No Rich Child Left Behind, and Enriching the Rich: Why MOOCs are not improving education
When I talk to people about MOOCs these days, I keep finding myself turning to two themes.
Theme #1. Our schools aren’t getting worse. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing. We have more poorer kids, and they are doing worse because of everything, not just because of school.
Before we can figure out what’s happening here, let’s dispel a few myths. The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.
The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.
It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. … It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.
Theme #2: There are definitely tangible effects of MOOCs, as seen in the study linked below. They help rich white men find better jobs. They help educate the rich. They help a small percentage of the poor.
All the money being poured into developing MOOCs fuels the gap between the rich and the poor. If you want to improve education generally, nationally or worldwide, aim at the other 90%. MOOCs aren’t improving education. They enrich those who are already rich.
Using data from MOOCs offered by the University of Pennsylvania, Alcorn, Christensen and Emanuel were some of the first to suggest that MOOC learners were more likely to be employed men in developed countries who had previously earned a degree — countering the early narrative that MOOCs would democratize higher education around the world.
Commenters pointed out that I didn’t make my argument clear. I’m posting one of my comment responses here to make clearer what I was trying to say:
As Alan pointed out, the second article I cited only once says that MOOC learners are “more likely to be employed men in developed countries.” I probably should have supported that point better, since it’s key to my argument. All the evidence I know suggests that MOOC learners are typically well-educated, more affluent from the developed world, and male.
- In the original EdX MOOC, 78% of the attendees had already taken the class before. (See full report here.)
- Tucker Balch released demographics on his MOOC: 91% male, 73.3% from OECD countries, and over 50% had graduate degrees. (See post here.)
- Still the most careful analysis of MOOC demographics that I know is the 2013 Penn study (see article here) which found, “The student population tends to be young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries. There are significantly more males than females taking MOOCs, especially in developing countries.”
- As you know, Georgia Tech’s Online MS (OMS) in CS is 85% domestic (the opposite of our face-to-face MS, which actually serves more students from the developing world). (See one page report here.)
If your MOOCs have significantly different demographics, I’d be interested in hearing your statistics. However, given the preponderance of evidence, your MOOC may be an outlier if you do have more students from the developing world.
The argument I’m making in this post is that (a) to improve education, we have to provide more to the underprivileged, (b) most MOOC students are affluent, well-educated students from the developing world, and (c) the benefits of MOOCs are thus accruing mostly to people who don’t need more enrichment. Some people are benefitting from MOOCs. My point is that they are people who don’t need the benefit. MOOCs are certainly not “democratizing education” and are mostly not providing opportunities to those who don’t have them anyway.