The institutions chosen to feature on the UK’s new open online course platform have been selected on the basis of their performance in domestic league tables, according to the vice-chancellor of The Open University, which is leading the project.
Last week, the institution launched Futurelearn, which will carry so-called “Moocs” (massive open online courses) from 12 UK universities and aims to rival US providers such as Coursera, Udacity and edX.
Futurelearn is the first UK-based Mooc platform. Eight of the universities are members of the Russell Group of large research-intensive institutions, two are from the 1994 Group of small research-intensives, one is non-aligned and The Open University is part of the University Alliance.
Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said that to ensure the reputation of Futurelearn and provide participating students with the best experience, it was initially accepting courses only from institutions that “consistently rank at the top end of the…league tables”.
“We would welcome any university across the…UK contacting us and expressing their interest. Ultimately it would be up to…[the] CEO of Futurelearn to decide which…[of them] enter the fold,” he told Times Higher Education.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London are not among the initial partners. However, Mr Bean added that a further 10 to 15 institutions were in discussions about joining, with details to be announced shortly.
But David Webster, senior lecturer in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire, who is involved with the development of online courses, questioned Futurelearn’s method for selecting its partners.
“Using league tables might target universities that score highly in traditional areas but that does not necessarily translate to the quality of their online courses,” he said.
“It makes one suspect that they are less concerned about the quality of teaching and more concerned about reputation.”
‘I never said Moocs were dangerous’
The launch of Futurelearn could be seen as a change of tack for Mr Bean, who said as recently as October that it was “irresponsible” for universities to rush towards the Mooc model.
But he told THE: “I don’t think I’ve ever said that I thought [Moocs were] dangerous. The comments that I have made…were more about saying institutions shouldn’t race into it just because they need to be seen to be participating.”
Futurelearn will initially be a limited company financed and owned by The Open University. It will begin offering courses in the second half of 2013, and although there is no fixed business plan as yet, there have been discussions over ways it can generate revenue.
Although its courses will not be credit-bearing, the company is planning to work with organisations that run “global testing networks”, enabling students to take paid-for invigilated examinations to recognise their achievement in some way.
Certificates might also be available for a smaller fee.
Earlier this year, both edX - a Mooc platform established by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - and Udacity signed deals with the education company Pearson so that its learners could take exams via the firm’s network of test centres.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how students interact, where value can be created, and where people will be prepared to pay for that extra value,” Mr Bean said, adding that any income would be shared with Futurelearn’s members.
Mark Taylor, dean of Warwick Business School, said he hoped the behavioural science course the University of Warwick was planning to offer on Futurelearn would “act as a kind of taster” for students who might then consider paid-for courses at the institution.
“There is a philanthropic element to it but at the end of the day we have to pay the bills,” he said.
But Philip Butler, senior e-learning adviser at the University of London Computer Centre, said he hoped that Futurelearn did not become a marketing exercise for more prestigious universities.
“Increasingly, it feels that universities finding themselves in a competitive market for attracting students have seen Moocs as a commercial opportunity…focused on business goals rather than pedagogical [aims]. Those who have strong, established brands will hold the advantage.”