The world of distance learning has changed beyond recognition since the first correspondence courses dropped onto doormats more than 40 years ago, The Guardian reports. Classes of thousands from around the world can now join interactive lectures for free. This is the world of MOOCs – massive open online courses – which have blazed a trail in the US. This autumn, 21 UK universities – including Bristol, Leeds and Southampton – are preparing to launch their own MOOCs in partnership with the Open University. While MOOCs mostly don’t set entry requirements, they are pitched between “taster” and postgraduate level – short chunks of learning that will enable students to dip their toe into a subject – science or arts – or keep up to speed with changing career needs. Early analysis of MOOC students shows most of them to be mature learners who already hold one or two degrees; this is the experience of the University of Edinburgh, which announced the first UK MOOCs in July last year and saw 308,000 students from 167 different countries sign up to a handful of subjects, from an introduction to philosophy to the more advanced artificial intelligence planning. While completion rates on nearly all MOOCs are low – somewhere below 10% – this doesn’t matter, says Jeff Haywood, professor of education and technology. Some 12% of students completed Edinburgh’s first batch of MOOCs. Many sign up to “window shop” or dip in and out, which is no bad thing, he says. Edinburgh’s students came mostly from the US and UK and those who responded to the survey said the courses met or exceeded expectations.