Addressing Barriers to Access in MOOCs: Critical Inquiry


Earl Einarson, Jeff Goodes, Leigh McCarthy, Sue Reid, and 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 & Education145. 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 Learning16(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 & Society58(3), 228-245.

6 Replies to “Addressing Barriers to Access in MOOCs: Critical Inquiry”

  1. Great post! I really enjoyed reading your critical inquiry on the digital and content divide of MOOCs.

    My first experience with MOOCs was with Coursera. I recently enrolled in a course called “How to teach online” and found it AMAZING!

    Although it did not have a translation option, however, it was through attending this course and exploring Coursera that I learnt Coursera has a Coursera Global Translator Community (GTC) where learners could voluntarily translate content. So as someone who speaks English as a second language and who is certified in English-Arabic translation, I was interested in checking the work done in translation.

    I registered with Coursera as a volunteer and started editing some courses which had Arabic translation. I was impressed by the accuracy of the translation; however, I found a few areas where learning was lost in translation.

    What I like about the translation initiative was the gamification element, where they recognize translators by providing badges. What I suggest is that Coursera can better guarantee content quality by mandating a translation certificate for its volunteers!

    I a looking forward to reading more about your findings, I will check with Irwin if I can attend your team’s virtual presentation!

    Good Luck!

  2. Tala!

    Great feedback on the team’s post. Thank you so much for sharing your two-fold personal experience with Coursera. That is truly invaluable, first-hand feedback for our project. As is your suggestion to create a certification process for translator volunteers as an important improvement to the current design. Do you have any ideas about how that could be structured?

    I’m also intrigued to know more about your interest in the gamification element and the acquisition of badges as it’s been a topic of discussion in my work as a learning consultant/instructional designer. What about it adds value for you?

    With regard to your interest in attending our team virtual presentation, I can’t speak for everyone, but I would love it if you could attend and provide your thoughts. Please let us know the outcome of your discussion with Irwin.


    1. Hi Sue,

      For the translation process, I believe Coursera can start with their big database of users. Maybe insert a poll/survey before starting a course asking participants if they are certified translators and would like to join the GTC community. For example, in my experience, I didn’t know about the translation option until I completed half of the course and if I didn’t explore the site and only focused on attending my course(since it has no translation) I wouldn’t have known about this option. They can utilize DDDM to make informed decisions here. I believe there will be a shortage of certified translators to cover the big database of content but at least this way they can make sure their users are well-informed about this option. Another idea is hiring editors to edit the work of their volunteer translators…of course, this idea means they’ll have to financially invest money, but if their purpose is to guarantee the best content quality, I think they should consider this option.

      As for the badges, they help freelancers promote their work and enrich their portfolio and accordingly it will help them take on more translation projects, especially that users can give their feedback and rate their experience with the translation.

      I have asked Irwin if it is ok to attend and I am waiting for his reply 🙂 Good luck anyway 🙂


      1. Hi Tala and Sue!

        Thanks for your interesting feedback on the translation piece of Coursera! Amazing that you have indeed experienced Coursera both as a student, and as a contributing translator – part of the Coursera Global Translator Community (GTC) where learners can voluntarily translate content. Very cool!

        It is indeed very interesting that you have suggested, following Sue’s question, that Coursera could better guarantee content quality by mandating a translation certificate for its volunteers. Great idea! BUT I wonder if that would ever happen? It changes the model in some ways… and so many Coursera courses are “free” – so this expense might change some things in terms of the level of “free” access to Coursera MOOCs.

        VERY interesting too, that the translation initiative is gamified! It gets most of us in some way or another. 🙂

        I might check out the Coursera course that you took on “How to Teach Online.” I really enjoyed the first module (Week 1) of the Coursera course that our team engaged with for our project.

        Tala, how did you find the depth of assessment strategies in your course? Were they sufficient to “assess deeper understanding or critical thinking about the topic” – OR were they a more basic kind of checklist, for you, as you moved through the content. I get the sense, from my small introduction to Coursera, that they are not so much about “qualifications” but personal growth and personal skill development.

        Thanks, Tala and Sue!


  3. Hi Earl, Jeff, Leigh, Sue and Marta,
    What a super review ☺ You really covered all the questions I was pondering in your post and this was fantastic to see. I was a little shocked and taken aback from reading about Coursera, I have had limited experience with this MOOC, but after reading your post I decided to explore a little further into this platform.

    I was a bit shocked that they did not pay people to translate the courses, however I see they offer courses such as “English for Career Development”, do you think it is by design that they do not offer a translation to encourage participants to take other classes?

    Something that triggered my interest regarding the freeality, and universality of MOOC’s is how do they fair in a country with internet censorship? I think taking the position of the content divide is so interesting, especially in today’s day and age where internet is considered a right and not a privilege (CRTC, 2013). I find it so interesting that you used the statistics of low usage in Africa, do you think this is due to internet accessibility? Cost?

    I fell down a rabbit hole from your post and was researching accessibility to the internet in Canada and “research has shown that only 59% of Canada’s lowest income households have home internet access” (CRTC, 2013) and in 2014, the government allocated “$13.2 million over 5 years to support low-income Canadians’ access to broadband” (CRTC, 2013). I thought that if it was already daunting with the western world, having the funds in a developing nation would be even more strenuous.

    Thank you for such an awesome post and a great topic. I spent a good chunk of time researching this, which is always great.

    Interesting link:

    Kindest regards,

    Government of Canada, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, & Crtc. (2020). Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Retrieved from

    1. Kerry,
      Thanks for your comments. I too was surprised to see that Coursera, a company with a market value over well over a billion dollars is relying on volunteers to translate its courses. I am impressed with the efforts of the volunteers, but I assume that no one is proof reading their work. It illustrates the value that Coursera places on reaching non-English speaking learners. This certainly is worth further exploration.
      I also appreciate your comments on internet access in Canada. If you are interested in maps, the CRTC has an excellent map of the internet coverage in Canada, which it updates regularly. It’s another enticing rabbit hole. Here’s a link:
      – Jeff

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