MOOCs have emerged as a disruptive force in ‘traditional’ higher education. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course allowing unlimited student enrollment through the internet. Coursera is one leading provider, encouraging participants to, “Take the world’s best courses, online, for free.”
In a meetup held at Northwestern University on October 17th, four of the major functions of universities were identified: education, credentialing, socialization and research. The conversation touched on how MOOCs may be unbundling some of these roles by offering education and credentialing, while clearly not addressing others, i.e., research and socialization.
Teri Lucie Thompson, co-author of Tuning into Mom: Understanding America's Most Powerful Consumer and Senior Vice President of University Relations at the University of Arizona comments:
"The ‘spoils’ of MOOC growth will go those who segment the market most effectively. While is too early to say, it will be interesting to see which learner segments find value in the MOOCs over the next few years."
What type of student or learner is attracted to a MOOC? Based on the information we’ve seen thus far, there appear to be several segments of adult learners who represent, in some cases, a new audience for education programs, such as the Coursera MOOCs. These learners are 25+ and not focused on earning a college degree. This group may become more important as NCES projects age 25+ adult learner enrollments to grow at a faster rate (20%) between 2010 and 2020 than enrollments among the under 25 segment (11%).
Here are the adult learner segments:
Segment One: Exploring Personal Developers
These learners are interested in learning more about a particular topic for personal development (not work related). According to one recent survey, this could be as many as 39% of students taking MOOCs.
Segment Two: Professional Development Driven
A large group, estimated between 24-49%, which may have several subgroups:
- Job Skill Focused Learners- seeking specific, immediately useful skills and credentials to get a job, to facilitate a job change, etc..
- Refreshers- seeking to update their knowledge and keep their professional credentials current. Some professions, such as doctors, have ongoing education requirements.
- Career Advancers- this segment is made up of those seeking certification and advanced degrees in their current field, often needed to advance to the next level. Other sources of education include Executive Education Programs, MBA programs, etc. Most likely these are not significantly represented in MOOCs.
Segment Three: Shared Experience Seekers
This segment is taking the class as a shared experience with a friend, an older child or other individual that they want to connect with. This is likely a small segment today, between 1-5% of the market
Segment Four: Value Driven
This group, estimated at around 16-26%, chooses to take the classes because they are free or cost much less. Pavel Lepin has taken around 30 free MOOCs seeing it as a, “Once in a lifetime opportunity...might end sometime soon.” Georgia Tech’s new paid master’s in computer science MOOC costs $6,000, as contrasted with $44,000 in residential student costs.
In addition to age 25+ and not seeking a traditional degree, what are the adult learner demographics? Obviously the demographics will vary considerably with the course topic, but initially it seems many of the adult students are often “Education Heavy Users.” For example, many of them already have at least a bachelor’s degree, and many have more education. In one survey, 44% of the students had a master’s degree or doctorate. Another sample had over 60% of students with a master’s degree or higher. In another class, many of the students were professional educators, again with advanced degrees. If these statistics hold up, then this better educated group appears to be a ‘heavy user,’ who chooses to spend their time (and, likely, ultimately money) in the pursuit of additional knowledge. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Sebastian Thrun, Udacity CEO says, “There is a really huge number of people in this country that would love to get an education while having a job or raising a family or staying at home.”
Understanding the adult 25+ segments and capturing the most attractive ones (e.g., the Heavy User) can allow universities to attract new students and strengthen connections with alumni. Since these adult 25+ segments may be attracted to different sorts of classes/programming and might prefer different learning styles when compared to their younger counterparts, taking the time to understand their needs and tailor offerings accordingly can help to differentiate an institution or a MOOC provider.