FutureLearn & the role of MOOCs

If you're working in higher ed in the UK you will no doubt have seen that FutureLearn had its beta launch last week. Some disclosure – FutureLearn is owned by the OU & I've been partially involved in its development, so I'm probably not a completely objective commentator. Needless to say, what follows is just my opinion and not an official OU/FL one.

The first thing to note about the FutureLearn launch is that it launched. This is no mean feat. To get all those partner universities to sign an agreement on something quite vague, to develop a platform from scratch and to get good quality courses created for a platform that didn't exist involves an incredible amount of negotiation, hard work and good will from all parties. My small involvement with the project is that we have a weekly one hour meeting with the lead developer where we feed in advice and research. I've found them to be very smart and willing to take stuff on board. It hasn't felt like an antagonistic or us and them relationship. And I know where I speak of here, having been involved in the UK eUniversity, which became mired in contracts and stalled development. 

So, getting FutureLearn launched in a decent state is the higher ed equivalent of hosting the Olympics successfully. We're often criticised in higher ed for not being able to deliver so we ought to recognise it when someone does.

I know some people are down on FutureLearn, and I can appreciate why. It's a backlash to all the MOOC hype. I think it is important to maintain a critical standpoint particularly when commercial interests are trying to undermine existing practice to create a market for their own solutions. But I don't want to find myself in the position where I'm arguing that making good quality, well designed learning content available for free is a bad thing

The MOOC hype is settling down now, and I feel that FutureLearn is really an indication of what it may well end up being. Forget the "end of universities as we know them" rhetoric, ignore the "all education will be this way one day" commercial wet dream – MOOCs will be as OERs. And that's a good thing. OERs are now available from providers all over the globe, they make a big difference to the way many people work. But they haven't really fundamentally changed what we do in education, they've allowed new models and enhanced others.

Now if you're a venture capitalist this is bad news, you've sunk millions into a MOOC company, you need it to entirely revolutionise education, so you can own a big chunk of it. But if you're a university this is good news. Martin Bean, quite rightly in my view, pitched MOOCs as a shop-window. That's a sustainable business model for universities. We've found that OpenLearn is more or less sustainable now as a recruitment channel. This talk of business models may not be as altruistic or as revolutionary as radical MOOCers would like, but I think it's a good model with benefits on both sides. If a million learners every year get to experience some good online teaching material, and a smallish percentage of these then go on to study other MOOCs, or enter formal education, that's a positive outcome for universities, society and the individual learners. It probably isn't a model that will get venture capitalists excited though.


  • Samwisefox

    I’m a big fan of OpenLearn as I can dip in and out as I please. I just hope it doesn’t get dropped 🙁
    I also can see the many benefits of MOOCs and after dropping out of a few Coursera ones due to technical glitches (I have a short attention span and hate waiting), am really excited to start my first FuruteLearn one in October on ecosystems 🙂
    Free education can’t be a bad thing when it does so much for a person’s personal development and confidence, and widens their knowledge base.

  • mweller

    Rob – will do
    Sam – agree, MOOCs and OERs are doing slightly different things, both valid. There are no plans to drop OpenLearn at all, it’s a major channel for the OU and integrated into standard working practice

  • Cristinacost

    Very interesting post and congratulations on the launching of FL.
    I think MOOCs are appealing to HEIs because of the marketing possibilities they provide. And to be fair I think that’s not bad because I think unis should b more open about the kind of content they offer and the people that teach them. As a potential student I want to know more about the place where I’ll be studying… Spending some years of my life. My fear about MOOCs has been about the bad name they can potentially be because as an online learning experience, it can be a rather daunting and overwhelming one, so I think it’s important to market it as a way of sampling what an institution has to offer.
    Just a final comment, if MOOCs are the new OERs-and I do agree with it -why are we calling them MOOCs? Perhaps it is the new marketing language…?

  • Jeremybwilliams

    Martin, while the “end of universities as we know them” and “all education will be this way one day” rhetoric can be a little wearing, I’m not sure it can be dismissed completely. A key factor in this regard, I think, is the public finance of higher education (or lack thereof) and commercial players riding in on a white charger to save the day. There is also a chance that the private equity backed MOOCs will get their act together pedagogically speaking, and offer something to students and employers of real value that is competitively priced. Thoughts?

  • mweller

    @Cristina – hi! I wasn’t trying to say MOOCs _are_ OERs, I think it’s ok to have a different name, but just that they will fulfill a similar role, which is significant, but not as revolutionary as some portray.
    @Jeremy – I think there may be something around the employer related MOOCs, but I’m not convinced this will end up being in competition with formal HE. I think we’re looking at a richer mix of learning opportunities (I have a tortuous analogy coming up in a blog post on this), but they are not mutually exclusive.
    @Nat – thanks, be interesting to see how people find FL both in terms of platform and content

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