FutureLearn ‘delighted’ at response to first Moocs

User data for initial online offerings show that 13% of those who sign up finish their courses

June 19, 2014

Source: Corbis

Figures showing participation rates for the first massive open online courses offered by FutureLearn have revealed that more than one in 10 students signing up are fully taking part in the courses offered by the UK’s first Mooc platform.

According to statistics for 20 of the platform’s first 29 courses, an average of 10,694 learners registered for each Mooc. Allowing for gaps in the data (full participation statistics were not available for all courses – see table, below), 13 per cent of registered students were deemed to have “fully participated” in their Mooc, meaning they had completed all the online assessments and taken part in a majority of the course activities. Around one in three students were defined as “social learners”, a description indicating that they had actively participated in online forums and discussion relating to their course.

The courses were released in two waves. The first wave of Moocs went live last year and had enrolment numbers capped at “around 10,000”. However, there were a few exceptions – The Open University’s Introduction to Ecosystems course, for example, attracted more than 11,000 sign-ups. The second wave began earlier this year and course numbers were not capped.

The most popular Mooc in terms of sign-ups was the University of Strathclyde’s Introduction to Forensic Science, which attracted 26,725 students, 4,434 of whom (17 per cent) participated fully in the course. At the other end of the scale, the University of Birmingham’s Improving Your Image: Dental Photography in Practice course had 2,403 students registered, 253 of whom (11 per cent) participated fully. However, the university stated that it had intentionally chosen a niche subject to test the water before releasing larger-scale courses with more general appeal.

Despite the fact that the University of East Anglia, the University of Southampton, Lancaster University and Queen’s University Belfast declined a request to release statistics for their early FutureLearn Moocs, the figures give a detailed insight into FutureLearn’s development.

Simon Nelson, FutureLearn chief executive, said he was “delighted” by the figures.

“We are about to hit 750,000 course sign-ups, and that’s only eight months after running our first course, and six months after taking the registration cap off,” he said, referring to the total number of students registered, including those on courses yet to commence. “We are in this for the long run, and we are only just getting started.”

Although not small, the FutureLearn numbers pale in comparison to Stanford University’s Introduction to Artificial Intelligence Mooc, announced in July 2011, which drew 160,000 enrolments and is often cited as the course that brought massive open online courses into the mainstream.

However, Mr Nelson claimed that “the days of the 100,000-plus Mooc are well behind us. In those early days there was a novelty value,” he said. “The market has now settled down.”

Speaking to Times Higher Education last month, David Willetts, the universities and science minister – on record as a passionate advocate of Moocs – said he “would have liked to have seen FutureLearn go further, faster”.

“I know they are expanding, but we need the widest range of possible subjects and courses on FutureLearn as quickly as possible,” Mr Willetts said. He acknowledged that ensuring that courses were of a high quality did “take time and money”.

Quality over quantity

“We debated using existing platforms to get something out faster, or going hell for leather and bolting together several existing technologies to get a product on the market very quickly,” Mr Nelson said. “But that wouldn’t have met the priorities of our partners, or of our owner, The Open University. We have very much prioritised quality over quantity in these early days.”

This focus on quality, he said, has resulted in exceptionally high satisfaction rates among FutureLearn students. A survey of students on the first eight courses found that 94 per cent would recommend the experience to a friend, and 87 per cent described their course as “very good” or “excellent”.

Nevertheless, the FutureLearn platform remains in “beta” phase, meaning the current product is not yet considered to be the finished article, and it will most likely remain so for several months.

“There are still aspects of the learner experience we want to improve. We have a high-quality product on the market, we believe we benchmark very well against other Mooc and online learning providers, but we set ourselves high standards,” Mr Nelson said.

FutureLearn is now partnered with 38 organisations, including universities in seven countries outside the UK. Earlier this month, 17 new courses were unveiled on the platform, taking the total number of Moocs on offer to about 100.

“From what I hear of sign-up rates on other Mooc platforms, we are still catching up – particularly with Coursera, who are out in front,” Mr Nelson said, referring to the US platform and market leader, which currently has more than 7 million registered users and offers about 675 courses from 110 partner institutions.

“But we are not that far behind. I still regard us as on a learning exercise. We’re just getting started, our partners are just getting started; we are only scratching the surface of what we can do for online learning.”


Participation in FutureLearn Moocs
First wave (started 2013)

CourseInstitutionTotal joinersLearners
(% of joiners)
Full participation
(% of learners)
Data are drawn from 20 of the first 29 courses offered by FutureLearn. A “joiner” has signed up for a course, a “learner” is a joiner who has viewed at least one step of the course, and “full participation” means that the student has completed a majority of the steps, including all tests.
Source: FutureLearn
Fairness and Nature: When Worlds CollideLeeds5,54957%28%
Begin Programming: Build Your First Mobile GameReading10,08054%10%
Introduction to Ecosystems The Open University11,464%23%
The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human PsychologyWarwick10,06262%17%
Improving Your Image: Dental Photography in PracticeBirmingham2,40352%20%
England in the Time of Richard IIILeicester10,07277%No data


Participation in FutureLearn Moocs
Second wave (started 2014)

CourseInstitutionTotal joinersLearners
(% of joiners)
Full participation
(% of learners)
Data are drawn from 20 of the first 29 courses offered by FutureLearn. A “joiner” has signed up for a course, a “learner” is a joiner who has viewed at least one step of the course, and “full participation” means that the student has completed a majority of the steps, including all tests.
Source: FutureLearn
Good Brain, Bad Brain: BasicsBirmingham11,41761%37%
Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Text, Performance and CultureBirmingham7,26261%No data
Introduction to Forensic ScienceStrathclyde26,72569%24%
Sustainability, Society and YouNottingham8,749%22%
Inside Cancer: How Genes Influence Cancer DevelopmentBath7,85553%25%
Exploring Anatomy: The Human AbdomenLeeds8,58157%17%
Climate Change: Challenges and SolutionsExeter16,22256%18%
Good Brain, Bad Brain: Parkinson’s DiseaseBirmingham5,88844%45%
A Beginner’s Guide to Writing in English for University StudyReading18,86157%No data
The Discovery of the Higgs BosonEdinburgh16,96560%14%
Understanding Drugs and AddictionKing’s College London11,62053%24%
An Introduction to Physical Actor TrainingLeeds3,45650%13%
How to Read a MindNottingham14,31650%38%
Muslims in Britain: Changes and ChallengesCardiff6,54542%30%

Editor’s note: At the time of going to press, “full participation” data for several courses were not available. The missing figures are as follows: England in the Time of Richard III, 44%; Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Text, Performance and Culture, 35%; A Beginner’s Guide to Writing in English for University Study, 26%.

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