Geography of MOOC demographics

Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version.

It is important also to note that MOOCs have successfully connected participants from across the globe. EdX speaks to this strategic motive on its website: “Along with offering online courses, the institutions will use edX to research how students learn and how technology can transform learning–both on-campus and worldwide” [emphasis added].  So where are MOOC participants located?  What are the factors that contribute to or challenge the global reach of MOOCs?

The map below provides a glimpse into global demographics for the course Internet History, Technology, and Security, taught by Charles Severance, Associate Professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, through Coursera. Severance conducted his own survey to determine the geographic distribution of participants:


Figure 3-4

Severance describes his methodology, noting its limitations: “This data is from a survey conducted of the students enrolled (4701 responses) in the Internet, History, Technology and Security course taught on Coursera on July-September 2012.  The data was open-ended responses to the question, ‘Where are you taking the course from (State / Country)?’ The open-ended user responses were submitted to the Google Maps geocoding API and as such likely to be imperfect and/or approximate.  There was no cleaning of the data either before or after submitting it to the Google geocoding API.  All data including location label displayed when you hover over a marker comes from the geocoding API and its approximation of the location – no end-user entered data is present on this page.”  [NOTE: This map is Copyright CC][1]

Though a rough estimate of a sampling of data from one course, the map illustrates general views into the demographics of MOOC participation at the global scale. As expected, there is heavy representation from North America, Europe, and South Asia, specifically India. There is slightly less participation from South America and East Asia.  Participation from African nations and Central Asia is sparse. This correlates with more general data provided by Coursera on the geographic representation of participation in its MOOCs:


Figure 3-5

Kris Olds, in “On the territorial dimensions of MOOCs,” notes the importance of using geospatial representations of MOOC usage and demographic data on access to Internet and telecommunications to understand regional and national capacity to participate in such courses. He believes forwarding a monolithic “notion of a singular ‘global’ or ‘international’ category” to MOOC participation is misguided. Internet access and telecommunications bandwidth is clearly increasing, but there are significant limitations even within wired countries.[2]



Figure 3-6


Figure 3-7

Olds also points out that the disciplinary content of MOOCs is worth reviewing when examining geospatial demographics. For example, many of the first MOOCs were on information technology, specifically computer science and software development—topics with a global reach.  Other topics may be of more regional or local interest. When Tucker Balch, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, taught Computational Investing, Part I, via Coursera in Fall 2012, the overwhelming proportion of those completing the MOOC were from the United States.[3] Balch surveyed participants and collected responses from 2,350 of his 53,205 students:


Figure 3-8

[1] Charles Severance, “Visualizing the Geographic Distribution of My Coursera Course,” September 30, 2012,

[2] Kris Olds, “On the Territorial Dimensions of MOOCs,” Inside Higher Ed, December 3, 2012,

[3] Tucker Balch, “MOOC Student Demographics,” The Augmented Trader, January 27, 2013,


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