FutureLearn, the UK’s massive open online course platform, is to offer programmes by lower-ranked universities with specialist centres of excellence in a move likely to open the door to post-92 institutions.
Having initially partnered only with those among the top 1 per cent of university rankings – which equates to about 200 institutions globally, including 40 UK universities – FutureLearn says that it is now seeking to broaden its membership base.
It has added two membership categories to recruit new partners: centres of excellence, which will take in faculties that are “globally renowned for a particular specialism”; and specialist organisations, to accommodate institutions that are “nationally or globally renowned brands in their area of specialism”.
Under the new arrangement, several departments of the University of Wollongong, including those related to archaeological sciences and medicine, will start to offer online courses on the Open University-owned platform. The Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark will also offer courses, as will the University for Foreigners of Siena, which specialises in language teaching.
“We feel this is the right next step for FutureLearn,” said Simon Nelson, the company’s chief executive. “Global rankings have been a useful [quality] proxy for us to ensure we partnered with institutions who were the highest in their field, but they also hide a lot of detail.”
FutureLearn’s record of delivering courses since September 2013 meant that elite universities were “more comfortable” with other providers being involved, he added.
In total, 11 institutions have joined FutureLearn this week via the new categories, bringing its total membership close to 70, including 30 overseas institutions.
Mr Nelson said that he was keen to hear from more institutions with an outstanding reputation in a particular field that wished to offer an online course.
“When these universities have a world-class specialism or centre of excellence, we want to talk to them because our model can be attractive to them and we want a diverse range of providers in certain areas,” he said.
Earlier this year, FutureLearn registered its 1 millionth user. Accounts for 2012-13 and 2013-14 suggested that the OU has invested £7.3 million in the platform over the two academic years, while an increase in the number of staff across both the university and FutureLearn as a whole resulted in a £2.8 million rise in personnel costs last year.
But despite doubts about the business model of Moocs, in which courses are free but charges are sometimes levied for exams and certificates, Mr Nelson said that universities could benefit hugely.
“Many institutions are using them to stimulate their drive to digital,” he said, adding that they were also an effective tool for recruiting on to traditional courses.
FutureLearn’s commercial activity around certification had “exceeded our expectations”, Mr Nelson said, and “significant conversion rates” meant “that [the] business model would drive us into profitability alone”.