The millionth milestone

As FutureLearn reaches one million sign ups, Rebecca Paddick asks its CEO Simon Nelson, what’s next for MOOCs?

FutureLearn celebrated its first birthday in October 2014, what was it like reaching that milestone?

It’s still only a little over two years since I first heard the word MOOC, so it feels like we’ve been on quite a journey since then. The engagement satisfaction received from our learners is beyond anything we could have hoped for at this stage. It really feels like we’re on to something, it feels that people love the courses we’re putting out and they are coming back for more.

You said the platform was very much under construction in 2014, it was still in the beta stage. Is that still the case?

Yes, absolutely. We came out of beta a few months ago, but we regarded that as Version One of the platform, because it will never stop developing. Every day we develop some part of it. But the challenge grows of supporting a million learners, and giving them a great experience, at the same time as developing these features. 

There’s a constant balance to be struck between maintaining the quality of the overall experience, and making sure that the foundations we’ve built are protected and nurtured, but then continuing to innovate. I’m very happy with where we are, the way it’s been built on and approached. The quality is embedded in my product development team and my design team and I think it’s what’s making us stand out in the market. Quality design, quality content, a quality learning experience. Those are the core foundations, but we’ll carry on building on those.

What about the way you work with universities to design the courses, has that changed at all?

Universities are still absolutely at the heart of FutureLearn. We’re built on those relationships we’ve got with leading universities all over the world. But we are looking to deepen that relationship. A more interesting area of development for both us and universities is how we can partner to exploit the broad range of digital opportunities that they’re now being confronted by. So what we want to be seen as is an excellent collectible platform and product for their content and their academic, but also as a fantastic partner that understands the strategic drivers and helps them to deliver against them.

And what’s the next level for FutureLearn?

I think we all recognise that the HE sector is going digital and not necessarily in ways that the doom-mongers predicted a couple of years ago. Actually, a digital transition can create the most incredible opportunity to reinvent your business and we want to be part of that conversation and part of that solution. Simply put, we want to create an even broader portfolio of great courses that can attract even more people and provide those who are already there with further learning experiences. But critically, it’s about ensuring that universities have a clear business driver for why they would do that. So those drivers could be about international branding and reputation, it could be about deepening the research impact, it could be about recruiting new domestic or international students. There could be a range of other relationships with cultural, content or commercial partners that we can help to broker.

Apart from reaching your one millionth sign-up, were there any other milestones for FutureLearn that you are particularly proud of?

I would just point to the fact that we’re still only just over two years old. We’ve only been running courses for just over a year. We’ve got a million people signed up and they’re coming back for more – very healthy proportion of them are buying the premium products that we offer – and the quality of the courses just seems to be getting better and better. We also have new partners coming on board, so our international partnership base is growing very rapidly.

The fact is it’s a number of moving parts, or a number of plates that we need to keep spinning at once. What we’re trying to do is pretty relentless, pretty intense, and very complex, but we’re pulling it off. 

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