The UK’s first massive open online course platform will succeed only if it can fend off competition from established US providers and challengers based closer to home, an expert has claimed.
Jeff Haywood, vice-principal for knowledge management and chief information officer at the University of Edinburgh - the first UK institution to offer Moocs on one of the big US platforms, Coursera - believes that the success of Futurelearn, The Open University’s Mooc platform, will depend on its ability to stand out from a growing crowd.
“Moocs work only if you can get massive publicity - if you don’t have the publicity, you don’t have a Mooc,” he said. “It is a barrier that anyone hoping to launch a Mooc has to overcome.”
The fact that Futurelearn is British-based might make it more attractive to people in the UK and Western Europe, he added, but he warned that there may soon be competitors in this arena, too.
“I know there are Mooc discussions going on in the European Commission regarding higher education in Europe,” he said. “No one wants to appear not to be at the forefront of technology.”
Edinburgh has no plans to desert Coursera in favour of Futurelearn, Professor Haywood added.
More than 200,000 people from around the world have already signed up for the six courses offered by the institution on Coursera, starting this month, and Edinburgh’s plans to add more on the US-based platform are progressing.
Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said the absence of domestic providers had been a driving factor behind the decision to launch Futurelearn, but he dismissed the suggestion that the UK had been slow off the mark.
The three big US providers - Coursera, edX and Udacity - have been operating since early 2012, but the first Futurelearn courses will not come online until the second half of this year.
“We’re not flat-footed,” Mr Bean said. “We’re not coming from a standing start, and one of the advantages of having Futurelearn powered by The Open University is we can take a lot of our technology and know-how.
“Would it have been great if Britain was first? Absolutely, but I think that we have still got plenty of time to…innovate.”
Joshua Kim, director of learning and technology for Dartmouth College’s healthcare delivery science master’s programme, said the launch of Futurelearn had not grabbed the headlines in the US.
“I’m embarrassed to say that the first I’d heard about it was when you contacted me to ask about it,” he told Times Higher Education.
Twelve universities have already confirmed that they will be offering courses on Futurelearn, with another 10 to 15 expected to be announced soon.
Neither the University of Oxford nor the University of Cambridge, arguably the UK’s strongest higher education brands globally, has signed up to any of the platforms.
A spokesman for Cambridge said the institution currently had “no plans” to offer Moocs, although Oxford said it was monitoring them “with interest”.