Will MOOCs exacerbate inequality?
© 21 May 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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One of my fears about massive open online courses.


Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are a hot topic in post-secondary education these days. There are lots of things I find peculiar about the conversation, such as why established remote-only schools are never included in the panels or discussion of related work; but the concern most on my mind today relates to equality.

I recall reading (but cannot at the moment cite) studies that demonstrated that when people do not like or do not perform well in a course, their reaction to that fact differs strongly diversity based on societal expectations. If stereotypes suggest I would enjoy and excel in a field then I am likely to think “‍I failed because I didn’t work hard enough‍” or “‍I didn’t like the way the teacher presented it.‍” If, on the other hand, stereotypes suggest I will not enjoy or excel in a field then I am likely to think “‍I failed because I can’t do this‍” or “‍I don’t like this topic.‍”

Now, extrapolating just a little beyond those findings, poor quality instruction will exacerbate stereotypes. If I can convince people that those born on odd days of the month aren’t rope-jumpers, and then teach rope jumping poorly, after my class the odd-birthdays people will mostly quit the field while the even-birthday people might seek out other instruction. A few years later and most rope-jumpers will have even birthdays, which will make the stereotype stronger, which will make the accidentally discriminating influence of poor instruction stronger, and so on in a vicious cycle.

There are lots of variations in MOOCs, but all that I have seen reported share two frightening traits: tens of thousands of people begin the course, and only between 10% and 40% complete the course. Some number of those not completing the course stop because of scheduling or other external reasons, but unless that number is near 100% each course is reinforcing stereotypes for hundreds or thousands of students.

MOOCs are often touted as a miracle cure, allowing minorities to learn at their own pace in a setting where they are not subject to discrimination nor faced with their being different from others. The optimist in me hopes those claims prove to be true. But the pessimist in me worries that instead MOOCs will “‍teach‍” lots of minorities that the stereotypes are “‍right.‍”

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