Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

MOOCS as Accelerators of Social Mobility? A Systematic Review

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

MOOCS as Accelerators of Social Mobility? A Systematic Review

Article excerpt

Introduction

Whereas education can be perceived as a means to social mobility, there are still significant barriers towards the equality of educational opportunities (e.g., Konstantinovskiy, 2012; Triventi, 2013). With the upswing of Internet, online education has evolved as a new instrument to reach those less able to enroll in formal institutions (Kuriloff, 2005). Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) developed as a specific form of online education, comprising well-structured, mainly university-level, programs. Since MOOCs charge small or no fees and can take up unlimited amounts of students, they are expected to alleviate barriers to higher education (Rohs & Ganz, 2015). More specifically, MOOCs seem to provide viable alternatives for higher education in developing countries where access to education is relatively limited (World Bank Group, 2012) or in countries where annual tuition fees can exceed 10,000 dollars (Usher & Medow, 2010).

However, empirical evidence has shown mixed results with regards to the social mobility in MOOCs. On the one hand, research has demonstrated that MOOCs enable less privileged groups to improve their career trajectory against lower investments than in formal higher education (Zhenghao, Alcorn, Christensen, Eriksson, Koller, & Emanuel, 2015). On the other hand, studies suggested that barriers to enrollment in MOOCs are relatively higher for underprivileged individuals (Yanez, Nigmonova, & Panichpathom, 2014) and that less privileged populations are underrepresented in certain MOOCs (e.g., Emanuel, 2013). Even though these findings seem to contradict, it could be that outcomes with regards to social equality depend on the specific characteristics of the MOOC under study. Considering the large diversity of subjects, pedagogies and languages in MOOCs (Shah, 2014), studying a wider variety of MOOCs might help to identify larger trends of social inequalities. Reviews on MOOC literature, for example, have indicated that especially South-East Asian and African learners are in minority in the MOOC population and that linguistic or cultural difficulties could be the source of these inequalities (Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams, 2013a; Rolfe, 2015). Moreover, one review indicated that inequalities in MOOC participation could be caused by an uneven occupancy of electronic equipment, Internet and digital literacies (Valentin, 2015). Even though these reviews identified and explained social inequalities in MOOCs, they did not systematically evaluate the scope and the quality of the existing empirical evidence and to what extent these could support general conclusions. These reviews neither compared the social implications of MOOCs against other forms of education, which hampers an intelligible interpretation on the impact of MOOCs in the educational landscape. Addressing these issues in a systematic review will help to understand whether, which and how MOOCs currently enhance educational opportunities for those otherwise underprivileged.

Theoretical background

In order to understand social inequalities and to define privileges in formal education, the social- and cultural reproduction theory forms an intelligible framework (Bourdieu, 1973; Bourdieu, 1986). This theory explains educational participation, success and attainment by different forms of "capital". On the one hand, it is acknowledged that economic capital, in terms of financial investments and the ability to spend time off paid labor, is an important condition for educational participation (Bourdieu, 1986). Social and cultural capital, on the other hand, represent the knowledge, social ties and cultural conceptions that make it easier to function in educational institutions (Bourdieu, 1973). These latter forms of capital constitute more hidden conditions for educational success, as these tend to be conveyed within families and internalized at an early age (Bourdieu, 1986). Based on these assumptions, those who are raised in culturally and socially dominant contexts and possess a solid financial background could be regarded as privileged in formal education sectors. …

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