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MOOC learners in developing countries focused on career development

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A new study of online learners in Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa finds that MOOC users in these markets have a much strong career development orientation than their counterparts in North America or Europe
  • Students in developing countries are also much more likely to complete an online course and obtain formal certification
  • The population of MOOC learners in developing countries is more diverse than in developed countries, and is largely composed of low- and middle-income students

If an interesting new study from the University of Washington is any indication, MOOC students in developing countries have a very different profile than their counterparts in North America or Europe. They also bring distinct motivations – especially with respect to career development – and are more likely to complete their studies.

The prevailing wisdom about MOOC students (and fair enough because most of these observations are based in a number of credible studies of online learners) has it that registrants tend to be young, employed, well-educated, and male. And in the relatively short history of MOOCs, most of those students have come from North America or Europe.

But less is known about MOOC students in developing countries, and the team from the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington set out to try and fill this gap with a study that encompassed both users and non-users of MOOCs in three emerging markets: Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa.

“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 TASCHA team surveyed a sample of 1,400 MOOC users aged 18–35 across the three countries, and a further cohort of 2,254 non‐users (also aged 18–35 years). The survey responses were then rounded out with interviews with government officials, educators, and employers in all three countries.

Study sample details across all three countries. Source: TASCHA

Who are these students?

TASCHA found that neither income nor technical expertise are barriers to MOOC study in developing countries. “Income level does not determine young people’s engagement with MOOCs,” notes the study report. Eight in ten MOOC learners in the survey were low or middle-income, in contrast to the relatively higher-income students that are more typically observed in North America or Europe.

Most respondents (70%) were 30 years old or younger. One in four had completed high school, another third had completed vocational studies, and the rest had a first university degree or better. Most were also either employed (60%) or enrolled in school (36%).

Interestingly, the MOOC users in the study were not characterised by advanced computer skills. Eight in ten had only basic or intermediate-level technical skills, a finding that challenges the another prevailing idea that MOOCs are for those with more advanced information technology skills. Indeed, the study found that, among non-users, lack of awareness was by far the biggest barrier to MOOC studies (79% had never heard of MOOCs). Among those non-users who did know something about MOOCs, most (50%) were prevented simply by a lack of time to pursue their studies.

The population of MOOC users in the three study countries skewed younger, and was from more diverse educational backgrounds, compared to learners in developed countries.

Why are they studying?

When it comes to developed countries, the report points out, “Students enrol in MOOCs with different goals in mind. Satisfying their curiosity and advancing their jobs are two of the most common reasons. While participants enrol with the specific intention to obtain a certificate, or even multiple certificates, many others are less interested in working through a full course.” That is, students in developed countries commonly enrol in MOOCs out of curiosity, personal interest, or for the sake of sampling the course material. It is also generally observed that such students tend to complete their courses far less often.

In contrast, TASCHA found that learners in developing countries were much more focused on career development. More than six in ten (61%) said their main motivation for taking an online course was to gain specific job skills. Another 37% were trying to obtain a specific professional certification, and another notable group (39%) said their main reason for signing up was to prepare for further education.

Main motivations for taking a MOOC, respondents from Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa. Source: TASCHA

The study found some variance in motivation by income level: “In terms of income, the top three categories for low‐income users are learning skills to succeed in a new job (57%), preparing for professional certification or exam (54%), and finding a new job (53%). For medium‐income users, the top three are learning skills to succeed in a new job (50%), earning a promotion in current job (49%), and starting a new business. However, for high‐income users, the top three are starting a new business (44%), finding a new job (43%), and learning skills to succeed in a new job (42%). Thus, the priorities of different income categories do seem to differ slightly in how they perceive the benefits of MOOCs. However, the general trend is consistently that users with low incomes rate MOOCs as more important in every category than those with medium or high incomes.”

Given the very strong focus of these learners on career and/or further education goals, perhaps it is not surprising that the study also found that completion and certification rates of learners from developing countries far exceed those of their counterparts in North America or Europe. Nearly half (49%) of MOOC users in the survey received at least one certification, and another 30% completed at least one course.

Admittedly, data on completion rates in developed countries is a little fuzzy but most estimates settle on course completions in the range of 5-10% of all MOOC students. The completion rates observed for learners in the Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa far exceed these norms, and completion rates were higher still – an attention-grabbing 70% – among the currently employed, underscoring once again the strong career orientation among MOOC learners in the study.

Also reflecting the strong employability orientation that we see across the survey results, most students in developing countries were enrolled in computer sciences, language studies, or business and management courses. “In Colombia and the Philippines, close to 40% of users enrol in computer science MOOCs compared to only 25% in South Africa, with a third of women in the first two countries reporting enrolling in these courses. Language courses are more popular in Colombia and the Philippines, with almost a third of users engaging in a language MOOC, compared with only 9% in South Africa.”

Most responding students indicated that they found their way to their MOOC courses via online searches, recommendations from their current teachers or professors, or through word-of-mouth referrals from friends or family.

These discovery paths, along with the study’s findings regarding the profile and motivations of MOOC learners in developing countries, open up some interesting questions for international educators. Could MOOCs represent a new and viable channel for reaching a larger field of prospects in developing economies? One of the commonly accepted strategic rationales for MOOCs, from an institution’s point of view, is that it can enhance the institutional brand, introduce the institution or school to a wider field of students, and open up new recruitment channels for online programmes, transnational education pathways, or studies abroad.

The findings from the TASCHA study certainly add some weight to this argument and offer some new insights on the expanding population of MOOC learners worldwide for educators and marketers alike.

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