Most people who take massive open online courses already hold a degree from a traditional institution, according to a new paper from the University of Pennsylvania.

The paper is based on a survey of 34,779 students worldwide who took 24 courses offered by Penn professors 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.

The Penn researchers sent the survey to students who had registered for a MOOC and viewed at least one video lecture. More than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.

The pattern was true not only of MOOC students in the United States but also learners in other countries. In some foreign countries where MOOCs are popular, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population,” according to the paper.

In other developing countries, about 80 percent of the MOOC students surveyed already held college degrees—a number staggeringly out of proportion with the share of degree holders in the general population.


“The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most—those without access to higher education in developing countries—are underrepresented among the early adopters,” write the paper’s six authors.

Coursera has made accessibility a cornerstone of its mission as a MOOC provider. “We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few,” the company says on its website, and it offers financial aid to students who cannot afford the fees associated with some of its premium courses.

At the same time, Coursera has taken a hands-off approach to publicity, relying almost entirely on word of mouth (and its university partners) to spread awareness of MOOCs. It stands to reason that much of the hubbub about MOOCs has occurred in well-educated circles. Combine that with spotty Internet availability in underprivileged communities, and it makes sense that only the most privileged populations have had occasion to take a MOOC.

Andrew Ng, a founder of Coursera, says the company is aware of the demographic trends and is working on a number of projects aimed at helping reach more needy students.

“We’re fully committed to granting everyone a great education, and we recognize that we have a long way to go with regard to our long-term mission,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle, adding that reaching learners in areas with poor Internet access has been an especially difficult hurdle.


The trend does not mean MOOCs will never reach underrepresented populations, say the authors of the paper; it just means they have not done so yet. The researchers also caution that, because the study examined only a slim percentage of the students registered for Penn courses, let alone all MOOCs, “the survey may not be generalizable.”

Update (11/20/2013; 8:30 p.m.): This article was originally headlined “MOOCs Are Reaching Only Privileged Learners, Survey Finds.”