The only thing surprising about the majority of MOOC students already having a college degree is that anyone was surprised by this.
Taking a look at the numbers, there are clearly more people in the post-college age bracket of 23-100+ than there are 18-22 year olds. And given the self-motivation required to succeed in any independent learning experience, it is also no surprise that those who gravitate towards MOOCs already have experience succeeding in a pedantic learning environment.
But just as younger MOOCers fall into multiple categories, so too older learners need to be thought of as more than just a bunch of pajama-clad grads taking advantage of free courses in Python or Pynchon.
For instance, one of the first “markets” that Coursera focused on was in-service teachers where professional development (PD) is required for career advancement. In addition to giving teachers convenient online PD options, a teacher-training focus also meant Coursera’s Signature Track option (which charges $50-$100 for a validated certificate) could be compared to prices paid (usually by school systems) for more costly professional development classes.
Cost and convenience are also behind the growing interest in MOOCs as a component of corporate training. The caché of delivering a MOOC versus a generic online course has led to companies like the medical giant Johnson & Johnson to experiment with delivering educational material to surgeons (who can all be assumed to be over the age of 22) through an edX-enabled MOOC vs. YouTube.
Once it was discovered that MOOCs were not being taken by college-age kids as a substitute for increasingly costly residential degree programs, some anti-MOOC partisans latched onto this fact to claim MOOCs had failed to deliver the social benefits their cheerleaders promised. But is a substitute for college the only good thing massive open learning has to offer society?
For example, the vast majority of students taking HarvardX’s Improving Global Health course are not college-age kids but healthcare professionals working around the world to implement or improve programs that in one way or another save lives. And if someone returning to the workforce or changing careers late in life participates in one of Udacity re-skilling programs to find work or transition to a new career, this benefits not just the student but all of us who might otherwise have to underwrite his or her ongoing unemployment.
Even we lifelong learners not participating in MOOCs in a professional capacity look at massive open courses as offering more than just recreational learning. Using my own Degree of Freedom project as an example, I actually wanted to study philosophy at the undergraduate level, rather than enroll in a graduate program I wasn’t prepared for (and wasn’t necessarily interested in). And MOOCs provided me a way to do so in a disciplined, rigorous fashion, demonstrating that ongoing study of the liberal arts does not need to end when you are handed a diploma at the age of twenty-two.
These are the benefits MOOCs bring to older learners, but what might we older learners bring to MOOCs?
Drawing again from my One Year BA experience, when I was taking online Greek literature and Shakespeare classes last year, I noticed that the characterization of the Trojan War hero Achilles was very different in Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida than it was in Homer’s Iliad. And when I inquired about this discrepancy in one of the forums, a student provided me with the list of classical sources Shakespeare would have had at his disposal when writing his plays (sources that did not include Homer).
This is an example of the kind of students-teaching-students dynamic you see all the time in massive online classes. And given the scope and depth of experience older learners bring to their courses, the feedback students (including younger students) are likely to receive in a massive online classroom is going to be far more sophisticated than what students normally get form their peers in a traditional residential classroom.
As a final thought, if MOOCs are ever going to generate the kind of revenue they need to survive, the people footing the bill are likely to come from the demographic making up the majority of current MOOC students. So rather than fret over some kind of zero-sum competition between younger and older learners, those thinking about the future of massive open education should instead try to figure out how to ask those of us who can afford to underwrite some or all of MOOC experiment to start doing so.