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.