MOOCs don’t serve to decrease income inequality

May 1, 2017 at 7:00 am 8 comments

At this year’s NSF Broadening Participation in Computing PI meeting, I heard a great talk by Kevin Robinson that asked the question: Do MOOCs “raise all boats” but maintain or even increase income inequality, or do they help to reduce the economic divide?  It’s not the question whether poor students take MOOCs.  It’s whether it helps the poor more, or the rich more.

Kevin has made his slides available here. The work he described is presented in this article from Science.  I want to share the one slide that really blew me away.

The gray line is the average income for US citizens at various ages.  As you would expect, that number generally increases up until retirement.  The black line is the average income for students in Harvard and MIT’s MOOC participants.  The MOOC participants are not only richer, but as they get older, they diverge more.  These are highly-privileged people, the kind with many advantages.  MOOCs are mostly helping the rich.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Justin Reich (@bjfr)  |  May 1, 2017 at 8:29 am

    You might also be interested in some of our work to close these gaps: “Closing Global Achievement Gaps in MOOCs” (If that is paywalled, you might be to follow the link from Rene’s site:

    We draw on insights from social psychology to try to create more welcoming environments for people who may feel like outsiders and be pushed off. We’re currently replicating that study in 40+ courses.

    I also think there are productive ways to use MOOCs to target highly-privileged people with many advantages and still benefit society at large. I’m teaching two MOOCs where almost the entire participant population has a Masters degree or a Doctorate, and I haven’t looked but I suspect they are nearly all above medium income learners– I speak of course of teachers and school leaders 🙂 In Launching Innovation in Schools and Design Thinking for Leading and Learning, we use the MOOC platform to try to build capacity in educators who can then go on to improve education for all students. ( I think the Harvard School of Public Health has some cool courses, targeted entirely at public health professionals, that serve similar functions.

    Thanks for sharing the work!

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  May 1, 2017 at 9:11 am

      Hi Justin,

      I was familiar with the work where you “nudge” folks from less-developed countries into completing. I was intrigued by the opposite effect on people from more-developed countries, that the nudges led to lower completion rates. How do you predict that your interventions would play out with low-SES people living in more-developed countries? It’s one thing to convince someone from Pakistan that they too belong in a MOOC with Americans, but it feels different to me to convince someone from the US that they belong in the MOOC with the rich kids.

      The issue arises even with the middle-income teachers and school leaders that you’re addressing in your MOOC. In general, the completion rates for teacher MOOCs have been low, especially in my area of CS education. Teachers rarely have much CS background, and the demographic variables are usually against them. What are you doing to try to improve completion rates in your MOOC?

      At what point do we decide that it’s the medium, that MOOCS (with their video lectures, lack of personal contact, etc.) are unlikely to have the same engagement as in-person classes?

      – Mark

  • 3. alfredtwo  |  May 1, 2017 at 8:41 am

    The poor often don’t have time to take MOOC courses. The same is true of reading. They are too busy working too many hours to make enough money to get by, That is part of why we need to do a better job of educating people before they age out of the schools.

  • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    Although the basic thesis here is right, I disagree with the statement “The MOOC participants are not only richer, but as they get older, they diverge more.” To do that comparison properly, you should be looking at ratios of incomes, which calls for a log scale on the y-axis. I don’t have the raw data to do that with, but it looks to me like the greatest discrepancy is around age 20.

    Why are CS people so clueless about making graphs? Is visual presentation of data a major hole in CS education?

  • 5. Recommended reads #103 | Small Pond Science  |  May 12, 2017 at 8:00 am

    […] MOOCs are accessible to everybody, so clearly, they must promote equity by providing equal access, right? No, of course not, and here is why. […]

  • […] researcher, so I tend to argue with MOOC advocates with data (e.g., my blog post in May about how MOOCs don’t serve to decrease income inequality). Karen is an expert in rhetoric. She analyzes two of the books at the heart of the education […]

  • […] CS) is low.  Diversity in terms of economic success is low (as discussed in this blog post and in this one too), so scaled online learning is unlikely to be an engine to bridge economic divides.  There are a […]

  • […] My opinions about MOOCs haven’t changed. They’re a great way for experienced people to get a bit more knowledge. That’s where the Georgia Tech OMSCS works. But I still they that they are a terrible way to help people who need initial knowledge, and they don’t help to broaden participation in computing. […]


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