FutureLearn, The free learning revolution

FutureLearn is the UK’s platform for online courses, with nearly 70 partner universities and institutions, from the British Museum to UCL

It recently claimed the record for the course with the most students – more than 440,000 learners enrolled for a British Council course preparing for an English language test. What’s the secret behind its success and what does the future hold for massive open online courses (MOOCS) providers like FutureLearn? CEO Simon Nelson explains all.


It’s been nearly two years now since FutureLearn launched – how’s it going?

We’re delighted with progress. Around a year later we hit our first million people signed up for courses and those numbers are accelerating [now nearly two million]. People who are doing our courses seem to love them and the volume we have who are getting through the courses – our own metric is ‘fully participating in them’ – is very healthy.We think that the quality of the courses coming from the universities is getting better and better and we have a very strong relationship with our partners where we mutually support each other to keep quality high and raise standards by learning from each other. Our first business models are performing far better than predictions so I can definitely see a clear path of sustainability for the business.

These are business models based around people paying for the statements of participation?

Yes, that’s pretty much the only business model we’ve got at the moment; we also offer exams at the end of some of our courses at physical test centres and that’s been slower to get off the ground but our statements of participation are selling in many multiples of what we predicted they would at this stage.

What about the numbers of people who have completed courses?

Our metric is full participation so you need to have done more than half the steps of the course and all the assessments. Our figure is that around 23% of people who start on our courses fully participate in them. If you look at other platforms, everyone measures themselves slightly differently so some people benchmark against people who sign up for the course (although a lot of people who sign up for a course don’t actually start it) and if you take our figures against that metric, which is only fair to do, then it’s 12% of people who start up who fully participate, which we’re pretty pleased with at the moment. The first metric is the more interesting one for us.

And how does that compare with other platforms?

Everyone measures slightly differently and they may measure completion or people who are eligible for their statements of completion. With that caveat, I think the published figures that they put out are around 4-6% on average. We have some courses that have had over 50% full participation and others that have had well under 10%. We think we may start getting more sophisticated in the way in which we report that as there are different durations of courses, different types of courses. But in very crude benchmarking against what’s happening elsewhere in the market, we’re very pleased with progress. 

What do you know about your learners? Who are they and do you know why do some fully participate and others do not?

There’s a wide range of backgrounds and motivation driving our learners. Demographically, we have a broad spread from age 13 to 93 and we have a wide range of courses targeted at school leavers, university leavers, professionals in business, healthcare, teaching, international learners who want to develop their English skills and then general interest learners who want to capitalise on this free learning revolution and get back to studying. So there’s a huge diversity but the enthusiasm you see among all ages and all demographics is really the key yardstick for us that tells us we’re on the right track. 

I always tell people to go and have a look at the courses and what people are doing and saying because we put great emphasis on what we call our social learning functionality – we very much encourage debate and discussion within the courses and you’ll see it’s very passionate, erudite, informed discussion that goes on in there.

How important is that social element in keeping people going, keeping them participating, helping with those full participation rates?

Critical. The two elements that distinguish these types of courses from the type of open courseware that has gone before is the fact that the courses have a start date – a beginning, middle and end – which is a powerful motivator in an on-demand world, and then the social element that means that they go through the courses with a cohort, encouraging and motivating each other to continue, making it feel like it’s not a lonely experience but a shared one.

Increasingly, we’re trying to bring interesting approaches to how people learn from each other and collaborate in their learning. We’re early days in this but we’ve built the foundations effectively for a social network for learning. I hasten to add that we’ve only built the foundations so far! But we think it’s going to be a really interesting area for where learning goes over the next few years.

And the use of mobile technology?

Again, it’s very, very important. So we make sure that we’ve built a product that is responsively designed so it recognises the device you’re on and optimises for it – our platform works beautifully whether you’re on a mobile or a desktop. We don’t have an app but that’s definitely something we’ll be looking at in future. 

Which have been your most successful courses and why? Are you discovering what doesn’t work?

There’s no course that we point at and say ‘that doesn’t work’ though there may be elements that need improving. One of the beauties of this market is that because it’s such a dynamic medium you have the opportunity to be driven by a wealth of data that is almost unparalleled in a learning context. But there are courses that have stood out for us.

