The Internet Isn't Education's Savior

Online courses aren't reaching those who need them most, researchers find.
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Your MOOC professor, helping rich kids everywhere. (Photo: Agenturfotografin/Shutterstock)

Your MOOC professor, helping rich kids everywhere. (Photo: Agenturfotografin/Shutterstock)

Since the dawn of radio at least, new technology has brought with it hopes of a better education, especially for those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. The latest version is massive open online courses, a.k.a. MOOCs, which aim to close the achievement gap in education with Internet-based classrooms and homework. Unfortunately, MOOCs have had little success in reaching those who could most benefit, according to a new study in Science.

The idea of technology as educational panacea is not new, of course. In the 1930s, radio was supposed to turn underprivileged schools into privileged ones. In the 1960s, television was supposed to do about the same, according to a Ford Foundation report. And what child of the '80s—at least, what relatively wealthy child of the '80s—can forget a computer lab full of Apple II computers? And now, for the child of the 2000s, there are MOOCs, such as MIT's OpenCourseWare, or the more recent, multi-university effort EdX, which lists access to high-quality education for "everyone, everywhere" as one of its core missions.

The people using MOOCs to further their education are disproportionately from well-educated, high-income families and neighborhoods.

The trouble is, radio, television, and classroom computers didn't get rid of educational inequalities, which led education technology researchers John Hansen and Justin Reich to ask an obvious, yet strangely unanswered question: Were MOOCs like OCW and EdX actually doing anything to level the educational playing field?

To answer that question, Hansen and Reich collected data on students enrolled in 68 Harvard and MIT courses offered through EdX between 2012 and 2014—most importantly, the education levels of each student's parents, as well as mailing addresses. Combining that information with United States Census data, the researchers could infer the average income and level of education for each student's neighborhood. Finally, Hansen and Reich compared those measures of socioeconomic status with MOOC participation and course completion rates.

The results: The people using MOOCs to further their education are disproportionately from well-educated, high-income families and neighborhoods. Hansen and Reich estimate MOOC students lived in neighborhoods with on average one extra year of education and about $12,000 in extra income, compared to national averages for education and income. The differences were especially pronounced among 13- to 17-year-old MOOC students, whose neighbors made $23,181 more than the national average.

While the data doesn't rule out a "rising tides lift all boats" scenario—in which educational opportunities for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds improve even if the education gap isn't—the research "should provoke skepticism," Hansen and Reich write: "Freely available learning technologies can offer broad social benefits, but educators and policymakers should not assume that the underserved or disadvantaged will be the chief beneficiaries. Closing gaps with digital learning resources requires targeting innovation toward the students most in need of additional support and opportunity."

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