Can MOOCs Be Women’s Entryway into STEM?

Many studies have examined why women don’t persist in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in traditional college settings, but little or no research exists on the low numbers of women who enroll and persist in MOOCs in those subjects.

Cultural stereotypes associated with STEM – that it has a chilly work environment, that researchers work in isolation, and that they are nerdy, geeky, and (mostly white) men –  continue to persist, and often dissuade women from following a STEM path.

Studies, including one by the lead author here, support the effectiveness of early outreach efforts, role models, and a support system in increasing women’s interest and goal attainment in STEM fields. We have a slightly different question. We’ve been wondering if MOOCs can be one way for women to find their way back into STEM (or identify an interest in STEM fields for the first time). Can MOOCs be designed in a way that provides avenues for women to explore careers, find a support system if they don’t have one, and enable them to believe they can be successful?

Patrice’s research was on nontraditional women returning to school to study in a STEM field. Each woman in her study initially studied STEM, but, without a support system and meaningful goals, didn’t persist. Later in life there was a “tipping point” where all the pieces were finally in harmony, and they were motivated to return to school to complete a STEM degree. Each of these women experienced a “critical event” that enabled her to see how a STEM degree could allow her to pursue goals that had meaning for her, perhaps guidance from a mentor, or a connection to a support system. Can a MOOC be a similar tipping point?

Mathematics came easy for the women in Patrice’s study. They had a passion for it, yet they didn’t remember a single mathematics or science teacher reaching out to them or suggesting they pursue STEM. So many women may start a college career in engineering but become disillusioned and don’t finish. Or they earn their degree but do not persist in the field (like both of us writing this article). What such women are lacking might be the guidance of a role model, and experiences in their chosen STEM field that would have resulted in developing meaningful STEM-related goals based on valued outcomes. Or they may have experienced microaggressions (described by Wikipedia as “casual degradation of any socially marginalized group”) by their male and female colleagues and professors, or society as a whole along the way that pushed them out. (See Maha’s story of why she left computer science). Can MOOCs help women, with years of lived experiences, choose to return to school to study in STEM fields and attain their goals? Is there value for women and for STEM to have more women in STEM careers?

The ratio of female to male learners participating in MOOCs is approximately 1:4.  This ratio is surprisingly close to that of female-to-male STEM students. (Women earned 18 percent  of the computer science degrees and 19 percent of engineering degrees in 2014.)  Here are recent statistics on female learners in computer science MOOCs:

  • 23 percent in HarvardX CS50
  • 14 percent  in MITX CS188.1x (artificial intelligence) and 17 percent in 6.00x (intro to computer science)
  • 20 percent in Coursera’s computer science courses
  • 26 percent in an Edraak sample of five STEM MOOCs (overall course enrollments in Edraak MOOCs are 42 percent female; completion rates by females are higher than by men)

More women are choosing STEM fields after high-school graduation, but not persisting through college, graduate school, or in STEM careers. According to The National Center for Women & Information Technology, 56 percent of women with STEM expertise will leave or change careers. Enabling more women to persist in these areas of study and work is important. Today’s world is technology-based, with many high-paying jobs requiring a background in mathematics or science. If women are to be independent and self-sufficient, they must be able to support themselves and raise themselves to a higher educational and economic status. However, for women to pursue STEM careers, they must overcome the barriers they face related to traditional disincentives for women in mathematics so that they can continue to higher and more advanced mathematics classes. Doing so will give them greater access to high-paying STEM careers and will influence the focus of areas such as research, innovation and new product development. Different perspectives add value, allow for discussion and enable people to see things from multiple perspectives.

So many women have all the pieces of the puzzle. They just need some guidance as to how to put them all together. Can a MOOC be that critical event that enables a woman to finally see what the puzzle should look like at the end? In what ways can we incorporate into MOOCs the “mentor model” and activities that will enable women not just to develop an interest in STEM, but meaningful career goals?

As we continue to think about the added value of MOOCs and how to engage more women in STEM, let’s consider how we can we can support women to succeed, both online and off, for all courses. Here are some of the ways:

1 – Work-life balance. From personal experience, Maha has seen how Arab women (particularly those with young children) yearn to learn online because of how difficult it is to travel or even commute locally for study. But not everyone can immediately afford an online degree, and some may be interested in learning for its own sake. MOOCs offer a free and low-risk entry into lifelong learning for these women, if they have the infrastructure and access. This highlights the importance of flexibility in MOOCs, like looser deadlines for assignments. If women are dropping out due to work-life issues, can flexibility in a MOOC increase the likelihood of completion? This is particularly important, given a recent study of 716 women working in technology fields, female technologists, 68 percent of whom left the field primarily because of motherhood bias—the assumption they would be less competent or committed because they were mothers. MOOCs have enormous potential for mothers as avenues for free lifelong learning. Flexibility in for-credit courses would also be welcome, but is much more complicated to achieve. In MOOCs it should be much easier to factor in this flexibility.

2 – Access. Many women don’t have access to an education due to a lack of financial means or geographic location. The value to our society of providing a means for women to learn cannot be overlooked. Because MOOCs are free and do not have entry requirements, they provide an avenue for someone to explore a field of interest without investing too much beyond their own time. They are not obligated to persist in a MOOC if they don’t like it (unlike something they pay for). Assuming women have access to the Internet infrastructure needed to access MOOCs, they can explore different disciplines before settling on the one they actually want to invest money in. So keeping MOOCs free is important.

3 – Self-efficacy. How well are women addressed or represented in STEM MOOCs? Are different ways of learning considered? Are there female role models (faculty members, teaching assistants, guest speakers)? Are there efforts to provide words of encouragement and opportunities to find meaning?

4 – Connectedness. We need to design MOOCs to enable women to develop a support system that will provide a helping hand when needed, words of encouragement, guidance and help with academic questions, and issues within and beyond the timeframe of the course. MOOCs need to have supportive discussion forums, and protections from abuse (see #6). They should offer a choice between being anonymous or named. They should encourage the use of social media for deepening connections with other students if desired.

5 – Curriculum. Whose knowledge is given preference? MOOCs should offer  content that transcends cultural differences and gender, or even better, that supports multiple cultures and genders (something often missing in STEM teaching).  MOOCs should create interest and motivation through meaningful activities that connect with students, like finding connections between what is learned in theory and real-world contexts.

6 – Microaggression. How do we design forums and other forms of social interaction in ways that eliminate subtle harassment and elevate women’s voices rather than intimidate or silence them?

Let’s encourage women to enroll in STEM MOOCs by designing them in ways that increase global connections, foster collaboration, and help women develop a support network.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Sherif Halawa of Edraak.org for providing the statistics for Edraak MOOCs.Patrice Torcivia Prusko is an instructional designer at Cornell University and a lecturer at SUNY Empire State College School for Graduate Studies. Her current research focuses on how the intersection of education and technology can increase engagement and persistence in STEM careers.Maha Bali is associate professor of practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, where she also teaches educational game design. She is also the co-founder of VirtuallyConnecting.org. She blogs at http://blog.mahabali.me and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Prof Hacker blog. She tweets at @bali_maha.


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