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How to bring less educated learners to MOOCs

Moving the needle on MOOC learner demographics

MOOCs have been faulted for missing an important mark by catering to learners who already possess college degrees. On edX 66% of learners already have degrees, while the reported percentage goes as high as 80% on other MOOC platforms. As a nonprofit, we continue to focus on our mission to increase access to education and made a commitment to move the needle on edX learner demographics.

We heard from our learners that lack of the appropriate background or prerequisites was a key reason holding them back from taking edX courses. To address this, we wanted to increase the number of foundation, college readiness, high school and freshman-year-level courses for learners who did not already have a college degree and who are committed to learning.

To develop high-quality education at this level, we sought funding from several organizations and philanthropists, including the Wertheimer Fund, Fariborz Maseeh /The Massiah Foundation, Steven Klinsky/Modern States, and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. We then issued a request for course proposals to edX member institutions, offering seed funding of up to $50,000 per course and support services to help identify the best courses.

In September 2014, edX announced the launch of our high school initiative – more than 40 college readiness, high school, AP* exam preparation and introductory courses. Designed for younger learners and those interested in introductory courses in a wide variety of subjects, this initiative has expanded our course offerings while adhering to a critical piece of the edX mission: to offer global access to high quality courses from leading institutions, and to create a culture of lifelong learning that allows learners to develop new skills and new knowledge year after year.

With more freshman-year and high school-level courses now available as free MOOCs on edX.org, we are finding a striking shift in the demographic makeup of our 400,000-strong learner base enrolled in these courses. Key insights and takeaways include:

  • EdX’s percentage of enrollees in our high school initiative courses that are between 14 and 19 years of age is four times higher than the percentage of enrollees across all edX courses.
  • The highest percentage of enrollees in our high school initiative courses is 18 years of age, while the highest percentage across all edX courses is 25 years.
  • Two-thirds of all of edX learners across all courses have a college degree, while only half have a college degree in the high school initiative courses.
  • Female students enrolled in the high school initiative courses is 9% higher than the percentage of female enrollees across all edX courses, helping to close the MOOC gender gap.

Based on these demographic findings, we believe we’re seeing a trend toward younger learners in these courses, as well as representation from their teachers. We expect that the number of learners on our site who do not yet possess a college degree will increase as awareness of these college readiness and high school offerings builds and as we add additional course offerings designed for this audience.

Reaching learners who did not previously benefit from or have access to high-quality education continues to be critical to our mission to increase access to education for anyone, anywhere. By expanding our course offerings to include high school-level and introductory courses, we hope to help close the college readiness gap and empower younger learners – regardless of geography or socioeconomic status. And, as a nonprofit, focused on people, not profits, we are able to continue our work in this area.

We will continue to foster a culture of lifelong learning that gives all individuals the education they deserve and the opportunity to succeed.

* “Advanced Placement” and “AP” are registered trademarks of the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, these offerings.