Speaking at the Jisc Digital Festival in Birmingham, Simon Nelson, chief executive of the UK Mooc platform FutureLearn, said that there was far more to the free online courses than teaching and learning alone.
He said that Moocs would “become one of the most important recruitment grounds…particularly for international students”, adding that their university partners were discovering that offering free online content was “not just about courses” but also about making institutions “more discoverable” online.
In a pilot beginning tomorrow, FutureLearn will be making some units from its courses available openly online. Currently, content is free but users must register in order to view it.
The “Open Step Pages” pilot will see some content removed from behind this registration wall. Units from a University of Warwick course on psychology, a King’s College London course on drugs and addiction, and a University of Sheffield Mooc on interview techniques will be made open as part of the programme.
Mr Nelson said the move would “increase the digital footprint of our university partners”.
FutureLearn, which is owned by the Open University, registered its 1 millionth user earlier this year. They hail from 190 different countries, and have generated more than 2.3 million course sign-ups between them.
“FutureLearn is a commercial subsidiary of the British Open University, and our aim is to repay the investment the OU has put in and then return a profit,” Mr Nelson told delegates, although he did not put a timescale on this.
Accounts for 2012-13 and 2013-14 suggest that the Open University has invested £7.3 million in FutureLearn over the past two 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.
Mr Nelson did, however, say that sales of the platform’s Statement of Participation, a £29 certificate that is available to all participants who complete half of the steps on a course and all of the assessments, were strong. “We are selling far more than we had predicted,” he said. Despite the encouraging news, a spokeswoman for FutureLearn said the company “can’t share figures and revenue for statement sales at this stage”.
Mr Nelson also used his address to welcome nine new university partners to FutureLearn – including the first institutions from Colombia, France, Spain and Switzerland to sign up.
The platform’s roster of European institutions now includes Switzerland’s University of Basel, the University of Bergen from Norway, Paris Diderot University – Paris 7 from France and Pompeu Fabra University in Spain.
The University of Twente becomes the most recent institution to join from the Netherlands, while the University of the Andes, Colombia, becomes the first Latin American university to offer Moocs on FutureLearn.
Finally, three more institutions from the UK have signed up: Goldsmiths, Soas and St George’s, all part of the University of London. A complete list of FutureLearn’s partners is available on its website.
“As FutureLearn continues to attract more and more international learners, it brings into sharp focus the need to give them the choice to access as many of the world’s leading universities as possible,” Mr Nelson said of the new partners.
“Social learning is proving to be one of the most effective means of delivering online courses at scale, and I am proud to welcome this roll call of prestigious universities from around the world.”