FutureLearn is go, but it is not quite the finished article

‘In beta’ UK platform advances cautiously into global Mooc marketplace

October 24, 2013

Keeping a lid on Mooc-mania: initial course enrolments have been capped at 10,000 students to aid ‘experimental’ development

The first courses on FutureLearn, the UK’s massive open online course platform, began last week, a full 10 months after The Open University-owned company was unveiled.

A total of 20 courses have so far been announced (see box below), with more promised later this year. The Secret Power of Brands – a 10-week course developed by the University of East Anglia – was the first to go live. Like the other early courses, it had its initial student quota capped at 10,000.

Although FutureLearn will not give out information on total sign-ups, four of the seven courses scheduled to start teaching this month or next have already reached capacity, while a spokesman for a fifth said it was “fairly clear” that its cap would be reached soon.

Limiting student access means that these early courses cannot be considered true Moocs since they are no longer “open” (and aren’t yet as “massive” as their US counterparts), but Simon Nelson, chief executive of FutureLearn, argued that the decision to restrict numbers was a sensible one.

“This is very much an experimental period where we put the platform and the first courses out there, see what the reaction is and work out the areas where we should focus our efforts on improvement,” he said, adding that the initial courses – and the FutureLearn platform itself – are “in beta”, meaning that the version in operation is not the finished article.

“I don’t want to get into the game of releasing numbers every day, every week. There will be periods where we share more data, but at the moment I want to keep the spotlight on the quality of the experience,” Mr Nelson said, explaining that the option to increase or remove the cap was available should the organisation need it.

“We are delighted by the numbers we have got – they have exceeded our expectations, and they certainly feel massive to us and our university partners,” he added.

Vital statistics

Although overall registration figures are unavailable, information about those signed up to the UEA course The Secret Power of Brands offers a snapshot of what a typical FutureLearn Mooc cohort might look like.

Registrants hail from 129 countries and a slight majority (54 per cent) are female. Some 28 per cent are aged between 26 and 35, 22 per cent between 36 and 45 and 18 per cent between 46 and 55. Just 17 per cent fall into the 17-25 age bracket.

Sixty-two per cent are in full-time employment, 16 per cent work part-time and 9 per cent are unemployed. In keeping with registrants on the Moocs offered by the big US providers, the majority (52 per cent) are educated to degree level, with a significant proportion ( per cent) holding master’s degrees. About one in five (18 per cent) is educated to secondary school level only. 

Helena Gillespie, senior lecturer in education and associate dean for teaching and learning at UEA’s Faculty of Social Sciences, said the Mooc launch had gone smoothly.

“It feels really global. I logged on at 6am and things had been going on all night – people on the West Coast of America and in Australia had been active. Norfolk is quite geographically isolated, so to be able to pull people in from the US and China adds a richness to the learning.”

UEA may have the first Mooc to go live on FutureLearn, but the first to finish will be Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide – a course about natural resource management from the University of Leeds. It began on 21 October and runs for just two weeks.

Course leader Jon Lovett, chair in global challenges at Leeds’ School of Geography, said that although the topic was “somewhat esoteric”, he was hopeful of recruiting a large number of overseas students.

“Having resource management systems is critical,” he said. “Because the Mooc is geared towards developing countries, we’ve made it so you can download the transcript, you can download the podcasts. If your internet connection isn’t so good, which is very much the case in a lot of developing countries, you can still access the materials.”

Dental check-up

Arguably the most obscure of the first-wave FutureLearn Moocs is the University of Birmingham’s course, which offers participants the chance to learn how to achieve “consistent and excellent results in all aspects of dental photography”.

Giles Perryer, professor of clinical education in the School of Dentistry, explained that the choice of course had been very deliberate and would allow the university to test out how the platform worked before launching its “bigger courses” in the new year.

“What we don’t want to do is run a Mooc where there are a lot of learners but they all feel kind of lonely. We want to have experts praising our students and jollying them along,” he explained.

“Compared with the other Moocs, we have very manageable numbers – substantially less than the courses with broader appeal – but that is exactly what we wanted so that we can plan for future Moocs accordingly.”

The financial investment needed to develop and deliver a FutureLearn Mooc remains unclear, although figures from the University of Edinburgh, which will offer courses on the platform from next year, put the cost of its Coursera Moocs at about £30,000.

Leslie Carr, senior lecturer at the University of Southampton’s Web Science Doctoral Training Centre, said this figure sounded reasonable in relation to the development of his FutureLearn web science Mooc, which begins next month.

“Trying to get accurate costings of how these things work is somewhat imprecise,” he said. “We have an internal production team handling some of the videos, and we’ve commissioned an external producer and video team from the broadcast industry to do some of it, too.

“I haven’t seen the budget, but £30,000 doesn’t seem an unreasonable figure for our first Mooc.”

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

First wave: FutureLearn’s initial courses

October

The Secret Power of Brands
University of East Anglia

Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide
University of Leeds

Begin Programming: Build Your First Mobile Game
University of Reading

November

The Mind Is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology
University of Warwick

Web Science: How the Web Is Changing the World
University of Southampton

Introduction to Ecosystems
The Open University

England in the Time of King Richard III
University of Leicester December

Improving Your Image: Dental Photography in Practice
University of Birmingham

January

Sustainability, Society and You
University of Nottingham

Introduction to Forensic Science
University of Strathclyde

Critical Listening for Studio Production
Queen’s University Belfast

Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions
University of Exeter

Inside Cancer
University of Bath

Causes of War
King’s College London

Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation
Lancaster University

February

The Discovery of the Higgs Boson
University of Edinburgh

March

Discover Dentistry
University of Sheffield

Muslims in Britain: Changes and Challenges
Cardiff University

Early 2014

Innovation and Enterprise
Loughborough University

Cancer in the 21st Century: The Genomic Revolution
University of Glasgow

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