Moocs ‘will not transform education’, says FutureLearn chief

Simon Nelson tells Times Higher Education podcast original claims were ‘overhyped and unrealistic’

October 14, 2014

Massive open online courses will not transform education or destroy the university system, and their potential to disrupt has been overhyped, according to the head of the UK Mooc platform FutureLearn.

Simon Nelson, chief executive of the Open University-owned company, said that the early Mooc platforms – such as the US-based Coursera, Udacity and EdX – had overstated the case for what Moocs could be. He also revealed that he is “not a huge fan of the word Mooc”.

“We prefer to see ourselves as a social learning platform,” Mr Nelson said, speaking to a Times Higher Education podcast ahead of the anniversary of the start of the first FutureLearn course on 14 October.

He named Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford University who founded Udacity and who is also heavily involved in technology developments at Google, as someone with whom he disagreed. In November, Professor Thrun said that low completion rates among students signed up to courses on Udacity meant that they were a “lousy product”.

“The early evangelists of Moocs I think overstated the case for what they could be, and there’s a degree to which they’re being hoist by their own petard – Sebastian Thrun being one example,” Mr Nelson said.

“Moocs were claimed to be pretty much a panacea for many of the educational ills of society when they first came out. We’ve all seen some of the commentary that came round, particularly around 2012, about what Moocs were going to do. They were going to transform education, they were going to destroy the university system, they were going to put educators out of business, they were going to reach into the most distant parts of the world and educate people who’d never had access to this technology before.”

All of this, Mr Nelson said, was “overhyped and unrealistic”. “As a result, I think there’s been an entrenchment from people on the other side of the argument who to me often make equally wild assumptions that these things are a fad, that they are going to disappear, or in the case of Sebastian, that his is a lousy product. We certainly don’t look at our product and think that we’ve got a lousy product.”

Mr Nelson said that although Moocs were not as revolutionary as some said they would become, nor were they a short-term phenomenon.

“We believe in a more balanced view,” he continued. “We don’t believe it’s Moocs that are going to transform higher education, we believe the internet is going to transform higher education, and that Moocs are one part of that overall transformation.”

Since the first course went live 12 months ago, FutureLearn has launched 133 courses. The most popular, Exploring English: Language and Culture, created by the British Council, had around 122,000 people sign up. In total, there have been 1.4 million course sign ups by more than 650,000 learners.

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Reader's comments (1)

We were intrigued to read Simon Nelson's perspective above that 'MOOCs will not transform education' and very pleased that we will have the opportunity to hear more, first hand at the Westminster education forum seminar in London later this week. We are particularly curious to learn about the proposed business model for Futurelearn and implications for those using or contemplating using the platform to deliver on their goals in the future. To be clear, I am personally a big fan of the current platform and content and it is far away from being a ‘lousy product’ as the founder of the head of the Udacity platform was reported to have described their offering. With over 130 courses and 650k users, Futurelearn has been a great team effort and it is hard to believe it is only in its first year. And that really is the point - Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Google, Facebook …everyone’s favourite case studies for delivering solutions capable of disrupting markets all share one thing in common, none were an overnight success. Also a key word here is ‘solutions’ not just ‘products’ Hence our perspective that it is too early to be counting anything in or out. A fluid approach to development and breakthroughs for the MOOC as a standalone concept are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps there has been too much in the mind-set about MOOC’s being a direct replacement for HE and we would benefit from thinking more about customers - their problems, propositions and possible solutions – wherever they might be Some questions that we will be taking into the seminar - • To what extent has the introduction of the MOOC concept alone already been a catalyst for change? • How might we benefit from a new ‘mental model’ for development? • And where else on the student lifecycle can MOOCs also make an impact? We will continue to follow with interest