Gender Balances: A look at the makeup of HarvardX registrants

by Sergiy Nesterko, HarvardX Research Fellow

Although the first semester of the 2013/14 academic year is coming to a close on campus and residential students are finishing up coursework and preparing for the break, the timelines are more asynchronous for students registered for 10 currently running online offerings. This batch of 10 consists of courses and modules launched by HarvardX at different times during the Fall of 2013.

While course development teams are working to create the most stimulating learning experiences and thinking about whether and how to give students a mini winter break in their courses or modules (or summer break for those in the southern hemisphere), the research team is busy studying the troves of data produced by past and current online offerings, working with course developers to set up learning experiments, and helping to facilitate research-based innovation at HarvardX.

As part of our work to inform course development and research, the research team generated course-specific and HarvardX-wide worldwide gender composition data.

The interactive visualization above shows self-reported gender composition data for all past and current online offerings, as well as overall for HarvardX. Choosing an item from the drop down menu shows data on a particular course or module on the left, while the chart on the right displays overall gender composition to facilitate comparison. Hovering the mouse over the chart brings up information on the specific numbers used to calculate percentages. As of November 17, 7-10% of students in different offerings didn’t specify gender information, which is reflected by the Missing category. Checking the box ‘Only male/female’ leaves only these categories, and calculates the percentages using the total number of reported males and females as the denominator. The data specification file including the source code and technical information can be accessed here.

The HarvardX student body is estimated to be mostly male (62% as of November 17, 2013), although there is considerable variation in gender balance from one offering to the next. For example, CS50x Introduction to Computer Science has decidedly more male students (estimated 79%), while both offerings on Poetry in America register mostly female students (estimated 57% and 61%). Some courses have almost equal percentages of female and male students. For example, GSE1x Unlocking the Immunity to Change, launching in Spring 2014 so far has registered an estimated 51% females and 49% males. We generally do not recommend interpreting the overall HarvardX average when overall enrollment is so heavily influenced by a small number of courses (e.g., Computer Science and the Science of Cooking).

In order to gain a better understanding of gender balance in HarvardX offerings, we made a world map, showing estimated gender composition of our students enrolled from different countries around the world.

The map above is an interactive visualization of estimated worldwide gender composition of students enrolled in HarvardX offerings worldwide. Blue color means that the balance is tilted towards male registrants, yellow – females, and green is approximate parity. Hovering the mouse over countries brings up information on exact estimated proportions of female and male registrants and the numbers the estimation is based on. Estimation was performed using Missing At Random assumption for missing data, and countries with less than 100 detected students are not colored as the estimated percentages can have a margin of error greater than ±5 percentage points. Choosing items from the drop down menu will bring up information on worldwide gender composition for a particular offering. The data specification file including the source code and technical information can be accessed here.

In most countries of the world, estimated gender balance is tilted towards males, with the pattern being strongest in African and South Asian countries. Exceptions include Philippines, Georgia, Armenia, Mongolia, and Uruguay, where overall estimated HarvardX gender balance is either close to 50% or tilted towards females. Possible explanations for this finding include cultural trends, selective registration to courses, which are more popular among females, Internet access, economic factors etc.

Individual HarvardX offerings exhibit very different patterns in worldwide gender composition. For example, MCB80.1x Fundamentals of Neuroscience, Part I (launched end of October) shows gender parity in the US, Canada, and Australia, while we estimate more female students from Philippines, Argentine, and Greece. Other countries including China, India, Pakistan, France, Sweden, and others are estimated to have more male students. At the same time, the recently launched PH201x Health and Society exhibits strong female enrollment from many countries around the world, while India, China, and Pakistan as well as other countries still are estimated to have more male students in the course.

There could be many possible explanations for the observed picture of worldwide gender composition in HarvardX offerings. One aspect to consider is popularity of courses in certain fields among males or females depending on the context of a particular country. For example, gender balance in the US varies greatly from one course to the next. The ways in which online learning (edX, HarvardX, and beyond) is perceived and promoted in a particular country through advertising, word of mouth, and other means may also have some influence on who ends up enrolling for courses. There are also other country-specific factors such as cultural setting, Internet access, religion, and others, all of which may contribute to the gender balance patterns we are observing.

One parallel that I find interesting is comparing worldwide gender compositions in HarvardX offerings and residential education.

The picture above is taken from UNESCO’s Worldwide Atlas of Gender Equality in Education from 2012, and visualizes worldwide gender composition in tertiary education. Yellow color means that there are more females enrolled in tertiary education than males, green means parity, and blue means that there are more males.

What’s interesting about UNESCO's gender parity map and the interactive visualization of worldwide gender composition for HarvardX offerings, is that they should match if residential tertiary education exhibited the same gender enrollment patterns as HarvardX. However, while there are similarities, the two pictures don’t quite match. On average, more females, across multiple countries, participate in tertiary (that is, residential) education than then they do in HarvardX online courses.

Why is it?

It could be that at HarvardX, technical courses such as CS50x skew the enrollment demographic, which has been shown to be mostly male for technical/STEM subjects in all settings. It could also be that in some countries, on average, women don't think that the initial MOOCs may have relevance to their lives and work as much as males do. It remains to be seen whether the patterns in these initial gender composition data show fundamental differences between gender demographics of residential tertiary and online education, or whether the observed patterns are due to a limited number of initial online offerings and are specific to HarvardX.

Clearly, our analysis generates more research questions than it answers. Finding and polishing bits and pieces of the puzzle to answer these questions is what makes working at HarvardX research so stimulating.

Follow Sergiy on Twitter: @snesterko