Students can earn academic course credits through MOOCs

Matt Walton, Head of Product at FutureLearn, lays out the direction of travel for the UK’s leading MOOC provider

FutureLearn, the social learning platform owned by The Open University, has announced today that learners will now be able to use its massive open online courses (MOOCs) to earn academic course credits for degrees and MBAs, professional qualifications and formal CPD accreditation. 12 FutureLearn Programs from eight leading higher education institutions from around the world including the University of Leeds and The Open University are rolling out in 2016.

Matt Walton, Head of Product at FutureLearn, explores the context and implications of this move and lays out the direction of travel for the UK’s leading MOOC provider.

Fifty years ago, the newly-formed Open University took its first steps towards becoming “the University of the Air”, fulfilling a vision laid out by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson to provide “an opportunity for those who, for one reason or another, have not been able to take advantage of higher education”. 

As well as taking advantage of the relatively new technology of television to bring more convenience to the delivery of education, the creation of the ‘University of the Air’ acknowledged a fundamental truth which is as important today as it ever was: that quality education should be open and accessible to everyone, regardless of their background, both for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole. 

FutureLearn represents a continuation of the original pioneering thinking that gave birth to the OU, and like the early OU, FutureLearn works in collaboration with others to deliver upon its mission. It now has over 80 University partners offering a portfolio of more than 300 courses to nearly 4 million learners all over the world. 

I can imagine a scenario where we offer a range of micro qualifications that learners from all over the world can learn throughout their life

The Open University enables its students to gain recognised credits for each module of study, which can be combined into bigger, formal qualifications. FutureLearn’s aim with Programs is to enable something similar, allowing learners to begin learning flexibly and gaining recognised awards and credits from a range of institutions, with some programs also designed as pathways into full degrees.

Our goal is to make recognised higher education available in a much more flexible way that gives students more control to decide when and where to study. We want to give people the opportunity to continue to learn and gain recognised awards throughout their life, and have the opportunity to try out different subjects with a variety of providers, before they decide how much time and money they want to commit.

In future, we hope to start to see consortia of FutureLearn partners and employers recognising each other’s Programs, which could enable FutureLearners to build a modular, personalised qualification that is bespoke to their own needs and interests.

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The introduction of Programs is important because it shows us that the promise and potential of MOOCs and social learning for both institutions and learners is starting to be delivered.

In terms of institutions, it’s worth remembering where we were at a few years ago. Most universities were keen to make headway with online learning, but too much time, money and effort was expended in working around technology and IT infrastructure, resulting in the important stuff – content and the learning experience – being shunted further down the list of priorities. 

Simultaneously, learners’ expectations of an education experience were evolving faster and more profoundly that at any previous time in history – driven by mass adoption of mobile technologies and an explosion in social media. Universities needed to reflect these changes in behaviour that are now well established and go with – rather than against – the grain of the internet.

FutureLearn is the bridge between learners’ demands for education with a high quality user experience on their own terms and the HE sector’s need to adapt and evolve new models of delivery that reflect the way people live their lives in a connected world.

Most universities were keen to make headway with online learning, but too much time, money and effort was expended in working around technology and IT infrastructure, resulting in the important stuff – content and the learning experience – being shunted further down the list of priorities

Since we started FutureLearn, many of our academic partners have begun to gain confidence as they tackle full-scale digital transformation, and I see the HE sector’s relationship with the internet maturing as ever more universities recognise the opportunities that come with providing more flexible, learner-centric options via FutureLearn’s social learning platform.

The edtech sector has historically been woefully poor at delivering the kind of high quality experiences that digital consumers now expect. Our mission – to “Pioneer the best social learning experiences for everyone, anywhere” has always been about addressing this issue head on, and the launch of Programs is a milestone that, I’m proud to say, shows me that we’re well on the way to achieving what we set out to do.

Where will we be in 5 or 10 years’ time? I can imagine a scenario where we offer a range of micro qualifications that learners from all over the world can learn throughout their life. There may be “mix and match” degrees with content from multiple courses from different universities across the world – but that’s some way off. What I am certain of is that FutureLearn and its partners are helping to design richer educational experiences that are open to everyone with a curious mind and an internet connection.

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