DISTANCE education is nothing new, but these days it is hard to escape hyperventilation about its latest incarnation: MOOCs, or “massive open online courses”. Universities had been tinkering with open-access learning for a number of years, but towards the end of 2011 two senior lecturers at Stanford University offered an online course in artificial intelligence. Anyone who completed the course received a certificate of recognition. An astonishing 160,000 students from all corners of the planet signed up, and 23,000 of them completed the course.

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