Physics has a few issues in terms of demographics. Look at any college department and you’ll see it.
- There are almost no poor students.
- There are very few women, either as students or as faculty.
- Most students and faculty are white, asian, or indian. Other ethnicities are much less common.
Online education is often touted as “education for everyone” or “education for the masses.” Unfortunately, the demographic divide remains.
- Every student could afford an internet connection, which in many countries is a dear expense.
- Our course had only 17% female students. The percentage was fairly constant across countries. Women are being repelled from physics in droves, everywhere people speak English (and likely elsewhere). I won’t speculate on why; there’s plenty of solid research on that.
- The edX intro survey asks about race and ethnic group, but no one has analyzed it for minority status yet. The fact that we reach other countries does not mean that we reach minorities in those countries. Let’s say “not enough data” here.
It seems that simply providing education online (or in any other forum) isn’t enough to break down barriers. It’s clear that online education is not “education for everyone” yet, but it also seems that many of the barriers are put in place at younger ages. If an online physics course attracts roughly the same low percentage of women as an on-campus physics course, we must be doing something wrong before students even get to that point.