‘I think there’s going to be a paradigm shift in the mentality of universities’

Genna Ash speaks to Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, about the sector’s response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic


Name: Simon Nelson

Job title: CEO, FutureLearn

Twitter: @urbangenie

Q. What are the challenges FutureLearn has had to overcome since the news of COVID-19 first hit global headlines?

FutureLearn is a fully digital company, so it really was a lot easier for us than most companies. We’d also been quite forward thinking when it comes to working from home – having strong remote working policies in place was key to attracting talent when we were in our startup phase. So, we’re pretty well set up. But there are still lots of us who have never done it to this degree. Product development, marketing, commercial, management, legal – all of these things are still running, so joining up the organisation, making sure everyone’s clear about priorities, communications and so on has improved in many ways. But then there are issues surrounding physical and mental health and wellbeing. As this crisis continues and the social, human and economic impacts become the biggest problem. That’s the hardest thing, I think. And, you know, team building and team management in a virtual environment can be a real challenge, but I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done and how well we’ve achieved it. So, overall, it’s gone well.

Q. What’s your view on the sector’s overall response to the crisis?

I’d say it’s been again, hugely impressive how rapidly universities have moved their courses to online delivery. Students are coping with the biggest crisis in their history. And, again, the challenge for universities, once they’ve overcome the initial burst of innovation, excitement and adrenaline, becomes how they sustain that and actually get a resilient, high-quality service up and running. If this is going to go on a lot longer, leaders desperately need to figure out the long-term implications for their business.

Q. What do you think institutions need to prioritise to promote that resiliency you speak of?

What has been done in the first instance, is replicating traditional teaching in an online environment. Through the first stage of the crisis, that was what needed to be done and it’s been done extremely well. I think if you want to deliver powerful, effective online teaching, however, then you need to be thinking about crafting specific educational experiences that work for the medium and are designed for the medium. And you also need to train people on how to teach, or how to create courses and how to support students in that environment. So, I think this is the next stage of challenges that all of these players are going to experience.

Q. FutureLearn responded to the crisis by launching a number of new courses – like How to teach online: providing continuity for students. Could you tell us a bit about that?

That was one of the courses we identified quite early on, and one we’re most proud of really. We realised that suddenly, all over the world, school teachers and university educators were having to learn new skills very, very rapidly. We had a range of courses on FutureLearn but we didn’t have one that was just the basics of how to teach online aimed at those people. We had lots of expertise in-house; we have a learning design team who spent the whole time supporting educators going online for the first time, so, rather than take the time to find a university partner or another educator, we decided to create the course. And we launched it in just a few days.

We managed to get a very high-quality course which presented things in completely new ways, with no reliance on expensive video tools and instead, heavy reliance on actually getting a community of educators working together and sharing each other’s expertise. That course is now closing in on 40,000 enrolments in just the last couple of weeks. It broke all sorts of new ground for us; it’s the first course we have delivered in that time scale, pulling in contributors from across our university partners. We’re extremely proud of it and we’re already looking at what comes next, considering how to build up a really powerful range of short courses, but also micro-credentials. Further to this, we’re pioneering more advanced study for something we think is going become a core competence for pretty much every educator in the future. So that’s definitely an area of high focus for us when it comes to our partners.

Q. Talking of your partners – how do you think edtech companies, educators, policy makers and leadership teams across the sector can best work together to minimise the disruption to students’ learning?

I think what’s dawning on me really is that the scale of the challenge is so huge. If the disruption is going to continue for whatever length of time, everyone’s going to be living with the possibility of lockdown coming at any moment until vaccines are created. And even then, everyone’s going to be wary of the next pandemic.

I think there’s going to be a paradigm shift in the mentality of universities. They are going to have to be ready to provide a much wider range of online and blended learning solutions. So the scale of that challenge – when you look at how much teaching has traditionally been done face-to-face – is huge. I think they do need to partner with players like ourselves and others in the market to help them develop their capabilities, which by the way, would also mean developing their capabilities in-house. They must use their partners to stimulate that, rather than outsource their problems. But in addition, I’d love to see greater collaboration between universities co-creating or sharing content so that we don’t have lots of universities spending their efforts making the same kinds of courses, which have very similar flavours for all of our individual students. We need to start looking across the sector and pooling our resources to try and migrate more programmes online as quickly as possible.

