FutureLearn plans to stand out from Mooc crowd

UK platform aims to make up for late start via ‘social architecture’

September 19, 2013

The UK’s first massive open online course platform will focus on promoting student discussion and debate in an effort to stand out from the Mooc crowd, according to Simon Nelson, its chief executive.

FutureLearn will offer “something fresh, something different”, he told Times Higher Education, including being optimised for use on smartphones.

The platform, which is owned by The Open University and was launched on 18 September, will compete with the likes of US-based platforms Coursera and edX, the latter of which last week announced plans to develop its open source platform, Open edX, with Google.

FutureLearn – which initially will feature 20 courses from across its 23 university partners – would have a “very powerful social architecture” that will be familiar to users of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, said Mr Nelson.

Alongside now established Mooc elements such as video, slides, text, audio and multiple-choice quizzes, students will have their own profile pages and will be able to “follow” others studying on the platform.

FutureLearn will also trial “peer assessment” from next year so that students can publish their written work for others to review.

Although “very pleased” with the launch version, delivered after nine months of development, Mr Nelson said it was still “very much a beta”.

Accordingly, FutureLearn will continue to test and introduce new features, he added.

Neil Morris, director of digital learning at the University of Leeds, said his institution’s “mini-Mooc” in natural resources management – based on a campus undergraduate module – would be the first FutureLearn course to finish and would report on how the platform performed.

The platform might receive initial criticism over its limitations, but this would be unjustified, he said. “I think FutureLearn will quickly match the functionality of existing Mooc platforms…it’s only fair that it has some development time,” he added.

Tens of thousands of people from 165 countries have pre-registered interest in the courses, Mr Nelson said.

As well as a desire to introduce new students from home and abroad to their paid courses, universities’ interest in Moocs has also been driven by public service and the need to position themselves in an “emerging digital landscape”, he added.

Courses were unveiled on the same day the government published The Maturing of the Mooc, a literature review highlighting debate over the courses’ significance, educational value and potential business models.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said he viewed FutureLearn’s launch as a “significant moment”.

He added that he had been “frustrated” that it had launched well after the other major platforms, but pointed to its “serious education analytics…so time has not been wasted”.

Mr Willetts said it remained to be seen whether a single platform would come to dominate the market.

“I think there’s still a strong chance for a good educational offering with good analytics and internationally recognised education institutions…to have an impact,” the minister added.


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