The underlying inequality of MOOCs

MOOCAnybody who has been paying any small amount of attention to educational headlines in the past few years will be well rehearsed in the proposed benefits of MOOCs. A cursory online search will provide you with endless news articles, blog posts, TED talks and accompanying comments that cite the reasons why MOOCs, enabling global access to Ivy League-standard education, are the biggest thing to shake up education in the United States, if not the world. However, repetition does not establish truth, and unsubstantiated claims should be treated with suspicion.

By Alicia Mitchell

 In a recent opinion piece written for the Observer, Anant Agarwal, president of leading MOOC provider edX, claimed that “anyone with an Internet connection can have access” to higher education. “MOOCs = access” is a concept that needs to be interrogated carefully: it cannot just be assumed that because something exists and because it is ‘free’, it is equally accessible to all people. There are a variety of mitigating factors that limit access to MOOCs, many of which are the same as those that also exclude disadvantaged groups from traditional educational models and stem from financial, geographical and educational disparity.In practical terms, sustained participation in a MOOC requires a set of resources and infrastructure that is a privilege, as many of us, including Agarwal, often forget. A reliable electricity supply, frequent and uninterrupted access to a device capable of going online and playing video and sound, and a secure, unrestricted Internet connection are essential starting blocks – as is a safe and comfortable space in which to learn. A recently published paper on the experiences of learners using non-personal computers to access online learning resources in Sri Lanka found that local telecentres often restricted access to high-bandwidth sites, such as YouTube, which often form a core part of MOOC resources.Limited access to these practical resources is not just an issue in the developing world. There are many groups within OECD countries which are equally disadvantaged by the ‘digital divide’, be it those in temporary or communal accommodation, the elderly, rural communities, those reliant on welfare or those living on low incomes. Additional issues arise for those with disabilities, including visual and hearing impairment, who may require specialised technologies to make use of any online learning application.

Even with all these elements in place, there are further barriers to overcome before access is available to all. Firstly, time, or a lack thereof, is a big reason why many people do not pursue online learning, regardless of their situation. Long working hours, multiple jobs, travel time to and from work and caring for children and other dependants are all things that limit the chances to dedicate time, even a few hours a week, to learning, especially for people in low-wage jobs, residents of rural areas and women.

Secondly, there is the issue of learning skills and foundational knowledge. In July of this year, San Jose State University (SJSU) announced that it was suspending some of its online courses due to high failure rates in the final exams. Amongst the resulting blogging maelstrom, the university was keen to point out that the failure rates were the result of a variety of contributing factors, not least the life-situations of the learners that the online model had brought the course in contact with. “It is important to note that at the outset, SJSU made a commitment to working with ‘at risk’ students – many from disadvantaged economic backgrounds; high school students; and students of our own who had struggled with the curriculum (including many who had failed remedial math courses in the past). Without question, these and other factors significantly affect student performance outcomes.”

This is a key concern. The students that failed this course faced many more problems in their education than merely lack of access. Melonie Fullick, a PhD candidate at York University, Canada, and a specialist on post-secondary education, sums up the issue in a recent article: “People need to learn how to learn – they need some basic level of education and the ability to study. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack this (or they wouldn’t be disadvantaged).”

A “basic level of education and the ability to study” spans everything from essential literacy and numeracy to self-motivation, being able to pursue independent research and practice of writing academic papers. Learners without these skills, let alone the foundation knowledge required to follow a university level course, will no doubt struggle to remain engaged.

This would not be such an issue if proponents of MOOCs did not continually insist that these courses have the potential to be all things to all people. Anant Agarwal’s claim that “MOOCs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind”, as he wrote in his Observer piece, is patently untrue and belies his own privileged position. The danger is that these claims can go unchecked, leading to a situation in which those with a responsibility to ensuring that access to education really is increased start believing that MOOCs are the answer they have been looking for.


  1. zack matere

    i am in rural kenya and have an interest in setting up an indegenous learning platform for students with basic primary school and secondary school Education. Currently connected to an orgarnization thats teaching basic computer skills to three classes of 100 students.
    in May i will be starting a class of 20 students with a raspberry P.I
    and Rachael P.I


    rather apprehensively because my knowledge of I.C.T is quite Basic.
    The purpose is to introduce students to the Internet where there is no internet .
    Knan Academy is good but the language is western.
    I am considering dubbing the content with local accents. As well as localizing the material from the free online cources

    • Brigid McDermott

      Hello Zack,

      I am interested to know how you got on with your project of setting up an indigenous learning platform.


  2. Thank you Alicia Mitchell for your honest look at this topic. In my work at Allversity.org this is practically the entire thesis of our work: that MOOCs and other learning platforms are either a. not covering topics that are relevant to those in the most need b. if they are, are simply not of the quality found in the most popular MOOCs. That is why we dedicate ourselves to entrepreneurship, health, agriculture, and rights… and why we put a lot of energy into trying to understand how our materials are used by students on the ground in our target countries.

    • Thanks for the positive feedback!

      Do you work with partners in your target countries? How do you measure your impact and find out how your materials are used?

      Good luck with your project, it sounds great.

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