Friday, June 15, 2012

Who Takes MOOCs ?

Steve Kolowich / June 5, 2012 - 3:00am

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are popular. This much we know.

But as investors and higher ed prognosticators squint into their crystal balls for hints of what this popularity could portend for the rest of higher education, two crucial questions remains largely unanswered: Who are these students, and what do they want?

Some early inquiries into this by two major MOOC providers offer a few hints.

Coursera, a company started by two Stanford University professors, originated with a course called Machine Learning, which co-founder Andrew Ng taught last fall to a virtual classroom of 104,000 students. Coursera surveyed a sample of those students to find out, among other things, their education and work backgrounds and why they decided to take the course.

Among 14,045 students in the Machine Learning course who responded to a demographic survey, half were professionals who currently held jobs in the tech industry. The largest chunk, 41 percent, said they were professionals currently working in the software industry; another 9 percent said they were professionals working in non-software areas of the computing and information technology industries.

Many were enrolled in some kind of traditional postsecondary education. Nearly 20 percent were graduate students, and another 11.6 percent were undergraduates. The remaining registrants were either unemployed (3.5 percent), employed somewhere other than the tech industry (2.5 percent), enrolled in a K-12 school (1 percent), or “other” (11.5 percent).


Udacity, another for-profit MOOC provider ...  has also conducted some initial probes into the make-up of its early registrants. While the company did not share any data tables with Inside Higher Ed, chief executive officer David Stavens said more than 75 percent of the students who took the company’s first course, Artificial Intelligence, last fall were looking to “improve their skills relevant for either current or future employment.”


The broadest and most easily comparable data that both companies were able to share had to do with geography. Across all Coursera courses, 74 percent of registrants reside outside the United States. (The biggest foreign markets have been Brazil, Britain, India and Russia, according to Ng.)  [snip].

The preponderance of international students taking MOOCs, if it persists, could have implications for the strategic directions of their providers. [snip].

It may turn out that MOOCs from elite U.S. institutions might pose the greatest disruptive threat to foreign universities, says Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University. “It’s a bigger play, perhaps, in Asia than in the U.S.,” he said.

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