FutureLearn: Can they do it?

FuturelearnIf you’ve been away (for a long long time) you may not have heard about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). If you’ve been away for only a short time you’ll know of these things, but you may not have heard of Futurelearn.

In short, Futurelearn is the first UK-led “multi-institutional platform for free, open, online courses” whose aim is to “increase access to higher education for students in the UK and around the world by offering a diverse range of high quality courses through a single website.”

All good stuff so far. With the experience and weight of The Open University behind it, and partners including the British Library, the British Council and other leading UK Universities (Leicester, Bath, Warwick, Cardiff, etc.) it poses a significant investment of time and energy to ‘do it right’. Futurelearn

“believe there is great potential to change the way people access high quality higher education. With our partners, we are seizing the opportunity to create amazing new learning experiences, twinned with a clear pathway to qualifications for those that want them.”

In this article on the Times Higher Education website today – “Futurelearn’s boss on breaking into MOOCs” –  Simon Nelson (Futurelearn CEO) claims the course platform “has the potential to become a social networking site for the student community as popular as Facebook”.

Really? This is aiming very, very high.

I like the ideology behind Futurelearn – I like what I hear about what and how the materials and platform are going to be structured. I like the approach of “produce first, profit later” that will address the pedagogic requirements for online learning first and foremost. I like the inference that MOOCs will not replace traditional education but rather enhance it and even complement it. I also like the simple no-nonsense jargon-free way Simon talks about the platform. But is it enough?

As yet there have been very little details on how Futurelearn MOOCs will be run, about the platform, or how much flexibility each Institution/course will have on how materials are presented and how students will interact with it. There are even fewer details on what MOOCs will be available, and when. News of Futurelearn has certainly caused a big ripple in the discussion about MOOCs in general, now we wait to see if it can live up to it’s own hype.

What do you think … does Futurelearn have a unique selling point that will make it stand out from the crowd? Is there anything here that will set it aside from other platforms (Coursera, Udacity, etc.) or is just another bandwagon being jumped on?

Disclaimer: While I may work at the University of Leicester, and it being one of the original 17 partners, I do not have any inside knowledge of Futurelearn or Leicester’s involvement in it. I am as in the dark as everyone else, but I hope in time to learn more and, if possible, be involved. Until then I am just speculating … and hoping it can live up to my own expectations.

  • Simon Kear

    Great post, David. I’m equally qualified in my support. Details about the platform are hazy at best, but perhaps it is too early to expect much. But a lot of instutions will want to dip a toe in the MOOC pond, and it doesn’t look like FutureLearn will offer a quick way of doing this.

    The recent OLDS MOOC used completely free and open tools like Cloudworks and Google +. Perhaps this will be the route.

    • Hi Simon. Perhaps, as you say, the open source route is a way forward but network and system reliability and resilience could be its downfall? Without the ability to ‘trust’ in the network and systems to cope with the ‘massive’ element of the course(s) it’s not worth anything and could in fact be more damaging to reputation than not doing a MOOC at all?

      Only time will tell, thanks for the contact – hope everything is good with you now?

      All the best, David

  • why_me

    I’ve completed and enjoyed quite a few MOOCs with Coursera, and as an Open University graduate was keen to see Futurelearn. Disappointment ensued! The experience is quite passive compared to Coursera with a comments function far short of the Coursera forums with threads, topics and titles. In a MOOC a student needs to feel they have contact with peers to make up for the lack of direct tutor contact. That said, tutor presence on some Coursera MOOCs has been strong. I just don’t get what Futurelearn have done with comments boxes, do they really think students have time to sequentially read peer comments. It seems to me little more than a useful blog with comments, which, if done well like this blog, is fine, but I wouldn’t apply the same schema to a MOOC.

    • Thanks for this, and you are not alone in making this claim/comment about the FutureLearn system. I have not seen it myself yet so have no experience of it, but am not liking what I hear – how are course subscribers supposed to follow these kinds of comments if it is indeed a ‘massive’ MOOC?

      I’ll let you know what I think when the FutureLearn MOOC I’ve signed up to starts (I can’t remember, it’s been very quiet since I signed up!).

      All the best, David

      • why_me

        Hi David

        I read in the Financial Times : OU leads universities into online venture – that the Futurelearn MOOC is basically a loss leader to get students interested in taking regular pay-for courses later. That strategy is different from Coursera who offer complete self-contained courses. I like the MOOCs as modules, I have paid for signature tracked versions at Coursera. The price equates to about a good book. so I will continue with Coursera. If Futurelearn is a replacement for OpenLearn then I will not be using it. The UK University fees are too high. I’ve also seen Harvard Extension School and there are other open universities around. And if needed, my local university (not in UK) offers courses for less then in the UK, with quality and reputation as good.

        • Many cynics would agree that MOOCs are being used to entice students to fully paid courses, but that is not (from my understanding) the premise behind FutureLearn.My further thoughts on this would be well, why not? Why not use an online platform like FutureLearn as a way for students to test the course in a safe & free way before signing up for a 4 year degree costing £20k+? I always try a shirt or trousers on before I buy, I test drive a car before I buy, so why not a 4 or 6 week online course before I sign up to a 4 year course?

  • villandra

    I signed up for a course at FutureLearn. The class, not set to start for several months, did not have the texts, syllabus or anything else listed. I e-mailed the person who is teaching the class at his university e-mail, and he said the materials would be there at the time. It is now a month ot the class; I got a reminder about it by e-mail. However, there is still no syllabus or other information on the class.

    That renders a class worthless. If one doesn’t know what the texts are until the class begins, one can’t obtaini them for three weeks, and I am perpetually behind in these classes as a result.

    I wrote to the only contact information for Futurelearn given on its web site, a feedback e-mail address, adn got back an auto mail that we don’t answer all of them – in other words noone even reads them and certainly noone responds or takes action to fix a problem that needs immediately to be solved, such as no books listed for a class soon to start.

    I looked for who the executive officers are to write them, and the “team” doesn’t consist of any humans, just companies such as Skype.

    Maybe I’d do better to write to Skype and the rest of the “team” and tell them to stop funding this scam outfit.


    • Villandra.

      I am shocked to hear this about FutureLearn. I’ve been involved in several FL MOOCs now, both as a students and working on them from the Institution (University of Leicester, and now University of Warwick). While it may not be publicly stated there are very strict and stringent checking procedures in place at FL to ensure that each and every MOOC course reaches a very high level of quality.

      Firstly, I’d be interested in which FL course you are referring to.

      Secondly, it is normal that the materials are not accessible before the official start of the course – which will be listed on the course page. Each MOOC course will have a defined length, usually between 4 to 10 weeks, with materials being made available in full from the start date. In some instances courses release the materials each week to ensure continuous study around the theme, usually to make sure that people don’t rush off ahead and miss the weekly interactions with the others – for some courses this is the most important stage of the learning.

      My experience with FL is that they answer as many email enquiries as they can, and where they can’t it is likely the answers are already on their help page.

      I do not know where your contact with Skype has come from, as I have never seen any mention of it on any of the FL courses or academic leads for the courses.

      I suggest you contact FL again, highlight your issues, and wait for the reply.