High MOOC completion rates in developing countries

Developing world learners use massive open online courses, or MOOCs, very differently than their developed world counterparts, according to a new study by University of Washington researchers in the United States.

The research shows that the low completion rates and homogeneous demographics found among users in the United States and similar countries do not hold true across the world.

In fact, many of the study’s findings contradict commonly held assumptions about MOOCS in the context of less developed countries.

However, these countries also have their own barriers to online learning to overcome, the study found.

Based on surveys of 1,400 MOOC users and 2,250 non-users aged 18 to 35 in Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa, the study describes itself as the first to include multiple MOOC providers in the developing world and the first to analyse individuals not using MOOCs.

The research was conducted by the Technology and Social Change Group, or TASCHA, at the University of Washington’s Information School.

It is a central component of the Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative launched by the United States Agency for International Development or USAID, and CourseTalk, the world’s largest source for reviews of online classes. Managed by non-profit IREX, the initiative aims to harness the power of MOOCs to help young adults across the developing world grow successful careers.

Some the key findings of the research include:
  • • Low- and middle-income populations make up 80% of MOOC users in contrast to wealthier populations reported elsewhere.

  • • More than four out of five MOOC users only have basic or intermediate level ICT skills, challenging the belief that MOOCs are predominantly taken by people with higher level skills.

  • • 49% of MOOC users received certification in a MOOC, and another 30% completed a course. This is far above the single-digit rates reported elsewhere.

  • • Women are more likely than men to complete a MOOC or obtain certification.

  • • The main motivations of MOOC users were found to be in gaining specific job skills (61%), preparing for additional education (39%), and obtaining professional certification (37%).

  • • Among non-users, lack of time (50%) was by far the largest barrier to MOOC participation. Lack of computer access (4%) or skills (2%) was NOT found to be a barrier.
“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.”

In fact, less than half of the MOOC users surveyed had completed college, compared to the 71% found in a 2015 study of edX users that had nearly a third of respondents based in the US. In the developing world study, a quarter of MOOC users reported high school as their highest level of education finished.

Nearly 80% of all MOOC users said they had completed at least one course. While the rate of students in the US and Europe completing at least one MOOC is not known, individual course completion rates in those regions hover between just 5% and 10%.

Potential for increasing uptake

A statement on TASCHA’s website added that “the potential for increasing MOOC uptake and improving employment opportunities, especially for more marginalised populations, is clearly there”.

TASCHA urged action “since the data shows that MOOC users are savvy in using the knowledge they’ve gained from MOOCs to advance their professional aspirations”.

The high completion and certification rates found may be tied to the fact that users in the three countries take MOOCs primarily to advance their education or career, rather than for enjoyment.

Users in more economically-advanced countries have tended to report higher levels of learning for personal fulfilment — for instance, a study of Coursera users in which two-thirds of subjects living in developed countries found more students enrolled “just for fun” than any other reason.

“At CourseTalk, we were heartened to learn that MOOCs are successfully reaching less educated students in developing countries — and with remarkably high certification rates,” said CourseTalk CEO Don Loonam. “This brings us one step closer to fulfilling the original promise of MOOCs: expanding access to affordable, quality education to anyone around the world.”

Significant barriers

Among the most significant barriers inhibiting MOOC use in Colombia, the Philippines and South Africa is lack of awareness of such courses, the study found. Some 79% of non-users surveyed had never heard of a MOOC. Researchers did not discover any demographic differences between that group and non-users who were familiar with MOOCs.

Among those non-users who were familiar, by far the most common reason for not enrolling was lack of time – it was the number one reason in all three countries.

The study debunked the commonly held belief that technology is the main hurdle facing MOOC adoption in developing countries. Among respondents, technical reasons for non-use were rarely cited. Factors such as high Internet cost (6%), low computer skills (2%), and lack of computer access (4%) were among the least-frequently mentioned.

“In each of the countries studied, awareness was the determining factor in whether people enrolled in MOOCs,” said Scott Andersen, director of the Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative. “Governments and businesses can capitalise on this new form of educational outreach by encouraging lifelong learning, supporting the development of contemporary skills, and recognising certification.”