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Online Courses Aren’t Actually Democratizing Education

Eighty percent of those who enrolled in online learning classes already have bachelor's degrees. Forty four percent have some graduate education

The internet has long been hailed as a great democratizer. And in many ways, access to information has helped groups organize and facilitated political action. But when it comes to education, simply making classes free online hasn’t had the impact many had hoped.

According to a survey of those using the University of Pennsylvania’s massively open online course (MOOC), students were nearly all already educated. Eighty percent of those who enrolled already had bachelor’s degrees. Forty four percent had some graduate education under their belt. “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population,” the authors of the paper write. And this isn’t just a Penn State problem. Steve Kolowich at The Chronicle of Higher Education writes that the same pattern emerges when you look at MOOCs in other nations:

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.

Andrew Ng, founder of Coursera, the platform that Penn State and many others use, told the Chronicle that they were aware of gaps in their reach. “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 said.

Of course, access to a MOOC like the ones run by Penn State requires reliable internet access, time to complete the work and knowledge of where to even look for something like a MOOC. These are hurdles the online learning community will have to overcome, if they want to bring education to everybody, and not just to those who already have it.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Free Online Courses Mean College Will Never Be the Same
Want to Learn About Climate Change? A Free Introductory Class Starts Today

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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