20,000 students in the first 24 hours: UK enters MOOC space with social, mobile FutureLearn

Until last Wednesday, US-based learning platforms have led the development of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Together, those platforms, including Coursera, edX, and Udacity, serve an estimated 3 million learners worldwide with courses from a number of elite partner institutions, such as Harvard and MIT.

But now, in the same week in which edX announced a partnership with Google for the development of a new, open-source online learning system, the UK has launched its own – and its first-ever – MOOC platform: FutureLearn.

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FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson at the launch of the platform’s open beta release at the British Library.

Released as an open beta on 18 September, FutureLearn is wholly owned by The Open University and will include course contributions from more than 20 partners, primarily institutions from the UK but with representation from Ireland and Australia as well.

FutureLearn reports that it registered 20,000 students from 158 countries within 24 hours of opening registration.

The site is designed to support social interaction among learners – “enabling people to learn actively by engaging in conversations around the learning material, or vicariously, by following discussions” – and is optimised for use on both desktop and mobile devices. It will run as a beta release through early 2014 and user feedback from the beta will be used to inform the website’s ongoing development.

“We wanted to make FutureLearn a fresh, different and enjoyable user experience,” said FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson. “We have designed the website in line with principles of effective learning, such as storytelling, discussions and celebrating progress. We decided to go live with FutureLearn now, in an open testing phase, so that we can remain responsive to learners as we continue to develop the website.”

FutureLearn has announced an initial grouping of 20 pilot courses, eight of which will begin between October and December of this year:

  • Begin programming: Build your first mobile game, from Reading University
  • England in the time of King Richard III, from Leicester University
  • Fairness and nature: When worlds collide, from Leeds University
  • The mind is flat: The shocking shallowness of human psychology, from Warwick University
  • Improving your image: Dental photography in practice, from Birmingham University
  • Introduction to ecosystems, from The Open University
  • The secret power of brands, from University of East Anglia
  • Web science: How the web is changing the world, from Southampton University

Disruption driving changes in education

Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, added, “Time and again we have seen the disruptive impact the internet can have on industries – driving innovation and enhancing the customer experience. I have no doubt MOOCs will do the same for education – offering people new and exciting ways to learn.”

A recent article in Slate speaks to the disruptive aspect of large-scale, open-enrolment courses:

“[MOOCs are] part of something much larger: the beginning of the unbundling of the American university. Much in the way that 12-song albums gave way to 99-cent iTunes purchases, universities are now under pressure to offer more ways to slice off smaller bits of education.

Degrees, the currency of higher education, have traditionally been traded in large denominations: four-year bachelor’s degree, two-year master’s degree, five-year (or much more) PhD. But a variety of forces, from skyrocketing tuition to the proliferation of online classes, are now compelling universities to rethink that approach. High fees are keeping many would-be students from enrolling in conventional degree programmes, while universities are under pressure to unlock new revenues.”

While the different business models that will eventually drive MOOC-type platforms are still evolving, there are some early signs as to how such systems may generate revenue in the future. Some MOOCs are now charging students for certificates of completion or for exams, and MOOC platforms have also been adopted by institutions in order to deliver entire degree programmes online.

The New York Times has reported on one such case in which the Georgia Institute of Technology has partnered with Udacity to offer a master’s degree in computer science online at a fraction of its offline cost. The MOOC version of the master’s degree will cost US $6,600, a far cry from the US $45,000 it would take to complete the same programme on campus.

Disruption indeed, and dead ahead. The jury, however, is still out as to the pace and breadth of change that will result from MOOCs.

Conflicting perspectives on MOOCs

A recent report from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – The maturing of the MOOC: literature review of massive open online courses and other forms of online distance learning (ODL) – describes conflicting perspectives on MOOCs among educators but nevertheless observes there is considerable evidence that MOOCs do in fact represent a disruptive technology – one that will place new pressure on established business and delivery models for higher education institutions.

University World News notes that two conflicting strands of opinion emerged from the study’s literature review:

“One strand of enthusiasts ‘welcomes the shake-up and energy MOOCs bring to learning, teaching and assessment. They report positively on learning experiences and innovative formats of pedagogy, and spotlight themes such as access, empowerment, relationship building and community. This strand is particularly prevalent in the general press,’ it says.

The second strand of sceptics are tempering enthusiasm around two themes: that the ‘benefits’ of MOOCs have long been realised through ODL ‘and the innovations of MOOCs are the victory of packaging over content’; and that the MOOC format has weaknesses around access, content, quality, accreditation, pedagogy, poor engagement with weaker learners, and exclusion of learners without networking skills.”

However, having surveyed more than 100 “known recent literature contributions on MOOCs”, the report concludes that there is broad agreement within the available research and analysis in the field on the following points:

“MOOCs bring an impetus of reform, research and innovation to the Academy. All reports foresee dramatic imminent change as a result… MOOC formats will pose huge challenges for existing HEI business models, for institutions at all levels, for pedagogy, and for international education.”

And:

“Learners who have completed MOOCs emerge from the literature as relatively enthusiastic about the MOOC format.”

And finally:

“The burning issue in the MOOCosphere is the search for business models – and all the associated sub-issues of scale, sustainability monetisation, accreditation for MOOC learning and openness… The survey suggests that after a phase of broad experimentation, a process of maturation is in place. MOOCs are heading to become a significant and possibly a standard element of credentialed university education, exploiting new pedagogical models, discovering revenue and lowering costs.”

As to how MOOCs may impact international education markets in particular, the report offers the view that MOOCs “will disrupt international demand for national education product” and notes, based on an interview with FutureLearn’s Nelson that, “It is fairly clear that FutureLearn partners see the initiative as an international recruitment vehicle to credit-bearing courses.”

This last point echoes an earlier, controversial assertion by UK Minister of Universities and Science David Willetts to the effect that MOOCs would not compete with conventional delivery models for higher education but rather would offer a way for overseas students to sample British education and then come to the UK to complete full degrees.

Times Higher Education adds that Minister Willetts notes as a result that: “MOOCs would pose more of a threat to recruitment agents than conventional universities and could help to cut out agency ‘middle men’ for international students.”

Needless to say, opinions are mixed in this respect as in most other aspects of MOOC programming and business models. The MOOC space may be maturing as the BIS report suggests, but it is still anybody’s guess as to how the market will accommodate and adapt to the wider availability of large-scale, open online education.

With its beta release this month, and MOOC development spreading around the world apace, FutureLearn now becomes part of the search for those answers and one thing at least is certain: the “MOOCosphere” will remain a fascinating place to watch for some time to come.



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