The overarching goal of this project was to investigate if Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can help economically disadvantaged populations build the skills necessary to find employment and to achieve upward mobility.
Working with graduate students Bingxin Chen, Michelle Fiesta, Brian (Zengguang) Wang, Sandy Ng, and Pablo Quinones, UMSI Assistant Professor of Information Tawanna Dillahunt and Research Professor Stephanie Teasley assessed the activities and performances of U-M Coursera learners who stated that they were unable to afford to pursue a formal education based on a demographic survey submitted at the beginning of each course.
Researchers sought to understand how these students might use their experiences to either gain employment skills or better position themselves for place-based education by addressing the following questions:
- What do students who are unable to afford higher education struggle with most in U-M Coursera courses when compared to students taking these courses for non-financial reasons?
- How do performance and engagement activities of students unable to afford formal education compare or contrast to more affluent students?
- What types of courses are needed to increase student employment opportunities for these populations?
Initial qualitative findings suggest that the cost of education beyond a bachelor’s degree can be prohibitive and that individuals may be taking advantage of MOOCs as a result. The study also revealed that learners 25 years and older with less than an associate’s degree (primarily non-students) who reported an inability to afford formal education were significantly underrepresented in MOOCs, but completed more courses with distinction than other learners.
The project revealed that participants taking MOOCs based on affordability and enhanced employment opportunities presented very limited tangible evidence of employment mobility as a result of taking MOOCs.
Researchers identified four categories of learners: those leveraging MOOCs to transition to new fields, for promotion in current fields, for new positions in current fields, and as a refresher, or a way to stay current in their existing field.
Though these all represented indirect benefits to employment, none of the outcomes describe actual employment. Interview participants also expressed a desire to have more portfolio, or project-based courses and office hours to aid in networking with course instructors and other students.
Lastly, in order to achieve more tangible outcomes, the results of this research suggest a need for awareness of MOOCs to be increased among employers.