25YearsOU,  MOOC

25 Years of OU – 2013: FutureLearn


At the end of The Year of the MOOC, the OU VC of the time, Martin Bean, invited a few of us to discuss a new project. There was political pressure (I believe but not had it confirmed) on the OU to engage with MOOCs. The argument went something like “you get all this money to widen participation in education, and there’s these MOOCs getting millions of learners for free”. I probably don’t need to explain why that is a deeply flawed take, but the sentiment was there nonetheless. More significantly, the OU had successfully entered the OER field with OpenLearn, which can be seen as a broadening of what open education means and therefore what an open university should engage in. MOOCs represented a similar challenge and opportunity. In 2013 the project, FutureLearn, came to fruition.

What came from these discussions of course was the launch of FutureLearn. I think my main input at the time was to tell cautionary tales from the SocialLearn project, and to try and push the open license agenda. I was successful in the former but unsuccessful in the latter. One of the problems with SocialLearn was that it had become mired in OU governance structures and committees. FutureLearn was set up as an external company with the OU as the sole shareholder. This gave them the kind of flexibility that was required to make it a success.

With the investment of Seek, and 100s of thousands of learners, lots of great courses and an excellent platform, I think FutureLearn counts as a success (I’m not sure how one measures these – financially I suppose?). It wasn’t the only option for the OU, and I sometimes feel that the same level of investment in OpenLearn would have been more fruitful for the OU brand, but then I’m probably biased to the more OER focused platform.

As well as a good range of MOOCs, we are currently developing microcredentials on FutureLearn and host one of our postgrad courses there. Having a different platform has been useful in learning lessons for production in-house and reaching new audiences.

The experience with FutureLearn is perhaps most significant in less tangible ways. It has kept the OU current (in some people’s eyes), enabled it to learn about ways of development and operation, given access to funding regimes and markets, and helped fulfil its widening participation remit. It gets us into different conversations and with different things to say. Personally, I have mixed feelings about it – I’ve enjoyed working with the development team and learnt a lot from people like Matt Walton. There is also a tension though – a FutureLearn employee once said to me “do you think FutureLearn will become the OU of the future?” to which I tersely (and with remarkable constraint, I feel) replied “The OU will be the OU of the future”. The delicate dance around each other with all universities and MOOC companies is reflected in this exchange. But overall, I think it was an appropriate move by the OU and having made that move, it has been successful at what it set out to realise.

Covid-19 bit: I remember at the start of 2019 professional mischievous imp George Siemens tweeted something like ‘the universities who have invested in MOOCs will be better equipped to deal with the future’. It caused a bit of a debate, and I didn’t agree with the sentiment, but perhaps what he was getting at was experimenting with MOOCs was a means for universities to engage with online learning. It may not be the best way, but it happened to be the cause that finally led to this engagement for a lot of institutions.

It strikes me that 2020 offers a potential test for George’s hypothesis. Have the unis that engaged with MOOCs fared better during Covid? There would be complicating factors of course, for example maybe unis with deeper pockets could afford MOOC experimentation, and could then also afford to invest during the pandemic. But it would be an interesting research project (hit me up if you want to create a bid).

That represents a way of framing FutureLearn or any such investment for unis I think – despite what ed tech entrepreneurs like to say, higher education does change, and engage in experimentation all the time. Some of this gets absorbed into core practice, and some fades away.


  • Robert O'Toole

    Very interesting to hear about it from an inside-the-OU perspective. I can remember Simon Nelson talking about Futurelearn at a BUFVC event early on. It was clear that he was strongly motivated by frustrations with the BBC, and was looking for a host for his ambitions to, as I think he said, “take storytelling to a new level”. But it was very much an old-media+tech view of how learning works. There’s some bits on this in my PhD thesis.

    Another memory – many years ago I can remember meeting someone from the OU at the Shock of the New in Oxford. I think I had done a talk about our podcasting initiative, and how we had gone for a lower-fi and low-barrier process so as to spread a capability for podcasting as widely at Warwick as possible. The OU people were amazed by this, in contrast with their very tightly controlled studio approach. I think things changed at the OU. But I also contend that our lo-fi approach with devolved responsibility put us in a better position to pivot – and our Ac Team were used to supporting the approach needed for that. Kerry Pinny’s fast reaction in creating workflows and training for creating video lectures, for example, made an enormous difference. So maybe a hi-end studio approach would have been the wrong strategy for Warwick. We never went down that route.

    • mweller

      Hi Robert – thanks for telling me you’d posted this, it was in spam so I would’ve missed it. I agree about the lo-fi, it was something I tried to promote here too (see the podstars entry). Sometimes high quality is required, but other times lo-fi meets the needs.

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