should be treated with suspicion.


By Alicia Mitchell


In a recent opinion piece written for the Observer, Anant Agarwal, president of leading MOOC provider edX, claimed that “anyone with an Internet connection can have access” to higher education. “MOOCs = access” is a concept that needs to be interrogated carefully: it cannot just be assumed that because something exists and because it is ‘free’, it is equally accessible to all people. There are a variety of mitigating factors that limit access to MOOCs, many of which are the same as those that also exclude disadvantaged groups from traditional educational models and stem from financial, geographical and educational disparity.


In practical terms, sustained participation in a MOOC requires a set of resources and infrastructure that is a privilege, as many of us, including Agarwal, often forget. A reliable electricity supply, frequent and uninterrupted access to a device capable of going online and playing video and sound, and a secure, unrestricted Internet connection are essential starting blocks – as is a safe and comfortable space in which to learn. A recently published paper on the experiences of learners using non-personal computers to access online learning resources in Sri Lanka found that local telecentres often restricted access to high-bandwidth sites, such as YouTube, which often form a core part of MOOC resources.


Limited access to these practical resources is not just an issue in the developing world. There are many groups within OECD countries which are equally disadvantaged by the ‘digital divide’, be it those in temporary or communal accommodation, the elderly, rural communities, those reliant on welfare or those living on low incomes. Additional issues arise for those with disabilities, including visual and hearing impairment, who may require specialised technologies to make use of any online learning application.


Even with all these elements in place, there are further barriers to overcome before access is available to all. Firstly, time, or a lack thereof, is a big reason why many people do not pursue online learning, regardless of their situation. Long working hours, multiple jobs, travel time to and from work and caring for children and other dependants are all things that limit the chances to dedicate time, even a few hours a week, to learning, especially for people in low-wage jobs, residents of rural areas and women.


Secondly, there is the issue of learning skills and foundational knowledge. In July of this year, San Jose State University (SJSU) announced that it was suspending some of its online courses due to high failure rates in the final exams. Amongst the resulting blogging maelstrom, the university was keen to point out that the failure rates were the result of a variety of contributing factors, not least the life-situations of the learners that the online model had brought the course in contact with. “It is important to note that at the outset, SJSU made a commitment to working with ‘at risk’ students – many from disadvantaged economic backgrounds; high school students; and students of our own who had struggled with the curriculum (including many who had failed remedial math courses in the past). Without question, these and other factors significantly affect student performance outcomes.”


This is a key concern. The students that failed this course faced many more problems in their education than merely lack of access. Melonie Fullick, a PhD candidate at York University, Canada, and a specialist on post-secondary education, sums up the issue in a recent article: “People need to learn how to learn – they need some basic level of education and the ability to study. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack this (or they wouldn’t be disadvantaged).”


A “basic level of education and the ability to study” spans everything from essential literacy and numeracy to self-motivation, being able to pursue independent research and practice of writing academic papers. Learners without these skills, let alone the foundation knowledge required to follow a university level course, will no doubt struggle to remain engaged.


This would not be such an issue if proponents of MOOCs did not continually insist that these courses have the potential to be all things to all people. Anant Agarwal’s claim that “MOOCs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind”, as he wrote in his Observer piece, is patently untrue and belies his own privileged position. The danger is that these claims can go unchecked, leading to a situation in which those with a responsibility to ensuring that access to education really is increased start believing that MOOCs are the answer they have been looking for.


6 Responses

  1. Abdul Waheed Khan

    Clearly there is a gap between the potential of MOOCs and the ground reality specially in the developing countries. Digital divide is narrowing but there are serious problems in reaching the unreached. All technological options must be considered for making quality education accessible at affordable cost to the larger segment of the population.

  2. William Patrick Leonard

    All of the above concerns are valid. There are four others that warrant a brief mention.
    1. One size does not fit all. After nine years of teaching on-line I have found that even with the requisite foundation and preparation not all learners have the deposition to persist and succeed.
    2. The hype fails to recognize the opposition that is already forming among the on-ground faculty. There is a perceived impact on job security. There are many oxen to be gored.
    3. Unless accepted as a turnkey product, there will be institution costs that have yet to be recognized.
    4. Aside from the patina of prestige, MOOC’s are basically old wine in new bottles. In aggregate they are reminiscent of the packaged ITV courses with vary degrees of production quality.

  3. Paul Bacsich

    Good article; and particularly useful that you note that “access” is not just about the speed of the internet connection. I also stress the need for MOOC devotees to link back to the years of research and operational experience on online distance education pre-MOOCs. Getting them to come to Online Educa might open their eyes!

  4. Crane ROGERS

    In France Moocs are not really tied to universities, for reasons cited by William. Until 5 years ago a few partly subsidized national adult training organisations provided most of the elearning and today much of what is called “elearning” in Universities here simply involves making course ressources available online.
    Recently national ” mooc-like” ventures have been developped not so much by universities or training organisations but by employeurs in specific domaines, working with specialize eudcation engineering firms, non necessarily based in France.
    Resistance by university staff to elearning varies in relation to age and field, and appears motivated by 2 families of considerations : “refusal of change in teaching pratice” and “fear of loosing work or salary” both of which are in turn linked to teacher familiarity with the tools and practices in elearning (or are prehaps the reason teachers here so lillte interest in elearning). Here faculty are used to teaching in classrooms and exchanging with students, and sometimes repeat the same lecure with different groups. Many are still getting used to powerpoint, and are not interested in computer technology. Thus outside of information technology and related fields, there is comparatively little enthousiasm for developing “designed elearning”
    Inversely University deans and departement sheads foresaw elearning as a means of saving teaching time and money, whereas experience shows that in first years of teaching through elearning, preparation time and monitoring student proress required MORE time (work) than habitual presential teacing in classrooms.
    Today major employers including state employeurs are developping there own elearning plateforms that are not real Moocs, but compile a substantial number of courses in relation to a field of work. Most universitie here are not involved in such projects and do not seemed to have grasped te potential here.


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