Massive Open Online Courses as a tool to fight poverty.

by Alejandro Rodríguez-Pardo Montblanch

Themes: MOOCs / Education / Fight Poverty

The education level of a country and its GDP per capita are highly correlated[1]. Consequently, education has been identified by the United Nations (UN) as one of the essential pillars on which the fight against poverty is sustained (goal 4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals[2]). Among the most relevant innovations that have emerged in this field within the last 10 years are Massive Open Online Courses[3], or MOOCs. Generally, MOOC platforms provide non-official higher education (HE) certificates and job-oriented training from well-established education institutions at prices tens of times lower than their on-campus counterparts, without losing the quality of the learning material[4]. These factors have attracted an increasing number of learners over the years, reaching 100 million in 2019[5], and before the COVID19 pandemic it was expected to continue growing at a rate of 10% annually[6] – under the current situation, the number of MOOC users has sky-rocketed[7], and the long-term consequences are yet to be seen.

MOOCs have contributed to the democratisation of education, providing access to tertiary education from HE institutions to millions of people at a cheaper price and regardless of location. In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), the most important motivation to take up MOOCs is related to the job market; completion rates of MOOCs are higher compared to high-income countries (HICs) by roughly 30 percentage points; and reported tangible job benefits are largest among users in LMICs by 4 percentage points compared to HICs[8]. From the perspective of governments and local institutions in LMICs, the developing of their own MOOC platforms is an opportunity to provide HE to people in remote areas, reduce the overall cost of education and, because the majority of the most widely used MOOC platforms are Western-based and in English, tailor the curricula based on the local needs and educate in the local language.

In spite of the above, MOOCs are still underused. On the demand side, users from LMICs account for roughly 1/3 of all MOOC users[9], i.e. roughly 30 million people, of which 50% do not already hold a university degree and 40% are below the age of 25[10], totalling 6 million people. Based on the fact that current college attendance in lower-income countries is 24% over the students aged 19-25[11], and that the likelihood of attending college is double as much for people in the top tercile of income as those in the middle tercile[12], an estimate on the number of people who cannot attend college because of the lack of sufficient funds is roughly 50 million in LMICs. Although this estimate accounts only for one specific age range, it already shows that the potential market for MOOCs is several times its current use for learners who might wish to pursue a university degree but aren’t able to in LMICs.

On the offer side, most of the MOOCs are Western and in English. Only some countries have started their own platform, such as India with SWAYAM or México with MéxicoX, targeted at providing their own citizens with the skills they require for the current job market.

So, given the market chances, and the possibility of educating its own population, why aren’t MOOCs more widespread in LMICs? Several reasons can account for this. On the demand side, there is a lack of public awareness, issues with access to a computer and reliable internet, computer literacy, the social perception that MOOCs are for those who did not manage to get into university, a lack of official recognition, and a lack of courses in the specific areas needed locally and in the local language[12]. On the offer side, the entry costs are big: the technology must be made available, creating high-quality courses is demanding economically (tens or hundreds of thousands of US dollars[13]), and the competitors are already well-established and offer courses from the largest universities.

Despite this, while the entry costs might be large, the overall, mid- to long-term costs of education are reduced: once a course is running, the maintenance is minimal (only the salary of less than five teaching assistants and IT employees[13]) for a course with an unlimited number of students. Decision-makers should see MOOCs not only as an investment with long-term returns for the country, but also as a chance to provide the less economically able population sectors with the education and tools required in a fast-paced society. Solutions to making MOOCs readily available include ensuring access to computers and internet, and the creation of their own MOOC platforms. Even if governments cannot afford to create their own MOOC platform, official recognition and raising public awareness of the existing platforms can help.

In conclusion, MOOCs are being underused but steps can be taken to increase its usage. The above discussion has been limited to access to HE by those students who cannot attend university on-campus. However, it can be extended to the case of other levels of education (such as high schools or vocational education), as well as people of other socio-economic demographics. The issues listed above are still valid even during the COVID19 pandemic. The current situation has shown that new hybrid education models will likely prevail, bringing in the advantages of online learning (faster learning) and on-campus learning (related to soft skills). Therefore, it is to be expected that in the next few years we will witness a generalised spread of MOOC usage.




[3] Pappano, L. The Year of the MOOC. The New York Times (2012).

[4] See multiple MOOC platforms such as edX, Coursera, or Udemy. For example, edX has launched the Micromaster’s credentials with courses from MIT and other prestigious universities, where the lectures and learning material are exactly the same as on-campus and prices are generally less than 1000 US dollars.




[8] Garrido, M. et al. The Advancing MOOCs for Development Initiative. An examination of MOOC usage for professional workforce development outcomes in Colombia, the Philippines, and South Africa. TASCHA Group, University of Washington Information School.

[9] Liu, Z. et al. MOOC learner behaviour by country and culture; an exploratory analysis. 9th International Conference on Educational Data Mining, EDM 2016 – Raleigh, United States.



[12] Sanchez, A. et al. Accessing higher education in developing countries: Panel data analysis from India, Peru and Vietnam. World Development 109, 261 (2018).

[13] Hollands, F. M. et al. Resource Requirements and Costs of Developing and Delivering MOOCs. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 5, 114 (2014).