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What Do We Know About MOOC Students So Far?: A Look At Recent User Data

by John Swope

We’ve been hearing for some time that the number of people taking MOOCs is growing. While student enrollment has risen from an estimated 1 million in 2012 to over 10 million today, with thousands of MOOCs and dozens of providers, information about who these students are has been more speculative.

MOOC students

USDA via Flickr

Recently, Edinburgh University came out with a report on the behavior of their students over the course of six MOOCs provided via Coursera. Professors such as Jeffrey Pomerantz, who teaches a MOOC on Metadata, has blogged about his student activity. Providers, though sensitive about their numbers around student attrition, don’t seem to prevent the release of this information. Slowly, information like this is shining a light on who MOOC students are and what they want.

Who are MOOC students?

Figure 1 – Chart by Edinburgh University

MOOC students are diverse, ranging from overachieving high school students to retired persons looking to learn something new, but the largest percentage are in their 20’s and employed. Noticeably, over 40% of all students from the Edinburgh report had done some level of postgraduate university study. This could be reflective of the tendency for large numbers of MOOC students to come from the education sector, where teachers often hold more than a four-year degree, but that doesn’t explain the entire number, since only 16.8% of these students reported working in the education sector.

Nor is this an anomaly within today’s MOOC students. Professor Tucker Balch released a report about his Computational Investing class, where 65% of his students reportedly had completed at least some graduate school. The statistics are striking since only 11% of people in the United States over the age of 25 hold a Master’s degree or greater.

Potentially, these are recent college graduates who are looking to continue their college learning, perhaps in a subject they never got a chance to take in school. They are seemingly familiar with the traditional college experience, so a MOOC is likely a familiar experience, just translated to an online format.

How global are MOOCs right now?

Figure 2 – Chart by Edinburgh University

MOOC students are predominately from the United States and the United Kingdom, which isn’t surprising given that most MOOC providers are based in the U.S. and most universities providing MOOCs are English speaking. But this area is quickly changing as universities like ÉcolePolytechnique and Tel Aviv University get into the MOOC space, and as providers like Coursera try to capitalize on global demand for its content. In a more recent study of four classes offered in English by The University of Wisconson—Madison, 73% of students were living in countries outside the U.S. and the U.K. Coursera now offers over 80 courses in languages other than English. If anyone has student data from these classes, I would love to see it.

Why are they taking a MOOC?

Figure 3 – Chart by Edinburgh University

For the most part, these students are not taking a MOOC for career advancement. Most MOOC takers are taking their first or maybe their second MOOC in order to learn something new and to experiment with the online format. Unfortunately, the Edinburgh report did not break the statistics down by class, since it would be interesting to see if certain “hard skill” classes like computer programming are being taken more for career improvement than other “soft skill” courses.In this case, over 50% of the active students were enrolled in “soft skill” courses, which may be depressing the overall numbers for students seeking career improvement.

In addition, the Edinburgh MOOCs were some of the first MOOCs on Coursera. They ran in January 2013, before LinkedIn and other services started offering ways to promote MOOC learning to employers. So while there is excitement and progress around the idea of MOOCs making elite-level university content available to people who could use it to better a career, for now MOOCs seem to be taken more for pleasure.

How Social are MOOCs?

One of the most common complaints around MOOCs is that they lack the social aspect of a brick-and-mortar classroom experience. The concern seems valid, since data for these classes showed that over the course of five to seven weeks only 15% of active students actually made a post in the discussion forums. Each of these students who participated in the forum averaged 2.9 posts, or roughly 1 post every two weeks.  Not only are these participation rates low, but they are also concentrated in the early weeks of a course, and decline sharply as the course goes on. Though there are other ways to be active within a class, such as outside meetups and peer grading, forums are a good barometer of participation. MOOCs are inherently lonelier than a traditional campus, and the data backs that up. [Editor’s note: See two of our previous articles on this subject: “The Value of a Good Whinge: Do MOOC Forums Stifle P2P Learning” and “How Can MOOC Platforms Be More Dynamic?: A Comparison of Major Providers“.]

What can we make of all this?

The fact that most MOOC students are well educated and employed may be because those people are the first to learn about MOOCs, and they are thereby the early adopters. As MOOCs become more common, their appeal will likely extend to high school students looking for an advantage on their college application or potential employees trying to stand out for recruiters. But first, MOOCs will need to further establish their credibility through things like EdX’s Verified Certificates, which ensure that a student receiving credit for an online course has actually taken that course. Once admissions officers and recruiters understand the value of a MOOC (whatever that value ends up being), then the demand from students actively seeking advancement is more likely to increase.

The fact that a traditional MOOC student tends to be American and not very participatory within the online class will also likely change. The globalization of MOOCs will occur quickly. The opportunity is too great overseas for providers not to take advantage of it, as Coursera is doing with a funding round of $43 million to expand into non-English speaking markets. The social aspect will change more slowly, and how it will change is still being formulated.  Online forums are the dominant social mechanism for these classes, with video-chat forums coming in second. Physical meetups are also often proposed, although these haven’t been very successful. Udacity just announced a new course experience which partners organizations like AT&T with MOOC students for project-related MOOCs with real deliverables and personal coaches. This may or may not create a more social online experience, but providers are trying, and the internet has a high success rate when a lot of people search for a solution. [Editor’s note: See also Coursolve’s model of matching groups of MOOC students with real-world problems.]

As more of these studies come out, we can expect to learn more about who these students are who take MOOCs. But with a medium that is changing so quickly, we can also expect the definition of a MOOC student to change and diversify. And as that happens, we may see classes and providers tailored to different groups and their needs. It will be exciting to see how quickly we reach an understanding of the typical MOOC students and how organizations respond to their needs.

John Swope is the founder of, an online MOOC aggregator that allows users to build and share custom curriculum with their students, employees and friends. John’s interest in the education technology sector comes from his own experience paying too much for college. His favorite MOOC is Dan Ariely’s A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior, and his personal blog takes much inspiration from Ariely’s theories around irrational economics. You can follow him on Twitter @j_swope00.


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One Comment

  1. Re: The Social Nature of Online Learning
    As a graduate student and as life long learner, I have 10 years of experience taking online classes via Blackboard, and now a semester under my belt teaching a hybrid class via Blackboard.

    My own experience is that Blackboard classes are not very social and I really didn’t establish any long term connections except with a few teachers and a few classmates. I don’t see my students connecting esp. deep socialially via Blackboard as well.

    That MOOCs are not in any particular way different than Blackboard learning in terms of socialization isn’t surprising to me.