The MOOC mindset

Rebecca Paddick examines the growth of FutureLearn and takes a look at how MOOCs measure up around the world

I first met FutureLearn’s CEO, Simon Nelson, a year ago at the company’s HQ based at the British Library. Back then, Nelson explained the MOOC provider’s business model, its goals for the future and the success it had achieved so far. When I caught up with him most recently, the story of the company reaching its one millionth sign-up was just about to break – quite an achievement for a business launched less than two years ago. 

“The engagement satisfaction received from our learners is beyond anything we could have hoped for at this stage. It really feels like we’re onto something, it feels that people love the courses we’re putting out and they are coming back for more,” said Nelson. 

During our first chat back in 2014, Nelson explained that the platform was still in the ‘BETA’ phase, as it was still developing important features. Although it’s now advanced from those early, experimental stages, Nelson is adamant that the platform will continue to evolve. “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.

A balancing act

“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,” he said, adding: “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.”

The MOOC provider prides itself on its partnerships with universities in the UK and around the world, and has worked closely with the institutions to develop its online course content, something which, as its CEO explained, hasn’t changed: “Universities are still absolutely at the heart of FutureLearn, 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.”

A digital future

FutureLearn’s growth and success is a testament to its hardworking team, which has demonstrated over the past year the importance of adapting to change and embracing the digital demands made on higher education. But what’s next for the company which develops at breakneck speed? “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,” explained Nelson.

“I think a lot of people now realise that 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, FutureLearn’s aim is to create a broader portfolio of courses that can attract even more learners. “Critically, it’s about ensuring that universities have a clear business driver for why they would do that,” he added. “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.

“The fact is that FutureLearn is 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, intense, and very complex, but we’re pulling it off.” 

The MOOC impact on UK HE

Newcastle University

Newcastle currently has a programme of three free online courses on the FutureLearn platform. Hadrian’s Wall: Life on The Roman Frontier, Ageing Well: Falls and The Enterprise Shed: Making Ideas Happen. More than 18,000 people from 107 countries signed up for the Hadrian’s Wall course, which ran 22 September – 3 November 2014.

“The age profile has been different with all three of the courses we have developed so far, which is gratifying, as we designed them for different audiences,” explained Suzanne Hardy, Senior Project Officer, Learning and Teaching Development Service, Newcastle University.

 She added: “The Hadrian’s Wall course was designed for people who had not previously done any archaeology, but we had everyone from children doing the course with their parents, to experienced professional archaeologists, who, from the feedback we received, all seemed to get something valuable from taking part.” 

Given the success of Newcastle’s first suite of courses, the University says that it would hope to offer a new suite of courses soon.

Hardy continued: “The next phase of development will undoubtedly focus on ways that we can make MOOCs begin to work for us in other ways. There are new spaces opening up which will help us realise ambitions in learning and teaching more broadly, allowing us to try things in a different space before we put them into practice with courses and programmes which generate income.”  

University of Leeds

Courses at Leeds cover a range of disciplines from anatomy, natural resource management, and actor training, through to starting a business and business innovation. All courses are short (two–four weeks) and offer learners an introduction to a subject. 

To help implement the online platform, the University established the Digital Learning Team; which has now grown and is a core component of the University. “Within the team, we employ e-learning specialists, production specialists, content creators, animators and learning technologists. We work closely with FutureLearn to develop the very best online learning experiences in their platform,” said Professor Neil Morris, Director of Digital Learning, at the University of Leeds.

He added: “Universities are now seriously engaged with digital learning initiatives, including more blended learning, investment in digital technologies, and support for developing digital resources to support learning.”