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Simon Nelson: the rise and fall of distance learning

Simon Nelson: the rise and fall of distance learning

In 2012 an unstoppable force ripped through the upper echelons of the academic world.

Two Stanford professors decided to conduct an experiment, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered their module “Introduction to artificial Intelligence” for free online.

It was filmed to give the impression of being sat in the lecture hall, hastily put together with basic, minimal editing. Students can even be seen being told to put laptops away.

Yet this comes secondary to the most salient attribute. Knowledge previously kept under lock and key behind the doors of some of the hardest institutions to get into on earth suddenly became available to all.

This didn’t escape the attention of prospective US students, with press at the time widely citing a growing concern over rising student-debt (now totalling more than $1 trillion).

No one could have foreseen the response the course got.

Students clambered at the opportunity, 160,000 from 190 countries signed up, lending the word ‘massive’ in MOOC (massive open online courses) some credibility.

And it wasn’t long until many professors started utilizing the format, opening the pathways for a spate of MOOC providers to appear. The rise of distance learning was almost complete.

It left vice chancellors of universities up and down the country scratching their heads deciding what to do next. Because the institutions they were in charge of, institutions at the reins of academia since the Middle Ages were under threat for the first time.

The New York Times declared 2012 to be the ‘Year of the MOOC’. It was wrong. Critics appeared left right and centre, highlighting the incredibly high drop-out rate, fast becoming clear that MOOCs weren’t going to replace bricks and mortar institutions.

It highlights tech’s habit “to borrow well-worn phrases and overestimate the short-term impact of technology.” So explains the CEO of distance learning provider FutureLearn, Simon Nelson.

Likening the change to the “seismic shift” going on in the transition from live to on-demand television, the rise of distance learning will take longer than people predict.

“The nature of the shift is more nuanced than just new technology replaces old.”

The route may be orthogonal, but it is heading towards the same place.

And whether or not the MOOC has lived up to its potential, its effect on quickening the transition towards distance learning has been profound.

This week’s episode of the Hot Topics podcast focuses on the rise of distance learning. Take a listen above to learn more.

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