Distance Learning Remains a Niche Concern in UK
In the UK, distance learning remains a niche concern – something that is seen as more the territory of the Open University than the mainstream. Universities say they've been offering their learners online options for years. But there is scarcely a whiff of the evangelism and excitement bubbling away in America, where venture capitalists and leading universities are ploughing millions of dollars into mould-breaking massive online open courses, or moocs, which offer free education to huge numbers of students across the world.
Though the technology has been around for some time, the mooc legend really began last year when a Stanford University professor, Sebastian Thrun, experimented with offering an artificial intelligence course free online. In just a few weeks, 160,000 students from 190 countries had raced to sign up. Thrun's days of teaching 200 students in a lecture hall are now over. He has launched Udacity, which aims to "democratise education" by offering free, bitesize courses, ranging from starting a business to software debugging, taught by leading academics, to up to 200,000 students at a time.
Udacity joins other big American mooc players including edX, a combined venture from Harvard, MIT and more recently Berkeley; and Coursera, a second venture from Stanford. More than 30 elite universities from around the world now offer free courses as part of the Coursera platform, including Edinburgh and the University of London. Both British universities see this as a chance to dip their toes into uncharted seas with little personal risk.
But their decision to do so is controversial. The blogosphere is alive with warnings about moocs, and many commentators are speculating that universities are opening the floodgates to something that will cannibalise traditional higher education.
The fear is: if students can learn in their pyjamas with academic stars for nothing, why would they pay fees of £9,000 a year for a normal university course? For now, moocs are still a work in progress. While student numbers are potentially massive, it is not yet clear how these sites will make money.