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This Isn’t Your Dad’s Distance Learning Program

  • 2 Min Read

In the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman decided to use postcards to teach students how to write shorthand. Students were asked to transcribe a text onto the card and drop it into the mail for Pitman to evaluate.

Universities soon realized that they could use the same technique to offer classes to students who lived far away from campus: “distance education” was born. Over the years, the technology used to deliver distance learning changed with the invention of radio, television and the internet, but the idea was always the same: use technology to teach students far away.

Recently, that’s changed even more. Institutions are starting to realize that, if you want, you can also use technology to reach students who live right on campus.

At Fusion 2015, we’ve been talking about some of the big questions in education. In my opening address, I listed five questions that I think are important and I’m expanding on them in my blog this week.

We’re up to the fourth question: can technology play a role in helping more students graduate? And if so, what is that role?

Now, as someone who runs an ed-tech company, I have a few thoughts on this.

But rather than talking about products, I think it’s important to talk about principles. I believe that if we’re going to use education technology to close the attainment gap, it has to deliver results. That — as pragmatic as it is — is the main guiding principle.

Because all of us are being asked to do more with less and the only way we can really do that is by using technology.

To put this challenge in context: over the next 10 years, our universities will be asked to teach 100 million new students. If we had to build facilities to accommodate all those students, the costs would be staggering.

Now at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, they’ve solved that by making sure that they offer “distance learning.” One in five courses taken by on-campus students is online, which is the equivalent of about 6,000 fulltime students not attending traditional classes.

If they weren’t taking these classes online, how many more buildings would the university need? Two? Three? And at what cost? Millions? Billions?

That’s an example of how technology is delivering real results.

The irony, of course, is that we’re serving up a very old idea in a very new way. What we’re doing is allowing students the convenience and advantages of staying on campus with the convenience and advantages of studying remotely. That’s because the technology we have available to us is easy, flexible, and smart.

So — to paraphrase a famous car ad — this really isn’t your dad’s distance learning.

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