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Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are popular. This much we know.
But as investors and higher ed prognosticators squint into their crystal balls for hints of what this popularity could portend for the rest of higher education, two crucial questions remains largely unanswered: Who are these students, and what do they want?
Some early inquiries into this by two major MOOC providers offer a few hints.
Coursera, a company started by two Stanford University professors, originated with a course called Machine Learning, which co-founder Andrew Ng taught last fall to a virtual classroom of 104,000 students. Coursera surveyed a sample of those students to find out, among other things, their education and work backgrounds and why they decided to take the course.
Among 14,045 students in the Machine Learning course who responded to a demographic survey, half were professionals who currently held jobs in the tech industry. The largest chunk, 41 percent, said they were professionals currently working in the software industry; another 9 percent said they were professionals working in non-software areas of the computing and information technology industries.
Many were enrolled in some kind of traditional postsecondary education. Nearly 20 percent were graduate students, and another 11.6 percent were undergraduates. The remaining registrants were either unemployed (3.5 percent), employed somewhere other than the tech industry (2.5 percent), enrolled in a K-12 school (1 percent), or “other” (11.5 percent).
A subset (11,686 registrants) also answered a question about why they chose to take the course. The most common response, given by 39 percent of the respondents, was that they were “just curious about the topic.” Another 30.5 percent said they wanted to “sharpen the skills” they use in their current job. The smallest proportion, 18 percent, said they wanted to “position [themselves] for a better job.”
Udacity, another for-profit MOOC provider founded by (erstwhile) Stanford professors, has also conducted some initial probes into the make-up of its early registrants. While the company did not share any data tables with Inside Higher Ed, chief executive officer David Stavens said more than 75 percent of the students who took the company’s first course, Artificial Intelligence, last fall were looking to “improve their skills relevant for either current or future employment.”
That is a broad category, encompassing both professionals and students, so it does not lend much nuance to the questions of who the students are or what they want. And even the more detailed breakdown of the students who registered for Ng’s Machine Learning course cannot offer very much upon which to build a sweeping thesis on how MOOCs might fit into the large and diverse landscape of higher education.
Coursera has since completed the first iterations of seven additional courses and opened registration for 32 more beyond that. Many of those courses — which cover poetry, world music, finance, and behavioral neurology — are likely to attract different sorts of people, with different goals, than Machine Learning did. “I'm expecting that the demographics for some of our upcoming classes (Stats One, Soc 101, Pharmacology, etc.) will be very different,” said Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders, in an e-mail.
The broadest and most easily comparable data that both companies were able to share had to do with geography. Across all Coursera courses, 74 percent of registrants reside outside the United States. (The biggest foreign markets have been Brazil, Britain, India and Russia, according to Ng.) At Udacity, “a great majority” of the students registered for its six current courses live abroad, according to Stavens, who could not immediately provide exact figures.
The preponderance of international students taking MOOCs, if it persists, could have implications for the strategic directions of their providers. For example, Udacity recently made a deal with Pearson that will enable the young company to use Pearson’s testing centers to administer in-person exams to far-flung students. Pearson owns testing centers in 170 countries.
It may turn out that MOOCs from elite U.S. institutions might pose the greatest disruptive threat to foreign universities, says Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University. “It’s a bigger play, perhaps, in Asia than in the U.S.,” he said.
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