We have over the past decade experienced unprecedented growth in online learning. In a number of ways, these defy traditional resistances of scale. It makes no difference whether MOOCs have thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of students in the one course because they do not require instructor interaction. And universities can easily expand their geographical reach and incomes via e-learning because this only requires them to hire new instructors, often cheaply and without tenure. On the one hand, these changes come hand-in-hand with the increasing commodification of education. But on the other hand, when scaling up is friction-free or low cost, new opportunities for access present themselves—students accessing high-prestige university courses for small MOOC fees, for instance, and online students taking regular degrees who would never have been able to afford the time out required by face-to-face learning. These are old objectives for distance learning that are, in the era of digital learning, now scaled up. These changes are also creating pedagogical effects for traditional teaching, as in-person courses adopt the “flipped classroom,” digital content delivery, auto-assessment, online discussion, and peer assessment—to name a few pedagogical innovations that also reduce the frictions of scale. In this year’s special theme, we will address these and other questions of access and pedagogy in this era of distributed learning.
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