FutureLearn, the next chapter

After 3 years, 2 million users and more than 5 million MOOCs, Rebecca Paddick asks FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson, what’s next for online learning?

The last time I spoke to FutureLearn boss Simon Nelson, the social learning platform was about to hit its first major milestone – one million registered users. Now, just eight months on, more than 2.5 million people have signed up to take part in one of the platform’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). “That first million took us 18 months, the next million and a half have taken us just over six months,” explains Nelson.

FutureLearn was established by The Open University towards the end of 2012, with the first courses going live in October 2013. Over 50 of the world’s top universities now deliver courses on the platform. Alongside its HE partners, FutureLearn also works with leading centres of research excellence and specialist education providers such as the British Council, Creative Skillset and the European Space Agency.

Investing in the future

The OU recently announced it will invest a further £13m in FutureLearn’s growth and development over the next three years. Nelson continues: “We’re showing all the right momentum in all of our numbers including our commercials and that gave me the confidence to go back to the OU board and say we’re ahead of targets, the foundations are very strong but if you look at the market it’s not standing still. There’s a huge amount of innovation going on around online learning, and a huge amount of rapid movement from American platforms in particular. We think we can play quite strongly in these markets, but we feel we probably are struggling on the size of team we’ve got.”

The Open University’s (OU) extra investment hopes to kick-start a new phase of development for the MOOC provider. It plans to make it easier for learners to access courses, building on the platform’s ‘mobile-first’ strategy which has seen over 40% of learners take their courses on a mobile device. It also plans to expand internationally, with extra support for learners whose first language is not English.

“Most of the funding will be going towards product developments. We need to develop a broader range of more sophisticated commercial products, and we want to be able to compete more appropriately globally,” adds Nelson. 

Adapting to change

Since our last discussion, the HE sector has witnessed some monumental changes, from abolition of the cap on student numbers to revised visa rules for international students. Nelson believes that the sector’s evolution will reinforce the need for scalable digital solutions: “To my mind the biggest underlying shift, and the one that is going to have the longer more fundamental impact, is the digitisation of education and the set of opportunities that presents to transform teaching, not just for existing students, but for a whole range of new students anywhere in the world of any age group. “We see ourselves as a social learning platform and we think we bring all sorts of benefits to universities and to learners by enabling people to learn together in  these ways.”


Nelson and the FutureLearn team weathered their fair share of criticism in the early days, dividing opinion throughout the education sector. Some thought they were set to transform higher education and enhance learning on a global scale, while others labelled them as a passing phase, but in recent months the attitude towards free online courses has somewhat stabilised.

“It staggers me that I still get people looking at me with a challenging eye and saying that universities didn’t get swept away these past three years. I have to look back at them with incredulity that they might ever have imagined that that was going to happen,” says Nelson.

ABOVE: FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson

“In the beginning, there was a massive overhype of the potential short-term benefits of MOOCs, but a kind of misunderstanding of the underlying movement, which is the digitisation of the content. Now, I think people understand that we are part of a long-term movement that is happening rapidly and is going to change things fundamentally.”

Content is king

The OU’s funding will go towards improving and expanding a number of aspects of the FutureLearn offering, but its CEO says that it’s more important target for this next phase is ensuring they continue to focus on the content.

“We have built a great platform but it’s only ever as good as the quality of the courses we provide. A lot of my work is about motivating persuading and incentivising universities and other partners to create fantastic courses and then helping them to get those courses to the audiences that they want to target. So it’s all about the content.”

Simon Nelson added: FutureLearn has made a fantastic start in delivering social learning at massive scale but there is still much we can do to build upon our position as a leader in this innovative space. As the reach and impact of the platform expands around the world, our goal to deliver the highest-quality learning experience becomes more important than ever in continuing to benefit our learners, partners and The Open University.

Find our more about FutureLearn and the courses it provides at www.futurelearn.com 


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