Distance learning is Go

Read a fascinating article about distance learning in Information Age this month. One response to the pressure on academic costs is to make a lot of the learning virtual. The problem apparently is one of capacity – if the class rises about 30 then students start to drop out. Its hard to keep them involved. Dead give away that one. The internet lets you do offline things cheaper and quicker yes? No it doesn't. That's the lie peddled far and wide.  Run classes bigger than 30 offline and attention suffers. Why should the intenet be different. So issue no 1 is about how to use scale to monetise the internet  – if you can't then why do distance learning? Well for a start because it stops you needing to leave your job and home and have to relocate.

There are all sorts of reasons why distance learning might be a desirable alternative.

The other main focus of the article was on the way in which large institutions are securing a strategic advantage by giving whole swathes of their content away by piping video straight onto the internet. Funnily enough one you have watched a few of the lectures and got used to some of the faces of the faculty you're more likely to want to take a course there. So the biggest institutions with the deepest pockets and the highest profile lecturers take the spoils.

You don't believe me? Have a look at this. I was shocked. Work out how much content MIT are giving away here.. help yourself!  This is putting smaller insitutions at a strategic disadvantage because it costs to put the content out there but you may not be high profile enough to be able to collect.

I have to declare an interest. I am a visiting professor at the IE business school in Madrid. I've only visited the School once 3 years ago. And have taught 3 year groups since.  I teach online – MBA students from all over the world still in their jobs and after 7 sessions teaching them about online research I get to meet them in London to teach them face to face.  This isn't an industrial stripmining operation. It works because I give personal responses to the students on bulletin boards. the system depends on interaction not streaming lectures from a great distance. I use video but only short clips to introduce each main session. Because personal is more important than content.  And I prefer to get the students who are mostly working in internet businesses to come up with the answers. These are bright people. I don't have to spoonfeed them. The scale is hard to manage. The first couple of years I only had a dozen students. This year I had 23. Which makes a big difference to your ability to engage directly with them so I have having to adapt my teaching style.

I've taught this course from 4 countries. And in all sorts of interesting places. This year I was able to review the latest posts on an ipad during a car journey. My brother in law who is a lecturer at Warwick University is experimenting with using an ipad to mark the work directly. So he can do it anywhere. And get out of the office.

Distance learning is almost certainly the way forward. Faculties will resist it because they enjoy face toface – they like campus life. But if it is more convenient for students to work from anywhere then it is almost certainly more efficient to find the best teachers and to let them teach from anywhere. Which ought to ramp educational costs right down.



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