Sharon Watkins photographed in the Thompson Library in Columbus, Ohio.
Sharon Watkins: 'We haven't even begun to hit the demographic for which Moocs were intended' © FT

In 2012 Sharon Watkins was watching a Ted talk when she came across the concept of Moocs – massive open online courses. She was so impressed by the prospect of elite education being delivered for free to the masses, that she decided to set up a Mooc cohort where she works in Springfield, Ohio.

Ms Watkins is studying for a doctorate in education administration, and has worked with Springfield City School district to establish a learning café – an innovative programme that involves families in education.

She saw Moocs as an opportunity to target motivated learners of any age regardless of ability, academic history or economic background.

In February the following year, 10 adults – two men and eight women – signed up to study part one of Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Private Businesses, by the University of Virginia, Darden School of Business.

The majority of the class were on a low or fixed income and aged between 45 to 55. One had a doctorate, one a BA and a few others had some coursework at an associate degree level, but most had never completed a postsecondary degree.

Why did you choose the Mooc Grow to Greatness?

I left it for the group to decide. I showed them the Ted talk and then we looked at the Coursera list. I curated it a bit, looking for courses lasting no longer than five to six weeks and I asked them to write down their top two. Eventually, we narrowed the list down to the Darden programme. A facilitator came in to run the class logistics while I observed.

[In hindsight], I think Grow to Greatness was a good choice because it is an introductory class to business and many members of the cohort either had their own business or wanted to start one. I continue to use it now as it has universal appeal and the content is very accessible. When choosing a Mooc, you need to have a good eye for what’s accessible and what’s not.

What was the biggest challenge the Mooc students faced?

The fear of failure, especially after the commitment they made to one another and their families.

One woman who didn’t pass the test, for example, was so upset. She sat in my office and cried saying ‘Now I have to go home and tell my kids I didn’t pass’. After that, she never responded to my invites to come back. It was heartbreaking. She missed it by one point but that was it for her. Another student didn’t even take the test. He said he didn’t feel well and had to stand by the window, but I think he was scared he wouldn’t pass.

Health issues were also a factor. One student didn’t finish because his wife got really ill. Another dropped out because she was evicted and then suffered a stroke. She said to me: ‘Sharon, you are seeing the effects of low-income life’. It was such a shame because they were hungry learners.

How many passed the course?

Six – all women – passed the course and were clearly empowered by the experience. For example, one woman set up her own business with her husband, another inspired her mum to start studying and another signed up for Part II then started pressing me for resources to use in her own work. She is now helping children learn coding through courses Massachusetts Institute of Technology has online.

What did you learn from the project?

I was thrilled with the results, especially seeing the change in female perspectives. There have been criticisms that Moocs have no value because thousands start but don’t finish. I would argue we haven’t even begun to hit the target demographic for which they were originally intended. It is tough figuring out how to get the poor to take advantage of them.

I am now a facilitator, which is a role I am trying to promote. You don’t have to be a content expert, you just need to know how to get the content out there and offer encouragement.

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