When prominent universities began giving free access to courses online, some proponents hailed it as a way to open education to the vastly underprivileged in countries around the world.
But a new study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania published Wednesday by the journal Nature says that isn't what has happened.
Instead, the researchers found, a vast majority of students enrolled in "Massive Open Online Courses" - commonly known as MOOCs - already hold college degrees and are taking the courses primarily to advance in their jobs.
"MOOCs are not providing this revolutionary access that some have claimed," said Gayle Christensen, executive director for global initiatives at Penn.
Researchers surveyed more than 400,000 people enrolled in 32 courses offered online through Coursera, a California-based online-education company that has been a pioneer in MOOCs. More than 34,700 users in 201 countries including the United States responded to the online survey, conducted in July.
Already have degrees
An overwhelming 83 percent already have a two-year or four-year degree, the study showed. And 44 percent have advanced degrees.
Enrollment in online courses by the higher-educated is especially pronounced in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. While roughly 6 percent of the population in those countries has earned degrees, nearly 80 percent of MOOC users who live there were college graduates, the survey shows.
"In those countries, almost 80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well-educated 6 percent of the population," the Penn researchers wrote.
Christensen and Brandon Alcorn, project manager for global initiatives at Penn, blamed a lack of access to technology as a main reason poor people haven't availed themselves of the opportunity to study online. Many people don't have the time or basic levels of education required to take the college-level courses, they said.
In addition, the researchers found that nearly 57 percent of MOOC users were male and that 70 percent were employed.
"They're using it as a job-training tool rather than an educational tool," Alcorn said.
Free courses via Coursera
Penn was in the forefront less than two years ago when it announced that it had joined a group of top U.S. universities that would begin offering some courses free online through Coursera. Its first courses went online in the summer of 2012 and have attracted hundreds of thousands of students, though fewer have completed them. Penn offers courses in the humanities, sciences, mathematics, and other areas.
Since Penn started providing MOOCs, a growing number of universities, including Pennsylvania State and Rutgers, have joined in.
More young people in other countries are taking advantage of MOOCs than in the United States, Christensen said. In developing countries, 59 percent of users were 30 and younger, compared with 24 percent in the United States. In Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, 63 percent are 30 or younger, the survey shows.
Christensen and Alcorn said they planned to continue studying MOOC users. "We're trying to look at who is taking these," Christensen said, "and why they are taking them."