A digital transformation

Simon Nelson, Chief Executive of FutureLearn, the UK’€™s first MOOC provider, gives his take on the last 12 months in higher education

Q: What were the major developments in the UK HE sector in 2014? 

A: I’ve been particularly excited by the partnerships between institutions that FutureLearn has been able to facilitate, for example connecting our university partners to great centres of culture and knowledge, like the British Council, British Library and the BBC and increasingly we are helping to bring businesses and employers together with universities to create and deliver new pathways through professional development for learners. 

Q: Has it been a successful year? 

A: UK universities have led the way in the development of an open, online platform and courses that emphasise quality – in design, user experience, content and a social, collaborative form of learning that seems to be showing great early results. Awareness is growing, hundreds of thousands of people have signed up to around 1.5m courses, participation levels and learner satisfaction are hugely positive. It’s been a great year in online learning but we are still only scratching the surface of what’s possible. 

Q: What do you consider to be the major challenges ahead across the sector? 

A: Higher education has now begun its own digital transformation, following the path of many industries before, and will face many of the same challenges. Most important will be the ability of the incumbent organisations to move at pace to adapt to the new challenges and opportunities that digital can offer. These are not just technical challenges, though every university will face many of those. Equally fundamental are the cultural challenges of moving to a digital world which asks new questions of every role in an organisation, from academic to marketeer to finance director.

The digital world rewards collaborations and a core skill that successful organisations will need to develop is to know when and how to partner effectively to achieve their ambitions, when to reuse, build on, or work with existing products.

Most difficult of all is to rethink business models and to be prepared to risk traditional – but threatened – income streams in the search for the new markets and revenues that will power the industry of the future. Digital provides an opportunity for the university to think beyond its traditional role in society and the boundaries of its physical buildings – to grow its brand presence internationally and expand into new global markets; reach audiences from different backgrounds, domestically and overseas; transform the flexibility and effectiveness of its teaching and research; to make new partnerships and develop new revenue streams to fund a new type of organisation.  This is not easy to do when faced with the short-term pressures of maintaining the core business but will become increasingly critical for long-term success.

Q: How will the lifting of the cap on student numbers affect the UK higher education scene in 2015? 

A: In practice, FutureLearn currently operates in an open market where student numbers are not capped, so our experience of managing learner numbers is very different from traditional full-time, campus-based learning. 

There are, however, insights from the web-based experience that could be applied to managing increased student numbers without compromising the quality of the learning experience, which we know has been a major consideration. A number of our university partners are adopting blended learning models to give their campus based students the opportunity to connect with thousands  of learners around the world, to benefit from a range of perspectives and insights from experts in a subject as well as like-minded individuals.

In general, though, we expect that the trend towards the delivery of more online courses – both on and off campus – will continue to grow as an increasingly demanding global student base looks for technological solutions that offer greater flexibility and mobility.

Q: How do you think the outcome of the general election will affect HE in 2015? 

A: I remain optimistic that the pace of innovation in higher education will continue, with support from a number of champions across all parties. As we’ve seen in the year, support for free online courses has come from a number of Government departments, and advocacy has extended across the ability of these courses to promote UK higher education overseas, their applications in the area of continuing professional development, and as a way of disseminating vital information to organisations and individuals as we saw with the Cyber Security course co-created by HM Government.