I just load my Mooc and go

Courses are being developed for use on mobile devices, says chief executive. Chris Parr reports

May 23, 2013

The first massive open online courses on the UK-based Futurelearn platform will go live in the autumn and are being developed for use on mobile devices, the company’s chief executive has revealed.

Simon Nelson said he believed that his company, which has 21 UK university partners signed up to offer free online courses, would gain an advantage over existing Mooc platforms by ensuring that its courses were designed “for mobile first, rather than as an afterthought - transforming the convenience and accessibility of learning”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education at the Open and Online Learning conference on 16 May organised by Universities UK, Mr Nelson, who in a previous role helped the BBC to set up its iPlayer service, said: “I don’t think [US Mooc platforms Coursera, edX and Udacity] are performing particularly well on mobile yet, so it may give us a short-term advantage.

“In my experience it’s really, really hard to retrofit mobile on to platforms that haven’t had it thought about at the inception. To develop one of these services and not think about mobile portability, how it works on multiple devices, is just really old-fashioned thinking.”

The company is also looking at ways to offer Futurelearn students the option of paying for invigilated examinations, Mr Nelson said.

This might be achieved using the company’s network of university partners. Alternatively, “an appropriate commercial partnership” with a company that offers proctored exams might be required, he said.

Mr Nelson also confirmed that the company was “looking at an autumn launch” but was unable to say how many courses he expected to go live at that point.

Some details of what Futurelearn Moocs might look like did emerge at the conference. Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, which owns the platform, said there would be a “framework” to which participating universities would be expected to stick.

He said that a typical Futurelearn Mooc would take between six and 10 weeks to complete, require between two and six hours of study a week and comprise a combination of videos, slides and discussion broken down into “blocks and units”.

Mr Nelson dismissed concerns that these requirements might stifle the creativity of participating institutions. “Futurelearn is all about innovation. However, when you’ve got 21 partners that are radically different organisations at radically different stages, you want to create some level of consistency,” he said.

Mr Bean, who is also chairman of Futurelearn, added: “Early in the Mooc revolution it was just ‘let’s throw some video online and wrap some content around it’. That ship has sailed. Now … it requires some investment from an institution if you want to do well.”

He said that he expected it to cost “around £30,000” to develop a Futurelearn Mooc.

Although details of Futurelearn’s courses are yet to be announced, Mark Taylor, dean of the University of Warwick Business School, told the conference that his institution would be using a Futurelearn Mooc in behavioural science to carry out research on students.

“Part of the Mooc assignment will be to take part in an online experiment that will feed back directly to researchers,” he said. “It will allow us to gather data far more easily. Currently it is difficult to get 20 or 30 students to take part in research, and we often have to pay them. Now, we will be able to reach tens of thousands for free.”

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

‘No more than a fad’: online learning pioneer gives his verdict on Moocs

One of the world’s foremost thinkers in technology-mediated learning has dismissed massive open online courses as “fatally flawed” and “no more than a fad”.

Sir John Daniel (pictured), senior adviser to online degree developer Academic Partnerships, told the Universities UK Open and Online Learning conference that although online learning was an important part of the future of higher education, Moocs were not.

“Ordinary people want their educational achievements to be recognised by society. Open universities and open schools provide that recognition to successful students but most Moocs do not, which is their fatal flaw,” the former Open University vice-chancellor said.

“As a 40-year veteran of educational technology I have seen fads come and go. Moocs are a fad that has come and will certainly go - or transmute into other things.”

He said that, over time, institutions that had joined the Mooc movement might find that the “reputational advantage” they had hoped to gain was not worth the cost. He also questioned universities’ motives for launching free online courses.

“Some cynics argue that elite universities are offering Moocs to give an impression of modernity while actually protecting the rest of the institution from the hassle of having to go online,” he said.

“That’s an extreme view, but the little videos that are the commonest feature of Mooc pedagogy may really be doing more to nurture the megalomania of the academics involved than to move the institution towards a hybrid teaching-and-learning model for its regular award-bearing programmes.”

But his view was not shared by University of Southampton vice-chancellor Don Nutbeam, who told the conference that “smart universities” would use Moocs as a way to develop innovative teaching and learning.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, he said that although the UK-based platform Futurelearn’s primary motivation for developing Moocs had been the “democratisation of HE”, his job required him to consider how they might generate a financial return.

“Showing off some of those areas where we’re world-leading probably won’t do us any harm, and may help to channel prospective students towards the University of Southampton,” he said.

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