Introduction from Simon Nelson, CEO at Futurelearn

The role that entertainment plays in learning is often overlooked. Take a glance at massive open online courses (MOOCs). They’re often very conventional, based on lectures broadcast “at” students, rather than engaging with them...

Simon Nelson

Simon Nelson

The role that entertainment plays in learning is often overlooked. Take a glance at massive open online courses (MOOCs). They’re often very conventional, based on lectures broadcast “at” students, rather than engaging with them. The language can be rarefied and niche [ask most people the meaning of “MOOC” or “pedagogy” and they wouldn’t have a clue]. Perhaps this partly explains the enormous drop-out rates and why many of those completing MOOCs are practicing academics who are familiar with the culture and semantics.

Students at the centre

Since I joined Futurelearn in November, I’ve been absolutely clear that above everything, our product will be designed 100% for students. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Our students will be a broad, international group with diverse educational, cultural and social backgrounds and differing attitudes to learning and technology. But by drawing on 40 years’ Open University expertise in teaching and learning at a distance, we have an opportunity to offer something very different.

So what are the key features? To start with, we’re looking at highly user-focused searching and browsing so people can find exactly the right course for them; teaching and learning will be powered by the OU’s experience and will present material through a blend of video and other media combined with opportunities for social learning with others who are studying the same course.

Our product will be designed 100% for students

Co-creation

Whilst all this is incredibly exciting and I’m very ambitious for Futurelearn, I’m not oblivious to the problems with assessment, plagiarism and high drop-out rates encountered by MOOCs. These are all things we’re wrestling with too but I’d go so far as to say that we have an advantage over other providers. The OU’s students have been learning online for years. We have access to vast amounts of data gathered through the University’s own OpenLearn platform and iTunesU. We’ll use this information to engineer-in features that will make the experience of studying (and staying) with Futurelearn highly rewarding and yes, entertaining.

Once we get started later this year, we’ll be collecting information as we go to iterate on the process, developing our understanding of how Futurelearn students are learning and responding to the courses. The more of this we gather and analyse, the more we’ll be able to refine and improve the experience.

Business model

Producing an excellent product is our primary motivation. In an evolving market, the development of sustainable business models is always a challenge but I believe that if we build something great, a whole range of business opportunities could come our way. We are looking at ways of monetising some aspects of Futurelearn including paid-for certification and proctored exams but the quality of the learning experience trumps profitability as our biggest driver every time.

New thinking

This is a pretty radical departure from the current way that courses are presented (and learning takes place) with online platforms. We’re putting students at the heart of Futurelearn and that reconfigures the priorities for those of us working on it. Many in higher education think there is only value in courses that lead to formal qualifications and that informal learning is a waste of time. The experience of the OU shows that there is a vast amount of traffic between informal and formal learning tracks. For example, 100k OU-registered students also study with OpenLearn which is free and open to all.

In UK higher education, we have 800 years of experience to bring to the world. As the OU’s Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean has said, it would be a shame to deliver that on a platform and infrastructure that was powered on another continent. With Futurelearn, we are bringing the UK’s best university teaching and learning to students worldwide using the smartest and most engaging online learning experiences available. I’m determined that we will engage, entertain and delight the people who come to study with us and we’re not only doing it for free, we’re doing it for fun!

With Futurelearn, we are bringing the UK’s best university teaching and learning to students worldwide using the smartest and most engaging online learning experiences available.

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