Simon Nelson was shown an image of a Highland cow, known as a kyloe in Gaelic, twenty months ago as part of the Open University’s secret project, which many believe has the potential to revolutionize higher education around the world. Nelson, who previously worked for the BBC and helped launch iPlayer, now heads FutureLearn, a company that has attracted 450,000 learners from 40 top universities, including two in China, in its first 11 months of operation. The courses offered are diverse, ranging from dentistry to Shakespeare, archaeology to cancer, the Higgs boson to 15th-century England. FutureLearn intends to expand its offerings significantly in the coming years, both in terms of the number of students and courses, as it aims to attract tens of millions of people to its platform.
Moocs (massive open online courses) are a relatively new invention in higher education and have been mainly created in the United States. Sebastian Thrun, a famous computer science expert in Silicon Valley, created an introductory course on artificial intelligence online that became incredibly popular and included 160,000 people from 190 different countries. This surge in popularity led to the creation of companies such as Udacity, which now has 1.6 million users. FutureLearn represents the biggest British venture into Moocs so far.
However, some critics have voiced concerns about Moocs and suggest that while they have potential, they have many flaws. For example, completion rates are usually below 10%. They also warn of potential job loss and a lack of variety in the future as Moocs may create a mass market for higher education and star lecturers from elite institutions. Additionally, the majority of Moocs students are already degree holders, and many suggest that offering free courses does not address the issue of credential barriers.
Nelson, a former senior executive at the BBC, is the Chief Executive Officer of FutureLearn, a UK-based online learning platform owned by Open University. FutureLearn operates from open-plan offices within the British Library in London. Despite having strong academic achievements, Nelson is an unlikely geek, and he attributes his current position to "bizarre serendipity." He completed his part-time Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of Manchester while working for a family friend in the wholesale wig and toupee business. Following that, he worked in the marketing department of the Independent newspaper before joining the BBC where he eventually became a senior management executive in charge of digital operations.
In a recent interview, Nelson highlighted FutureLearn’s unique selling point, claiming that they have one key differentiator that their American competitors lack: social learning methods. According to Nelson, online learning platforms must have a social component to succeed. FutureLearn has integrated a discussion feature on every page, video, and article, enabling learners to connect and communicate with one another. This social learning aspect motivates learners and helps reduce non-completion rates, which are one of the challenges of online learning.
Nelson revealed that almost 40% of learners on the platform are actively commenting on the materials they are studying. The company’s unique approach to social learning has, according to Nelson, resulted in significantly improved completion rates compared to other providers. FutureLearn courses take between six to eight weeks to complete, and upon completion, learners receive a "statement of participation" that costs £24. The statement provides evidence confirming that an individual completed a course. Still, it is not an authenticated certificate as it cannot prove the person who received it is the one who undertook the course.
FutureLearn aims to profit from several models of revenue streams, including tuition fees, sales of supporting materials such as CDs, and end-of-course assessments. However, the company will not sell student data to third parties. According to Nelson, most FutureLearn learners are degree holders, although approximately 30% do not have degrees. The online learning platform is designed for people pursuing professional development, full-time university courses, and for those pursuing knowledge without explicit vocational ambitions.
The CEO did not make any commitments as to whether FutureLearn courses may, in whole or in part, lead to degrees, noting that the decision is up to institutions. FutureLearn already offers a course recognized by a professional accountancy body. Graduates of the course avoid having to take one of their modules. However, FutureLearn universities are not currently offering course credits toward university qualifications.
According to Nelson, FutureLearn has unlimited potential. This certainly holds true for individuals who have an intrinsic desire to learn, but may not be the case for those who covet the renown and recognition that comes with obtaining a degree from a prestigious university.