MOOCs in the making

Rebecca Paddick takes a look around the FutureLearn HQ at The British Library, and finds out what’s next for the UK’s first MOOC provider

Past the impressive foyer and at the very top of the main staircase sits the FutureLearn headquarters, the UK’s first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform. “I love the story that there is an innovative online learning start-up at the heart of this traditional institution, and I think they are proud to have us here,” says Chief Executive Simon Nelson.

Back in September 2013, FutureLearn launched its BETA site and has since had more than 350,000 learners sign up for nearly 700,000 courses. “We know we are only at the start but we are very pleased with the product we have put out there,” adds Nelson.

“We deliberately call it ‘BETA’ because this is a phase where we are still developing important features. We think we need to enhance some existing features and we need to add some new ones. The BETA tag is an important signal to ourselves, our partners and our learners that what we think we have got out there is great, but it’s only the start.”

The company has partnered with a number of universities across the UK, and are wholly owned and funded by the Open University (OU). “I think we are the best of both worlds,” adds Nelson. “We are not a venture capital-backed MOOC provider that is potentially going to face some very challenging commercial decisions to pay back the return rates expected, but nor are we a pure not-for-profit, which potentially runs a risk of losing some of that commercial dynamism that a search for sustainability can bring in.”

Nelson came on board with the OU’s MOOC vision in late 2012, just as the online courses were gathering momentum in the HE sector. He added: “A key trigger and deciding factor for us to step up was that some UK universities were starting to connect with US MOOC providers, so we saw real potential in providing UK-based institutions an alternative to signing up with an American platform.”

By the end of January 2013, Nelson and the team had joined forces with 20 universities in the UK, and had the first prototype ready to launch in September 2013.

What’s in a MOOC?

Traditional online courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrolment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and open to anyone. The US had initially led the way for MOOCs – run by companies including Coursera and edX – with hundreds of courses offered from a range of top-flight institutions.

Surprisingly though, Nelson isn’t a fan of the term: “I am quite uncomfortable with the word MOOC, because, as a company, we are increasingly seeing ourselves as a social learning platform rather than just an online course provider or host.”

So how do you create an online course? According to Nelson, the process always starts with the university. Each institution develops its own course idea and MOOC providers create, schedule and monitor them. “Every day that goes by we learn more about what makes a great course,” explains Nelson. “We provide quite a high level of support and engagement to universities in building their courses. We will never dictate to a university what they have to do, but we increasingly influence decisions through the provision of the data and expertise we’re developing.” 

The social network

Social learning is at the heart of FutureLearn as the company believes it “makes the learning experience more enjoyable and removes the isolation of distance learning”. Nelson believes this is what sets the company apart from other MOOC providers.

“Firstly, we embed it very strongly into the overall teaching experience. It promotes the theory that you learn better together. The OU’s leading academics have helped to train our partners and our team in some of the underlying pedagogical thinking.

“Secondly, we have placed a very heavy emphasis on a simple, intuitive user experience. We embed the ability to comment, discuss and ask questions right alongside the article you have just read, or the video you’ve just watched.

“Finally, we are taking the principles of social networking and embedding them in the platform – so you can create your own profile page, follow other people, like their comments etc.”

Believe the hype?

MOOCs have divided opinion throughout the education sector in recent years. Some say they are set to transform higher education and enhance learning on a global scale, while others have dismissed their value and labelled them as a fad. “It’s unbelievable how tiresome the arguments for and against MOOCs are, and just how polarised they are,” comments Nelson.

“I think people are reacting against the hype. I am very pleased to say that we have never come out with overblown claims to be curing the education ills of the world.”

He adds: “But I strongly believe that in the long term, developments in online social learning are critical to solving many of the educational imbalances internationally.”

Many sceptics have voiced concerns that MOOCs are an attempt to replace the traditional degree model, but FutureLearn strongly argues that online courses can never replace teachers, classrooms or campus life. Nelson responds: “We are owned by the OU which has a blended model of distance and personal learning, and our partners are universities who want to enhance and expand what they do. We are not a replacement service, we are an additional service for students.”

Before FutureLearn, Nelson spent 15 years at the BBC, where he helped launch the BBC iPlayer. “Did on-demand television mean the death of live TV? No. Has TV had to adapt to online technologies? Absolutely,” he says.

“On-demand enhanced a once-traditional service for users. I think this is a parallel with higher education as it goes through its digital transformation. And I’d like to say to people, you can sit there and fear the attacks on your traditional business and what’s made you strong, or you can embrace a whole new range of opportunities.” 

Completion controversy

MOOC providers have been subject to criticism in recent months, due to low completion rates on some online courses. “We are finding the biggest drop off is from the time when people sign up to a course to the time they start it,” explains Nelson. “You can sign up to a course up to three months before it starts, so by the time it comes around, life has sometimes got in the way or you’ve forgotten about it, so that’s an area we are working to understand better.

“But we then benchmark ourselves against the people that start a course. Of those in our first set of data, 15% of learners were fully participating – this means that they have completed all of the assessments.”

FutureLearn’s latest courses have seen 22% of learners fully participate, and in some courses this rises to over 40%.

Attracting an audience

The company’s first set of data suggests they’re onto something. So what’s next? More courses, more sign ups and more developments for a company that has seen massive success but is still very much under construction.

From catching up with Nelson, it seems obvious that higher education needs to adapt to embrace the opportunities the web now offers. MOOCs have the ability to reach those who haven’t taken part in higher education before. Nearly a quarter of FutureLearn’s learners do not have degrees, highlighting a potential new revenue stream for universities across the globe.

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