MOOC Brigade: Who Is Taking Massive Open Online Courses, And Why?

Sure, knowledge is power and all that, but how many Coursera students are willing to make a sizable time commitment just to get a certificate of completion?

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Coursera says it has more than one million users and that they hail from 196 countries. The number of students is sure to increase with the news last week that the MOOC provider now counts Columbia University, Brown, Ohio State, Vanderbilt, Wesleyan and 12 other schools as partners, including several overseas such as the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a result of the new partnerships, Coursera has upped its course offerings from a few dozen to 195.

A discussion thread called, “Where in the world are you?” posted in the forum for my course, Securing Digital Democracy, certainly proves there is a lot of interest worldwide in taking these free online courses. My class, taught by J. Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, includes students who say they are from Paraguay to Pakistan, India to Ghana, Indonesia to Iraq, to Morocco, to Nigeria, to Australia, to Serbia, and the list goes on.

Seeing the list of countries represented, I couldn’t help but wonder, why are all these people taking a course that provides nothing more than a certificate of completion? Sure, knowledge is power and all that, but if my inability to keep up with my homework is any indication, taking an online course is a sizable commitment to make, especially for a class that, unlike a computer science where students learn the basics of coding, offers no tangible skill. So why are they doing it?

(MORE: MOOC Brigade: Will Massive, Open Online Courses Revolutionize Higher Education?)

I decided to ask my classmates. I started a discussion thread and posed the questions, “Why are you taking this class? What are you hoping to gain? How do you think to might use what you learn in the future?” Some 90 people have viewed my questions since I posted them a week ago, and several took the time to write thoughtful replies.

Some classmates expressed a general interest in sharing with and learning from people around the world. But others offered more specific reasons for taking the class. One student said he is studying computer science and wanted to understand why we all can’t simply vote from the privacy of our own homes given that the basic infrastructure to do this already exists in most places. Another student, Nnenna Nwakanma, who lives in Cote d’Ivoire, said she is in charge of an organization that recently used an online voting system for its elections. She also works as a consultant on policy, human rights and citizen engagement in developing nations. “Having been critically involved in some democracy and election initiatives, I was not just keen to get a handle on the security aspects of democracy, but also to share and learn from others,” Nwakanma wrote. A woman in Georgia (the U.S. state, not the country) told me she is taking the course because she trains journalists in new democracies on how to cover elections and wanted to learn more about the various types of voter fraud and security solutions found in countries worldwide. Another student said, simply, “I wanted to figure out this Coursera thing.” Me too, classmate. Me too.

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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