Massive online courses more effective in developing world, TASCHA finds

A new report challenges widely held assumptions about Massive Open Online Courses, showing that they may be far more effective in the developing world than previously thought.

The report, issued by the Information School’s Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA), found that the low completion rates and homogeneous demographics found among users in the United States and similarly wealthy nations do not hold true worldwide.

Researchers studying the effectiveness of the online courses, known as MOOCs, surveyed 1,400 course users and 2,250 non-users ages 18-35 in Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa. The study is the first of its kind in the developing world, and it yielded surprising results.

Among its findings:

  • Low- and middle-income people make up 80 percent of MOOC users in the developing world.
  • More than 80 percent of MOOC users in developing countries have only basic or intermediate information and communication technology skills, challenging the belief that the courses are predominantly taken by people with higher skill levels.
  • 49 percent of users received certification and an additional 30 percent completed a course, far higher than the single-digit completion rates seen elsewhere.
  • Women are more likely than men to complete a course or obtain certification.
  • The main motivations of MOOC users were found to be in gaining specific job skills (61 percent), preparing for additional education (39 percent), and obtaining professional certification (37 percent).

Less than half of those using the online courses in the developing world had completed college, and a quarter reported high school as their highest level of education finished.

“Many people assumed that in developing countries, MOOCs would only be used by the rich and well-educated,” said lead researcher Maria Garrido, research assistant professor at TASCHA. “We were excited to find that this is not the case. Many users come from low- and middle-income backgrounds with varying levels of education and technology skills.”

The high completion rates found in the study may be tied to students’ motivations for taking them. Users in the three countries surveyed took online courses primarily to advance their education or their careers; in a 2013 survey of Coursera users in more economically advanced countries, two-thirds of students enrolled “just for fun.”

Though they are open to the public and often free, MOOCs are accessed by few people in developing countries. The study found that awareness is the most significant barrier to enrollment, with 79 percent of non-users reporting they had never heard of the online courses. Among those who were familiar but hadn’t taken a course, lack of time was the most common reason.

Seeing unmet potential, the U.S. Agency for International Development and CourseTalk, the largest source of MOOC reviews, have partnered to determine how online education can best help young adults in developing countries go on to successful careers. TASCHA’s research, with support from IREX, a nonprofit development organization, is driving the Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative, an effort to expand access to quality education and career training worldwide.

CourseTalk CEO Don Loonam said the results of the study were encouraging.

“This brings us one step closer to fulfilling the original promise of MOOCs: expanding access to affordable, quality education to anyone around the world,” Loonam said.