Free Online Courses Are Useful for All

By Eric Garneau


Besides asking questions looking for respondents' specific opinions on OCW, we also wanted to know more about the people who took our survey, the people who make use of OCW in their lives. Therefore, we posited a number of demographic inquiries aimed at developing a profile of a typical OCW user (if such a thing exists). What we found is that, just as no one use of OCW towered above the others for our readers, no one sort of person got the most out of OCW - the wealth was spread around.

Professional Status:

  • High school student: 9.3%
  • College student (undergraduate): 11%
  • College student (graduate): 9%
  • 'Self-learner': 27.1%
  • Working professional: 23.7%
  • School faculty/teacher: 2.9%
  • Retired: 7.6%
  • Other: 9.3%

Here we can see a fairly even split between college students (combining undergraduates and graduates), working professionals and self-identified 'self-learners,' though self-learners ended up being the most represented category. Of course, everyone who makes use of OCW is a sort of self-learner, although it probably speaks to OCW's user base that over a fourth of our survey's respondents identify primarily with that classification. Popular 'other' answers included 'self-employed' and 'homemaker.'

Area of Residence:

  • Africa: 12.9%
  • Asia (India): 7.8%
  • Asia (Other): 8.8%
  • Europe (U.K.): 0.7%
  • Europe (other): 2.7%
  • North America (U.S.A.): 52.8%
  • North America (other): 2.7%
  • South America: 1.5%
  • Other: 10.2%

It's probably no surprise that a majority of this survey's respondents came from the United States of America - we are an English-language U.S.-based website after all. However, perhaps it is surprising that only slightly more than half of those who responded to the survey live in the U.S.; Africa and Asia also had significant representation here. We'll talk a little more about what that might mean further down, but suffice it to say that OCW clearly has global appeal, even though much of it may be cast in the English language. For this question people often used the 'other' category to identify more specifically where they live ('the Caribbean,' 'the United Arab Emirates,' 'Brooklyn, NY'), although a few respondents indicated they came from Australia or New Zealand.


  • 17 and under: 4.2%
  • 18-21: 9.3%
  • 22-29: 19.6%
  • 30-39: 21.8%
  • 40-49: 20.5%
  • 50-59: 13.9%
  • 60 and above: 10.8%

In the 'age' category, there's no clear winner; it seems that OCW users (or those who took our survey) are divided up pretty evenly between the ages of 22-49. Additionally, OCW seems to get significant usage from people of all ages (at least once they hit 18). This probably correlates with our question regarding professional status; most college students and working professionals looking to bulk up their skills probably fall between the ages of 18-49, though of course people can be 'self-learners' at any age.

Subject Area of Greatest Interest:

  • Business: 15.3%
  • Computer science and technology: 16.5%
  • English/writing: 33.3%
  • Graphic design: 13.1%
  • Liberal arts: 1.7%
  • Math: 3.2%
  • Medical/health: 6.8%
  • Physical sciences: 0.7%
  • Other: 9.5%

To better understand the results of this question, we asked readers to follow up by telling us what specific course or topic they're most interested in using OCW to learn. Nearly everyone who answered wanted more information on graphic/Web design and programming, business skills or writing. That probably reflects the kind of people who'd most likely go online to find help with their career - they're looking for skills to help them secure creative freelance work or to go into business for themselves.

Also worth noting, an interesting trend came up in people who talked about writing. A fair amount of our survey's respondents were non-native English speakers looking to improve their skills in the language. According to results, this was especially true when it came to technical or scientific writing. Some OCW outlets are already working to help in that area, such as SNOWBALLS, a game that teaches Japanese college students technical English vocabulary.


In a final fill-in-the-blank question, we asked respondents to tell us how they felt OCW could be improved. Three of the most popular (and probably most predictable) answers that repeated were that more people need to know about OCW, that there ought to be more course options and that accreditation should be available for those who learn the material.

Many of the driving forces behind OCW's proliferation are constantly working on the first two items on that list. Almost every one of's interviews with an OCW purveyor indicates a desire to diversify course offerings and to get more people engaged with the material. As far as accreditation, that might be a harder sell in the academic world, although recent developments suggest it may not be too far off.


In the end, our OCW survey's respondents comprised a wide range of users with diverse professional, geographical and life backgrounds. In a way, that confirms what we already suspected: that OCW can be and is used by almost everybody. Judging by many of our readers' unfamiliarity with the idea, or wanting more of it, OCW also has a much wider potential audience out there. So spread the word: no matter who you are, where you live or what you're interested in, there are free college classes online for your benefit.

Want to dive into OCW? Check out the programs represented in our 2011 OCW Awards.

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