The Civic Mission of MOOCs: Engagement across Political Differences in Online Forums

Publication Information


  • Michael Yeomans, Harvard University
  • Brandon M. Stewart, Princeton University
  • Kimia Mavon, Harvard University
  • Alex Kindel, Princeton University
  • Dustin Tingley, Harvard University
  • Justin Reich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


  • 553-589


  • MOOCs, Civic education, Discourse, Text analysis


  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) attract diverse student bodies, and course forums could potentially be an opportunity for students with different political beliefs to engage with one another. We test whether this engagement actually takes place in two politically-themed MOOCs, on education policy and American government. We collect measures of students’ political ideology, and then observe student behavior in the course discussion boards. Contrary to the common expectation that online spaces often become echo chambers or ideological silos, we find that students in these two political courses hold diverse political beliefs, participate equitably in forum discussions, directly engage (through replies and upvotes) with students holding opposing beliefs, and converge on a shared language rather than talking past one another. Research that focuses on the civic mission of MOOCs helps ensure that open online learning engages the same breadth of purposes that higher education aspires to serve.