I think, at a policy level and at a sector level, I would say that the need for collaboration between regulators, universities and providers – like ourselves – has never been more pressing.

Q. So you’re saying that universities should team up, share expertise and deliver joint courses?

Exactly that. And you know, we’ve tried to get this kind of thing off the ground before. And it’s one of those things that has felt just a bit too much when so much is geared towards face-to-face delivery. But look at us now – e-learning couldn’t be a more burning platform. And so, I think, together we need to work very rapidly to overcome some of the barriers that have previously gotten in the way to adopt a more aggressive delivery of online and blended solutions.

Q. So you think that the pandemic could steer a more community-driven approach to education?

In the midst of all the gloom and the crisis, we’re seeing clear skies and empty roads. It’s massively reduced pollution. We’re all challenging, in our own minds, why we ever used to feel it was necessary to fly all over the world for meetings, when we’re proving right now we can do stuff on Zoom. Why did we ever need the big office spaces? And this has got to be a moment for the education sector (as well as other sectors) to radically rethink some of the preconceptions. Do we really need all the buildings we created? Should there be as much focus on multi-year residential degrees versus more flexible delivery of blended online and face-to-face? Do we need as much individual competitive strategy versus more collective, sector-wide approaches, particularly when resources are going to be so limited?

Q. It’s not just the education sector, but every sector worldwide that’s going to be impacted by the pandemic. So financially, there’s got to be some benefits to blended and online learning. What do you make of that?

I think that for any business that goes through a digital transition, or any industry that goes through a digital transition, the big legacy players find it quite hard – particularly in the beginning – to really challenge preconceptions about how they deliver value in their market, whereas new entrants come in without any of that historical baggage, they can identify new approaches and really invest in the fastest moving.

I worked at the BBC for 15 years. I fought the doom mongers. All through those 15 years, they were saying that the BBC was no longer relevant and I would say, “No, if we migrate those services effectively now, we can be as strong or stronger.” I think we’re now seeing the real power of the BBC in this crisis – the same BBC that many thought would have disappeared 20 years ago. But to bring it back to your point, I’m sure there are some people thinking quite radically about the reinvention of life. The centre at the moment is in crisis management. And there is a school of thought that online teaching is as expensive as campus teaching. I’m not going to get into that, really. But I would say it is time. The economic impacts of climate change alone are going to be so big that every business will have to rethink itself. And, you know, in the last few weeks, many sectors which were still holding off in the face of digital – like education – now suddenly have an absolute rocket underneath them. Every traditional business has experienced, in the last four weeks, something they have never seen before. So, there has to be quite profound adjustment in my view.

Q. And so then, I guess, finally, the big million-dollar question is what’s going to happen when the lockdown is over and campuses reopen? Are there strategies in place and what would this mean for the new online learning model – is it likely to continue? Has COVID-19 changed the face of education as we know it?

I think the value of a degree from a world leading institution has not diminished. And as a result of the outbreak, the assumptions about how you go about getting one have radically shifted for both domestic and international students. Now, I’ve never been a believer that you need to do away with campus-based education. I was privileged enough to enjoy it and they were some of the most formative and enjoyable years of my life, and many are still going to want to experience that. But I think the nature of education needs to change. A few weeks ago, before this all really hit, you and I would have been talking with me banging the drum for the tens of millions of people around the world who are desperate for a high-quality education but could never dream of physically attending one of these universities. And all the people beyond traditional university age would have been saying, “Okay, we’re seeing jobs being disrupted or replaced by automation, AI, etc, so there’s a vast market of opportunity there.” But, just a month ago, universities would have been trying convince people that there was a wider market opportunity than they were going after.

“Universities now have a very powerful digital solution. They must disproportionately invest in it to secure their position in the new world”


Universities now have a very powerful digital solution. They must disproportionately invest in it to secure their position in the new world; to reinvent as digital brands rather than purely based in the towns and buildings they inhabit. If they do that, there is a vast international market for them to target in new ways, with new efficiencies and delivery, but no loss in my view, in the power and efficacy of teaching, or the value of the reward that they give their students.

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