When Penn leapt into online education through a partnership with Coursera two years ago, the abrupt rise of “massively open online courses” was fueling rampant speculation about how they might transform the higher-education marketplace [“MOOC U.,” Mar|Apr 2013]. Two million students later—that’s how many had registered for Penn’s Coursera offerings through this spring—emerging evidence has tempered expectations and begun to provide a more nuanced perspective. Appropriately enough, given the University’s large footprint in the MOOC realm, some of the most illuminating research has come out of Penn.

A December 2013 study led by Laura Perna C’88 W’88, a professor and executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the Graduate School of Education, analyzed the movement of some 1 million online pupils through 16 Penn Coursera courses. The verdict: persistence is rare. Completion rates averaged 4 percent across all the courses. Those with lighter workloads held onto a slightly larger fraction of registrants—6 percent—but variables like course length and the availability of “live chat” made no statistically significant difference. The outlier was a Penn Medicine course in “Cardiac Arrest, Hypothermia, and Resuscitation Science,” which boasted a 14 percent completion rate.

To some extent, the study reaffirms what often goes with the ease of signing up for an Internet freebie. Only about half of those 1 million registrants viewed as much as a single lecture within their selected course. On the flip side, those half-million pupils probably learned at least something for their limited trouble. As an example, take “Introduction to Operations Management,” taught by Christian Terwiesch, the Andrew H. Heller Professor at Wharton. Only 2 percent of registrants completed the course, but more than 20,000 people submitted quiz answers in each of its first five weeks. If some knowledge is better than none, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Neither, it goes without saying, is the expansion of cardiac-resuscitation know-how to the roughly 6,000 pupils who made it to the end of that course.

On the other hand, it’s quite possible that many of those students knew CPR already. In November, Ezekiel Emanuel, the Diane v.S. Levy and Robert M. Levy University Professor and vice provost of global initiatives, published survey data in Nature indicating that most MOOC users are highly educated to begin with. A July 2013 survey of about 34,000 MOOC users in 200 countries and territories found that the courses are not primarily serving disadvantaged people who lack traditional educational opportunities, as was widely hoped, but instead catering largely to affluent young men seeking to augment their educations.

Eighty-three percent of the respondents reported already having a two- or four-year post-secondary degree—a rate that dwarfs the average college-attainment rate in the general population. Furthermore, almost 80 percent of the MOOC users in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa came from the wealthiest 6 percent of the population.

“Far from realizing the high ideals of their advocates,” Emanuel wrote, “MOOCs seem to be reinforcing the advantages of the ‘haves’ rather than educating the ‘have-nots.’ Better access to technology and improved basic education are needed worldwide before MOOCs can genuinely live up to their promise.”

Yet when Emanuel, along with Penn Global colleagues Gayle Christensen and Brandon Alcorn C’09 SPP’15, narrowed the focus to business-school MOOCs in a subsequent study, a somewhat rosier picture emerged. Analyzing data from about 875,000 students enrolled in nine MOOCs offered by Wharton, the team uncovered what an MBA type might call a win-win dynamic.

“MOOCs run by elite business schools do not appear to threaten existing programs,” they concluded, “but seem to attract students from whom traditional business offerings are out of reach.”

Some 78 percent of students registered for the Wharton MOOCs came from outside the United States. Nearly half of those hailed from developing nations. By comparison, brick-and-mortar full-time MBA programs typically enroll an average of 45 percent foreign students, while Executive MBA programs attract about 14 percent foreign students.

Among American registrants, foreign-born US residents are overrepresented, and the majority of them already held a graduate or professional degree. The unemployment rate among registrants was also higher than among the general populace, suggesting that people may be turning to MOOCs to boost their resumés. Finally, the business MOOCs enrolled a bigger fraction of underrepresented minorities than is typically the case in elite American MBA programs.

“Online business courses appear for now to be expanding the overall reach of business education,” the researchers concluded. “Even in their infancy, business MOOCs from Wharton are reaching groups of students most commonly targeted for outreach by business schools: working professionals outside the United States as well as foreign-born and underrepresented minorities in the United States.”

In that light, one of Penn’s latest additions to the Coursera catalogue makes plenty of sense: a four-week primer, taught in English and also featuring English subtitles, called “Applying to U.S. Universities.”—T.P.

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