On Friday, The Chronicle of Higher Education helpfully distilled some key metrics recently released by edX on their first sixteen MOOCs (8 Things You Should Know About MOOCs).

We thought our community might be interested in how the Saylor Academy stacks up (favorably, we believe). We will look specifically at points 1-4; because of our self-paced, registration-optional model and other factors, points 5-8 are either prohibitively difficult to measure or not relevant.

Keep in mind that our data are presented for the sake of interest — we are comparing apples and oranges here, in that our data differs from edX’s data in numbers, time, subject areas, enrollment model, survey response bias, and so forth. We have not really accounted for any of that. We talk about where our data comes from further below.

The numbers

Note: click on any image below for a larger version.

1. The overwhelming majority of MOOC students are male

Overall, just 24% of participants in the edX MOOCs are female. The Saylor Academy, while still apparently a majority-male student community, is much closer to parity: 44.8% of our students identify as female; another 2% identify as transgender.

Gender Distribution

2. MOOCs attract students who already have college degrees

The edX data shows a clear majority of students who hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher; the numbers appear to be close to two-thirds. In contrast, while the first and second modes of our dataset are undergraduate and graduate degrees, respectively, just 55% of our students have a Bachelor’s or higher. We have three charts here: the pie chart is just a simple binary comparison, the nine-category chart directly represents our dataset, and the six-category chart is given to match the categories used in the Chronicle piece.

Degree Distribution - Basic

Degree Distribution - Complex

Degree Distribution - Simplified - Horizontal



A common criticism of MOOCs is that they attract degreed students, with the implication that those students are merely dabbling in online learning. It has become increasingly clear, however, that degree-holders at all levels are returning to both formal and informal education in order to acquire necessary skills or facilitate career changes.

3. The median age of MOOC participants is 24

While our data have a similarly-shaped curve to the edX data, our typical age range appears to skew somewhat higher. Looking at the given charts in the Chronicle piece, there seem to be about 120,500 students in the 25-34 age range compared to about 132,000 students in the 19-24 age range. In contrast, we have 25% more students in the 25-34 age range than in the 19-24 range.


Age Distribution

Our slightly older audience may reflect the appeal of our courses to the “new” traditional student who is older, experienced in the job market, and unlikely to be (or to have been) a residential student at a four-year university.

4. One-third of MOOC participants are from North America

Very nearly one-half of our students are from the United States, and approximately 55% from the three biggest North American contributors of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Nevertheless, our community is broadly international, with representatives from virtually every country and territory in the world — and that with our courses and learning materials available only in English. (A third of our registered students do not speak English as their first language.)


With our credit pathways programs, a significant portion of our audience is necessarily North American or has access to the U.S. and Canadian university systems.  That said, our credit programs and our certificates more generally have broad appeal.

Where does the Saylor Academy data come from?

For (1) above, our data comes from a late-2013 voluntary survey of our community members, conducted in cooperation with the OER Research Hub. For (2), (3), and (4), the data comes from demographics questions we instituted for students who register with our site. Because the questionnaire is new and is given only to those who have logged in recently, we consider these demographics to be a fair representation of our most active students. For (4) only, the data for the chart is drawn from website analytics representing sessions of returning visitors only for the past calendar year; the numbers differ slightly from those of the demographics questionnaire but both sets of data generally comport well.

Your questions and thoughts are welcome!

2 thoughts on “How our community demographics stack against some MOOCs

  1. Hi Sean,

    I was already intrigued by the demographic breakdown from Chronicle’s article, but your corresponding article helps me understand there are discernible differences among MOOCs! What do you think attributes to the higher demographic of women participating in Saylor Academy?


    1. Hi Eda,

      Yours is a good question, and one we do not really have an answer to. But since you invite my opinion, I will take a shot! Although diverse in content, the MOOCs (or xMOOCs, if we are to honor the wishes of the connectivist inventors of the term) carry a bit of a Tech flavor, and despite great strides, there remains a gender imbalance in the tech universe as in many entrenched Web communities. I would expect that gender imbalances in xMOOCs also reflect gender gaps among some non-U.S. populations, where males may be more likely to have certain social and economic privileges that support access to and interest in xMOOCs. (Note: this is speculation, so I welcome a data scientist or merely a more informed person to kindly, patiently explain why I am simply wrong.)

      The Saylor Academy was created with a lot of diverse content — consistently, our English and Art History disciplines have been among the most popular, and I expect that our numbers might reflect women’s relatively greater existing equity in Arts and Humanities than in STEM.

      How we have identified our content may also have an effect — we have billed our materials variously as “college courses”, “knowledge equivalent of a degree”, “free college-level courses”, etc. We did not begin with an established education brand, staff with world-class public resumes, or any intriguingly low-level controversy, as a couple of the big MOOC providers did. Our growth has been largely through organic search and word of mouth. The people who find us are often looking for something else — just-in-time learning for life and work, affordable and flexible online degree programs, and curricular materials for homeschooled students; they find us in the mix and discover something they might not have otherwise been interested in. I think that those needs are probably pretty evenly balanced among men and women.

      I am tempted to hypothesize that, taken collectively, women are also actively seeking to obtain equity in historically male-dominated fields (business, math, science, engineering, etc.), all of which they can find at Saylor Academy, but such a change would surely impact the MOOCs as well as us. Maybe the difference, frankly, is numbers. Within our smaller community, a relatively small number of “active seekers” can more easily bring about gender parity at Saylor than at edX. That’s the hypothesis I like best at this moment, but I had to write the previous paragraphs to get there.

      Finally, as a responsible critical thinker and as a person who passed Intro Stats, I feel compelled to suppose that our gender balance may be correlated with other features of our population (age, education, employment status, etc.) and ultimately tied to some causative factor hidden behind one of those demographics.

      In short…I have no idea why women participate in the Saylor Academy in relatively high numbers, but I am both pleased and proud that such is the case 🙂

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