Despite the talk about how massive open online courses, or MOOCs, will dramatically alter the landscape of higher education, the courses have in some ways taken academe back -- to the days of huge gender gaps, when senior scholars overwhelmingly were men.
An unofficial count by Inside Higher Ed shows 8 of the 63 courses listed on edX’s website  are taught by women, and an additional 8 are taught by mixed-gender groups. Of Coursera’s 432 courses , 121 feature at least one female instructor and 71 taught exclusively by them. Udacity lists 29 courses on its website , and while only two are taught by women, many of them were created by female course developers.
The gap, although vast, has narrowed as more institutions experiment with online learning. In January, edX didn’t offer a single course taught solely by a female faculty member, while Coursera offered 35. The last eight months have also seen more cooperation between faculty members across gender lines. In January, 14 of Coursera’s then-205 courses were taught by mixed-gender groups.
Coursera and Udacity declined to comment for this article. A spokesman for edX did not respond to a request to comment Friday.
“This is a remarkable statistic, if it's true, but I do think that it may be pretty early to call the gap ‘persistent’ for a medium that is in its infancy,” Elisa New, professor of English at Harvard University, wrote in an e-mail. New will provide two modules of larger courses through edX this fall, which means she will be responsible for 35 percent of the courses taught by female faculty members. “It is only in the last few months that my colleagues even became aware of what MOOCs are, much less decided to do one.”
The opportunity to take a course taught by some of the most prestigious faculty members in academe was one of the early selling points of MOOCs. Given that men are overrepresented among senior faculty, the gender gap should not come as a surprise, said Laura Nasrallah, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School who will provide another 12.5 percent -- in other words, one -- of the edX courses taught by women.
Nasrallah also said experiments with MOOCs have so far shown that online courses are “better suited” for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM courses make up about half of Coursera’s catalog, and edX, co-founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has also focused on those topic areas. Since women hold less than 25 percent of jobs in those fields , Nasrallah said she expected female professors to be underrepresented in online learning.
In a follow-up email, Nasrallah said she still believes the humanities can be taught in an online setting -- which is partly why she decided to experiment. “People are interested in history and in religion, whether they're watching the History Channel or PBS specials,” she wrote. “Yet, as I looked at the online course offerings last spring ... little was available for those who wanted to engage in the conversation about close readings of ancient texts, developing critical approaches and deep empathy for those who practice religion in antiquity and today.”
Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-founded edX in May 2012. In an email, Robert Lue, chair of the Harvard branch's faculty committee, said the percentage of women teaching edX courses at Harvard has increased with each new set of proposals. "For example, the proposals that have been approved so far for development and launch next spring now stands at 50% women," Lue wrote.
According to New, the “pipeline is pretty jammed with women” who are experimenting with online learning, which means the gender gap may continue to narrow in the coming months.
Other scholars are less convinced. In a paper presented last week at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, Lisa L. Martin, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, argues that gender role stereotypes could be causing female professors to avoid larger classes in general, let alone MOOCs. Martin provided Inside Higher Ed with a draft of the paper.
Martin examined student evaluations of political science professors at a large Southern public university and found that as the size of a class grows, so does the chance of a male professor being rated higher than a female colleague. Men only scored one-tenth of a point higher on a five-point scale in classes with 10 students, but the deficit grew to six-tenths of a point in classes with more than 200 students.
“Differences like this are large enough to catch the attention of promotion and tenure committees, award committees, and the like,” the paper reads. “For universities that offer even larger classes ... the cumulative effect would be massive.”
While Martin’s paper mostly argues the drawbacks of using student evaluations, it also contains a word of caution about how MOOCs are influencing the role of the instructor.
“Course sizes can become enormous, and individual interaction between instructors and students during lectures is eliminated,” the paper reads. “In a peculiar way, the movement to MOOCs reinforces a mode of learning that otherwise was coming to seem dated, with one authoritative figure lecturing to large groups of passive learners.”