Distance learning: who’s doing it now?
Distance learning is nothing new. In 1938, the International Council for Correspondence Education was founded in Canada. In the same year, they held their first world conference, attended by 87 delegates. Only three of them weren’t from America or Canada.
The rise and rise of distance learning
By 1950, the situation hadn’t improved much – attendees came from just one or two countries – so in a desperate attempt to make sure that the conference lived up to its international title, the organizers invited people to participate by the audio presentation. It was a revolution.
Something else was changing correspondence education that would draw it closer to what we now recognize as distance learning. Back then, when Australia was the world’s forerunner – 100,000 people had taken correspondence courses there in the years after the war – most of it had been in primary education. Gradually, the emphasis began to move towards adult and further education. Men and women from the armed services were among those seeking to restrain themselves
Though the UK’s Open University (OU) wasn’t established until 1969, its history stretches back much further. As early as 1925, when the BBC was a fledgling broadcaster, JC Stobart was its first director of education. A year later he wrote a memo to colleagues that advocated a “wireless university.”
On 9 February 1971, the OU was broadcast on TV for the very first time. Tuning in were many of its 25,000 students that were enrolled in one of four multi-disciplinary courses in the arts, social sciences, science or maths
But there’s a new game in town when it comes to distance learning: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
The term, which refers to courses that are free and open to an unlimited number of students, was coined in 2008 at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education based at Southwestern.
These free courses have increased. In the space of fewer than four years, Time magazine was celebrating the “Ivy League for the Masses” while the New York Times was heralding ‘The Year of the Moon’.
In March 2013, one MOOC provider (a for-profit one) had 2.8 million registered learners – far more than the 1.8 million people that have taken a course at the Open University in its whole 39-year history. On the other hand, on average, fewer than 7% of those who sign up to a Mooc complete the course.
Here, we take a look at the impact of MOOCs on the UK’s distance learning sector.
Is off-campus the new on-campus
Many would assume that the rise in tuition fees in the UK over the past four years would have had a considerable impact on enrolment. They would be right. There were 12% fewer applications in 2011 as some universities increased their fees to £9,000 a year, three times more than their previous rates.
While applications to full-time study have recovered, this is not the case for part-time enrolments. The number of new students studying part-time in 2011-12 dropped by 7.6% from the previous year
With fees for distance learning costing as little as a sixth of the price of campus learning (and free for MOOC learners) has there been any shift in the way that people are studying?
The data would suggest not. Around one in 10 postgraduate courses in the UK were taken by distance learners in 2008, a number that remained the same in 2012. Similarly, the fraction of undergraduate courses that are distance learning has remained at around 16%.
Who are the distance learners?
Distance learners are still considerably older than the general population of students, as the graph below shows.
The graph also shows that women represent a far higher proportion of learners. However, this data leaves several questions unanswered – is the higher proportion of women an indication of the difficulties of studying on campus with children? Is the gender gap in distance learning bigger or smaller than the one in higher education overall (where women do outnumber men)?
Another critical question left unanswered relates to access. The OU is the country’s largest higher education provider for those with disabilities: 17,000 students with disabilities studied there in 2011-12 – a considerable portion of the 79,000 higher education students in the UK with a disability.
What are they studying?
Whether it’s because they’re deemed more vocational or better value for money, combined courses continue to be the most popular in distance learning. You can search for a range of subjects in the interactive below.
So, what’s happened since the first conference of the International Council for Correspondence Education in 1938? One, rebranding: it’s now known as the International Council for Open and Distance Education. Twenty-four conferences and thousands of delegates later, it has now become a partner with Unesco.
Some are pessimistic about the future of the Mooc. Critics have pointed out that these free courses are likely to follow the traditional trajectory of the “hype cycle” – from technology trigger, to peak of inflated expectations, to trough of disillusionment before finally going up the slope of enlightenment and reaching the plateau of productivity – all of which sound more like a children’s adventure story than a trajectory for education.
The opportunities to democratize education are enormous. But given that providers do not have a business model through which they can make money from free courses, it may not be the death of distance learning just yet.