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What the Results of a Survey of Coursera Students Mean for Online Learning

When Coursera, Udacity, and edX started up within four months of one another, in 2012, The New York Times declared it the year of the MOOC. Now that the clamor is dying down, researchers are gauging what actually has developed in terms of massive open online courses.

A report released this week draws on a survey of Coursera students to look at their motivations and what kinds of educational and career results they are seeing. Published in the Harvard Business Review, it is the first study of Coursera students’ self-reported learning outcomes.

“Our intuition has always been that education opens doors to opportunity,” said Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders, in an interview on Monday. “But intuition is one thing, and data are another.”

Conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Washington, and Coursera, the survey asked 52,000 students who had taken at least one Coursera course why they had done so.

The report sorted students into two categories: career builders and education seekers. Most of the career builders, 87 percent, reported “career benefits” from the courses. But that category comprises things as varied as starting a business and becoming better equipped for a current job. Thirty-three percent reported what the researchers call “tangible career benefits,” like finding a new job or getting a promotion.

“The tangible career benefits is a higher bar in some sense,” said Gayle Christensen, assistant vice provost at the University of Washington and an author of the report. “A third of people saying that they were able to make these clear next steps is actually something that one should be optimistic about.”

Improved performance at a current job, at 62 percent, was the benefit most reported by the career builders. Receiving a raise and getting a promotion tied for the least-reported benefit, at 3 percent.

Among the education seekers, the results were similar: 88 percent reported general educational benefits, while 18 percent reported tangible educational benefits.

George Siemens, an education-technology expert and one of the first MOOC creators, isn’t bothered by the discrepancies between tangible and intangible benefits. “One of the realities is that any kind of skill development doesn’t have an immediate impact,” he said. “So the day that you learn a skill doesn’t mean that you immediately receive a 30-percent bump in your salary.”

The researchers also looked at how students’ socioeconomic backgrounds had affected their learning outcomes. While more of the respondents came from affluent and educated backgrounds, those from disadvantaged backgrounds were actually more likely to report benefits.

“Going into this, I wasn’t sure what we’d find,” said Ms. Christensen. “That those students are actually reporting career and educational benefits in higher numbers is pretty exciting.”

She hopes that MOOCs will provide a way for students from underdeveloped countries — where traditional higher-education degrees might be of lower quality — to pursue an education. That goal, she said, is “a little bit more of what was hoped for with the MOOC hype.”

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