Who signs up for a MOOC, and why?

After the first 5,000 people or so had signed up for “Understanding Media by Understanding Google,” the MOOC I’ll be teaching later this year, I knew I needed to start getting a better sense of who might be sitting in my virtual classroom and added a link to a brief survey in their Coursera welcome e-mail.  Over the last several weeks, about 12% of subsequent enrollees have taken the optional survey, and now that I have a thousand responses I thought I’d take a look at what these numbers might tell me about the 13,000-plus people who have registered after reading the early description.

For example, since the titular objective is “understanding media,” which media do these prospective students from around the world currently rely upon (including the obvious one)?


Given the Google-centric nature of the course, I thought it might be good to know how savvy the students believe they are. In the most cheerful possible terms, of course:

How would you rate yourself as a Web user?

  • Geek — My friends go to me first to solve their problems
  • Expert — I always know what I’m doing and usually don’t need much help
  • Solid citizen — I usually know what I’m doing, but sometimes need a geek
  • Learner — I think I know what I’m doing, but want to know as much as my friends


And what about the students’ experience with this form of education? Granted that the MOOC idea is said to be about 5 years old by now, would I be trying to meet the expectations of MOOC veterans or be leading new students into an entirely new milieu? Turns out that more than half at this point have yet to take such a course, and nearly 9 out of 10 have taken 2 or fewer.


But perhaps most of interest to me, and in order to ease comparisons better rendered as a table than a graphic, was understanding what might be motivating them to click the ENROLL NOW button in the first place.Overall, I find myself most intrigued by the implications of big numbers in the “not very important” column.

Relative importance

How important was the following factor when you chose to enroll?VeryQuiteModeratelySlightlyNot
The subject is relevant to my academic field
I'm curious about online courses
I want to earn a credential for my CV / résumé
It's offered by a prestigious university
The classes teaches ideas that will help my job / career3663001779266
I want a different perspective on a subject I'm interested in3943701525431

New point to ponder: Given this profile, will these students be less likely to engage with an idea . . . or more?

This week we’re filming a promotional video.  Need to edge closer to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s reported median enrollment: 33,000.

About Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development, Chicago Tribune.