Until recently our biggest course was one called Exploring English Language and Culture with the British Council, which 123,000 people signed up to on its first run. This area of social language learning is a very interesting journey for us. We also have a course on building your first mobile game, from the University of Reading, and that’s been big, and we’re on the second run of an introduction to forensic science from Strathclyde. We’ve had three very good forensic science courses, all very popular and all with great participation rates. 

We’ve had fantastic courses in Irish history and ancient history, based around archaeology and Hadrian’s Wall, and they get very high levels of engagement. Personal health and wellbeing feels like a very strong category – there’s a focus on mental health, for example. We’ve got quite a healthcare portfolio, aimed at professionals as well as more general interest and sufferers. So we have courses on medicines adherence – how do you get patients to take their medicines – and courses on falls among aging patients. We have courses running soon on dysphasia and obesity. Then, of course, business and entrepreneurship is a very hot area for us.

In terms of the portfolio of courses we cover quite a broad waterfront quite thinly and my priority is to try to add depth into those categories because we know that people get to the end of the courses and they’ve had a fantastic experience and they say so, where next? We want to have somewhere for them to go next, either on FutureLearn or, potentially, into the core business of our university partners either online or on undergraduate or postgraduate courses.

For that to happen would there have to be a way for these courses to give points or credentials so that people can go on to those university courses?

That’s something for the universities to deal with themselves, really; it’s not an area we particularly focus on – we don’t see ourselves as a university, we don’t want to be a university and, for many of our learners, credit is not the kind of thing they are looking for. They are looking for different types of recognition, they are looking for things that are valued by their employers, or things that help them develop new skills, things that will help them gain professional qualifications or just personal mementoes so they can say ‘yes, I did that’.

We’re doing a lot of work and a lot of thinking on understanding those different motivations at different life stages but credit and the complexities of credit, that’s core university business so we leave it to them whether they want to offer credit but, if they do, we want to make sure that our platform is a robust solution for them to do that.

Have any courses been a surprise success for you?

There’s a course running on ebola at the moment that’s been very successful but that doesn’t surprise me. Forensic science did, actually, I didn’t see that coming though a couple of people in my team did. All the forensic science courses have stood out. We’ve had a few courses on Shakespeare that have been extremely popular and with great engagement levels.

With your partnerships with the British Library, British Museum, British Council and British Film Institute, to name just a few, there’s a very British flavour to FutureLearn but you also partner with international universities – Australia, Shanghai, Oslo – what does that bring and are there any challenges with this kind of transnational education?

The web is a global platform and rewards global networks. We’re interested in working with the top universities all over the world and showcasing their expertise to the rest of the world using the platform and approach that we’ve developed. They give us credibility in different markets so by having one of the top Australian universities and top Chinese universities it raises awareness of FutureLearn in those countries and helps us to attract learners. It’s really interesting but relatively untapped potential at this stage in how those universities work together. My philosophy has always been that the web is a very big competitive landscape and one that favours scale so to act in partnership with others and create something that’s bigger than the sum of your individual parts is a very powerful strategy.

Have Moocs been over-hyped? 

Unquestionably there were excessive claims made about the potential of Moocs in the early days – not by us, I hasten to add. But it’s typical of any industry I’ve worked in when the internet hits it. It’s what happened when I was in radio, it’s what happened when I was in TV, at the BBC, it’s what happened in publishing – evangelists overclaiming the potential benefits and also predicting the death or demise of the key institutions in the industry; sceptics moving to the other end of the spectrum and getting further entrenched in a view what dismisses what’s going on as a fad and starts to question any of the benefits that may be coming. 

This spectrum of debate is often quite unhealthy and the real answer lies somewhere in the middle and that’s what I think is happening with Moocs. In some ways Moocs are just one part of a much more exciting and fundamental transformation that’s happening in higher education, which is the arrival of the internet and the possibilities that that offers to the existing incumbents, to new entrants, to transform the quality and effectiveness of teaching and learning is something that we prefer to focus on and try to be a catalyst for and a partner for our universities in helping to exploit that.

This article was amended on 30 July 2015 to reflect changes in course numbers since the interview took place.

This article first appeared on the Jisc website. Read the full interview here: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/the-free-learning-revolution-simon-nelson-futurelearn-22-jul-2015