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What Achieving Digital Equity Using Online Courses Could Look Like

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By John Hansen and Justin Reich

For almost a century, technology enthusiasts have promised that new innovations can democratize education. In 1932, Benjamin Darrow, founder of the Ohio School of the Air, argued that radio would “make universally available the services of the finest teachers.” In 1961, the Ford Foundation’s Teaching by Television report declared that TV would provide poor students with “instruction of a higher order than they might otherwise receive.” In our own time, advocates of online learning promise to level the educational playing fields with massive open online courses, MOOCs.

The most compelling evidence for the democratizing power of MOOCs comes from a new generation of Horatio Alger stories, where the video lecture replaces the bootblack’s cloth. In 2013, the New York Times Magazine told the story of Battushig Myanganbavar, the “Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” who earned a perfect score on MIT’s first MOOC as a high school student in Mongolia and subsequently gained admission to MIT. This year, MIT has featured the story of Ahaan Rungta, a 16 year old Freshman, born in Calcutta, who has completed 55 courses on edX and MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Rungta’s father is the manager of the Indian restaurant in the MIT student center.

As powerful as these stories are, the extensive data collected by MOOCs tell another story. While there are extraordinarily talented students from all backgrounds who succeed in MOOCs, those from more affluent and better-educated neighborhoods are more likely to enroll and succeed in these courses. Moreover, the relationship between socioeconomic resources and course success is strongest among teens and college-aged students, exactly the ages where we might hope that online courses could provide a new entry point into higher education.

In a recent study published in Science, we found that young students enrolling in HarvardX and MITx courses live in neighborhoods where the median income is 38% higher than typical American neighborhoods. Among teenagers who register for a HarvardX course, those with a college-educated parent have nearly twice the odds of finishing compared to students whose parents did not complete college.


Even when online learning is free, people with greater financial, social, and technological resources are better able to take advantage of these new opportunities. Technologies that truly democratize education should disproportionately benefit the students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access high-quality learning experiences. Compared to previous broadcast technologies, online learning has a key advantage: the ability to personalize learning experiences at a large scale. From the reams of clickstream data collected by online learning environments, we can target additional supports and scaffolds to the students who need them most.

Two very different and promising lines of research might form the foundation of a new set of design principles for digital equity. Research on stereotype threat has shown that some of the barriers that disadvantaged students face are psychological in nature: subtle cues in a learning environment can trigger anxieties in marginalized students. Researchers at Stanford have identified achievement gaps between students from developed and developing countries in MOOCs, and early findings suggest that simple exercises to encourage a sense of belonging in an online community can substantially reduce those gaps.

These experimental approaches can be paired with social services that have a long history of effectiveness. In St. Louis, the nonprofit LaunchCode offers a physical community and job placement services for students taking HarvardX’s Introduction to Computer Science class, CS50x. By providing additional human supports to underserved students with great potential, LaunchCode joins a tradition of programs from Hull House to the Boys and Girls Clubs that are essential to social mobility in America.

MOOCs and other forms of online learning don’t yet live up to their promise to democratize education, but we shouldn’t abandon those efforts. Closing education’s digital divide is exactly the kind of grand challenge that the world’s greatest universities should be tackling head on.

John Hansen is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Justin Reich is executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. 

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