Elderly post most often on Coursera forums

Oct. 14, 2013, 2:50 a.m.

In a study from the Office of the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL), researchers found that seniors between the ages of 60 and 70 encompass the age demographic that posts most often on Coursera forums.

Marc Sanders Ph.D. ’94, instructional designer for VPOL; Jane Manning, M.A. ’93 Ph.D. ’94, director of platforms for VPOL; and Jonathan Huang ’05, a postdoctoral scholar in the Computer Science department, analyzed survey data from 32 Coursera classes for which 11.1 percent of students responded.

The study was inspired by the responses to the researchers’ previous look into forum usage and student grades in massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Although the largest group of students who responded to the survey were between the ages of 20 and 30, the survey results revealed that seniors between the ages of 60 and 70 posted the most on forums and that – with the exception of 70- to 75-year-olds – the likelihood of posting rose with age.

“It’s just that the 20- to 30-year-olds don’t post as much as the other people,” Manning said. “I think there are a lot for different possible explanations for that.”

Fred Turner, an associate professor of communication, explained that it would be difficult to predict or put hard numbers on exactly why different groups of people post online.

“I just think that posting is just something that most everyone does these days, and so getting a kind of quantity out of that depends almost entirely on the social and cultural context of the kind of posting they’re doing,” Turner said.

Julia Stiglitz M.A./MBA ’10, Coursera’s director of business development and strategic partnerships, provided some general statistics for the company’s user demographics.

“[The average age of users] is between 25 and 35,” Stiglitz said. “[The study] is surprising just given the average age.”

Stiglitz said users have a variety of motivations for taking Coursera courses.

“About 50 percent of people who are signed up say that they’re taking courses for job-related reasons,” Stiglitz said. “There are also a high percentage of students who are taking it just for enjoyment reasons.”

Keith Devlin, co-founder and executive director of Stanford’s Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (H-STAR), teaches a class on Coursera called Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. Through his experience teaching a MOOC, Devlin did not find the results of the study surprising.

“I always identify students who are very good contributors, and I appoint them as community TAs,” Devlin said. “So I knew anecdotally that the active contributors, and certainly the ones that have maturity, were indeed certainly well into their 50s. It didn’t surprise me to hear that many of them were actually into their 60s and 70s.”

Devlin believes that MOOCs provide an easy way for seniors to be mentally active in their free time.

“One of the great things that MOOCs offer is that people…can be students again,” Devlin said. “I think it’s not surprising that [seniors] are extremely keen and eager and active students because they’ve got a lot of time, and this gives them an awful lot of stimulation in their lives.”

Retired IT Services Account Manager Jane Marcus Ph.D. ’85, has followed MOOCs for several years and also was not surprised by the results of the study. At Stanford, she worked to support the use of technology in the University’s academic and administrative functions.

“[Seniors] have got lots of energy and lots of time on their hands and can start second careers, and those careers don’t necessarily have to be paying careers,” Marcus said. “MOOCs can help them on those intellectual journeys.”

Devlin explained that he originally became involved with MOOCs because of their potential to provide quality education to parts of the world without access. Now he’s pleased that the courses are offering access to education to an entirely different group: seniors.

“I think it’s neat that we’re actually providing something that gives stimulation and interest to a whole older generation,” Devlin said. “It’s a contribution to society, and it can only do us a lot of good.”

Like Stiglitz, Marcus expressed interest in seeing the breakdown of demographics based on courses.

“I would love to see the Coursera courses broken down into disciplines and then the demographic data analyzed within those disciplines,” Marcus said.

In fact, along with forum content, breaking demographics down by discipline is one of the many items that Huang hopes to study further.

“There’s so much data,” Huang said. “For the very first time we have huge amounts of demographic data combined with grade data. And that’s going to give us terrific insights that no one’s been able to get before.”

Contact Kylie Jue at kyliej ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Kylie Jue '17 was the Editor-in-Chief for Vol. 250. She first became involved with The Daily as a high school intern and now is a CS+English major at Stanford. A senior from Cupertino, California, she has also worked a CS 106 section leader. To contact Kylie, email her at kyliej ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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