Look who is embracing MOOCs

(MoneyWatch) Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have been heralded as a way to reach the disadvantaged, and particularly those without access to higher education in developing countries.

A new study by the University of Pennsylvania that surveyed nearly 35,000 MOOC students, however, revealed that most of the individuals taking advantage of these online courses already have college degrees. Seventy nine percent of the students possessed a bachelor's degree and 44 percent had taken at least some graduate education courses.

The main MOOC enthusiasts tend to be young, well-educated men who are trying to advance in their careers while the other major motivation is to satisfy curiosity. The majority of the online students live in developed countries.

Overall, more than 40 percent of the MOOC students were under the age of 30 and less than 10 percent were at least 60 years of age. Respondents in the United States, however, skewed older. Twenty percent of American users were over 60 years of age and 14 percent were retired.

Nearly 57 percent of the MOOC users were male, although in the United States 52 percent of the students were women. Sixty two percent were employed full-time or self-employed. Only 13 percent were unemployed or retired.

In the United States, the highest percentage of students (44.6 percent) enrolled in science and healthcare-related classes while in the rest of the world the highest percentage of students enrolled in social science, economics and business courses.

The Penn researchers surveyed 34,779 students from across the globe who took 24 courses through Coursera, which is Penn's MOOC platform and one of the world's largest MOOC providers. While there have been several small surveys of MOOC, users, the Penn study is by far the most ambitious one.

"While there is tremendous hope for this educational platform," the study's authors noted, "the individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most -- those without access to higher education in developing countries -- are conspicuously underrepresented among the early adopters."

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