Addressing Barriers to Access in MOOCs: Critical Inquiry

  • Earl Einarson, Jeff Goodes, Leigh McCarthy, Susan Reid, Marta Samokishyn


Our team examined Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19, a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) delivered by Coursera and created by Steve Joordans, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and Director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab. Using this learning event as a case study, our team looked at the question: How do access barriers in MOOCs impact the “openness” and usage of MOOCs? 

We believe this beginner-level course was an appropriate choice to examine openness and accessibility as its subject is of almost-universal appeal during the Covid-19 pandemic (Anderson, 2020). MOOCs have been trumpeted as a learning medium accessible to all: “The appearance and proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs), which are open to any Internet user, in 2011 was supposed to completely erase the boundary of unequal access to acquiring and assimilating knowledge” (Semenova & Rudakova, 2016, p. 229). 

Digital Divide

Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19 is offered as a free course. This is laudable, but it must be noted that Coursera does derive a tangible benefit from learners’ registration: they are now Coursera members. This gives Coursera an opportunity to market other courses which are based on their freemium model: enrollment is free but other elements including official acknowledgement of course completion requires payment: “Paid courses provide additional quizzes and projects as well as a shareable Course Certificate upon completion” (Coursera, 2020). This is at odds to the original intention of MOOCs to offer educational offerings to people who are disadvantaged, since “MOOC advocates suggested that MOOCs could include people who were traditionally excluded from higher education” (Lambert, 2019). While over forty million people have taken its classes online, Coursera is far from an idealistic venture: the company has been valued at over one billion dollars (Lunden, 2019). 

Joordans’ Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19 offers an accessible learning experience on a number of fronts: 

    • it is relatively short requiring less than eight hours of effort; 
    • it is broken up into easily digestible parts; 
    • it uses plain language. 

The approach of the instructor is affable and disarming, which supports the inclusionary philosophy of MOOCs. However, there are questions to be asked about Mind Control’s delivery medium of online video. People’s access to bandwidth and devices continue to dictate educational opportunities in an increasingly digital age and global economy. Pulling back and looking at the larger digital divide created by socio-economic conditions, there are deeper issues that require policy changes to address historic economic and political disadvantage (Grace, Stratton, & Fonseca, 2019). Critics of MOOCs posit that advances in technology have not made them any more accessible, leaving the digital divide intact, despite promises to democratize education. “In fact, Coursera (2013), a leading producer of MOOCs, confirms this discrepancy reporting high participation in North and Central America and Europe, but no recognizable participation on the continent of Africa, West and Central Asia, and the post-Soviet states” (Mathews & Landorf, 2016, para. 29).

Content Divide

MOOCs are characterized by a content divide in terms of language access, and consequently inherent cultural biases. The course, Mind Control: Managing Your Mental Health During Covid-19 was just this week translated into Spanish, Hungarian, and Serbian (Personal communication, Steve Joordens, April 16, 2020). Such translations are done not professionally, but voluntarily by course participants, which lends itself to questions surrounding the authenticity and quality of the content that reaches non-English speakers: what is potentially lost in translation. A recent study conducted by Grace, Stratton, and Fonseca (2019) examined the creation of MOOCs’ language content, establishing that “English language courses account for over three-quarters of all courses available to users…[While] five languages of instruction, English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic account for 95 percent of all courses” (p. 2004).

Whereas “MOOC advocates suggested that MOOCs could include people who were traditionally excluded from higher education” (Lambert, 2020, Introduction, para. 2), Lambert identifies gaps in the literature with respect to MOOCs inclusion that deal with lack of research on vulnerable populations (unemployed, refugees), indigenous communities, as well as  gender inequalities in MOOC education (Lambert, 2020). Haber (2014) touches on some issues and controversies surrounding MOOCs (such as user demographics, high drop-out rates, credit-earning, demands for MOOCs, security, openness). According to Rohs and Ganz (2015), socio-economic status of learners has a direct impact on their educational practices and skills (including their self-directed capacities for learning) and can further deepen educational gaps.

MOOCs such as Mind Control offer the promise of delivering quality education to the masses: “The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet” (Pappano, 2012, p. 2). However, there are real issues which take some of the shine off this bright high-tech star. The digital divide that socio-economic conditions around the world have created, specific to online learning, have deep roots that require national policy changes to adequately address historic economic and political disadvantage (Grace, Stratton, & Fonseca, 2019). 



Anderson, P. (2020, March 28). High anxiety in America over COVID-19. Medscape. Retrieved from 

Coursera. (2020). About. Retrieved from

Grace, R., Stratton, C., & Fonseca, F. (2019). Content matters: How online language content  gives rise to digital divides. Social Science Quarterly, 100(6), 1999-2016. doi:10.1111/ssqu.12691 

Haber, J. (2014). MOOCs . Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Lambert, S. (2020). Do MOOCs contribute to student equity and social inclusion? A systematic review 2014–18. Computers & Education, 145. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103693

Lunden, Ingrid. (April, 2019). Online learning startup Coursera raises $64M at an $800M valuation. TechCrunch. Retrieved from:

Mathews, S., & Landorf, H. (2016). Developing a framework to evaluate the potential of global learning in MOOCs. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 28(4), 3-14. doi:10.1002/nha3.20157

Pappano, L. (2012, November 2). The year of the MOOC. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Rohs, M., & Ganz, M. (2015). MOOCs and the claim of education for all: A disillusion by empirical data. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(6), 1–19. doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v16i6.2033

Semenova, T. V., & Rudakova, L. M. (2016). Barriers to taking massive open online courses (MOOCs). Russian Education & Society, 58(3), 228-245.



One thought on “Addressing Barriers to Access in MOOCs: Critical Inquiry

  1. It sounds like the course you chose is not only interested but certainly circumstance appropriate. I suspect there are many people looking for exactly this type of course as we all work to accept the massive changes to our routine.
    Your statement that volunteers who have taken the course do the translations of the course and not professionals stood out for me. Having limited experience with working in multiple languages (a long time ago), it is easy to miss the meaning of a statement when translating. If these courses are going to keep their integrity intact, I would think there is a benefit to a professional handling the translation. Could the reason be that it costs money to have a professional look at the course and prepare it in another language? I do not know what kind of financial backing MOOCs have, and I think it would be an interesting path to explore.

    Thank you for you post.

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