The British MOOC Invasion

FutureLearn, the massive open online course provider owned by the Open University in the U.K., expands to the U.S.

February 14, 2017
 

The British massive open online courses are coming.

FutureLearn, the education platform owned by the Open University in the U.K., said this morning that it is expanding into the U.S. with five initial university partners: American University, Colorado State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University and the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. The universities will all offer noncredit courses on the platform this year, and more U.S.-based institutions are expected to join them.

The company was founded in late 2012 -- the MOOC heyday -- with the idea of making sure British universities wouldn't face American domination in the world of MOOCs. FutureLearn is arriving in the U.S. with hundreds of courses, more than 100 university and education provider partners, and a moderated message about the role MOOC providers should play in the higher education landscape.

Gone are the promises about revolutionizing higher education or driving most colleges and universities out of business. In their place is a pledge to work with colleges on how to offer education online and internationally.

“We’re beyond that initial overhype of MOOCs,” Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, said in an interview. “We’re now evolving into an exciting partnership to help universities with their digital transition and the core business of teaching students and reaching out to learners all over the world.”

Nelson said that strategy is informed by 15 years at the British Broadcasting Corporation working on TV and radio development. The debate about MOOCs, he said, resembled the debate about on-demand programming such as Netflix and podcasts; some viewed it as an existential threat, while others dismissed it as a fad. He said he takes a middle-of-the-road approach, recognizing that MOOCs have been “overhyped” but acknowledging the opportunities that they present.

“What’s actually happened is they’ve been a fantastic catalyst for universities and other players to rethink or start to think about what they’re doing to digitally transform their institutions,” Nelson said. FutureLearn’s partnerships with colleges, he added, are “about us identifying areas of mutual strategic benefit and working hard as partners, not as suppliers and customers.”

The U.S. is already FutureLearn’s second-largest market, based on the number of learners who have signed up for courses. “We want to understand the fabric of U.S. education and learning system and then become a core part of it,” Nelson said.

Most of FutureLearn’s U.S. partner universities already offer MOOCs, and some of their first courses on FutureLearn will be ones that previously appeared on platforms such as Coursera and edX. “Double-dipping” by working with multiple MOOC providers is not uncommon -- especially at larger universities that have a large portfolio of online education offerings.

In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, administrators at those universities said they viewed the partnership as another way to stay up-to-date in the MOOC market.

“When you look at this space, it’s rapidly evolving, and each of the platforms have strengths in different areas,” said Thomas J. Steenburgh, the Paul M. Hammaker Professor of Business Administration at UVA. “It worries the hell out of me to think about whether we’re moving fast enough in this space.”

UVA offers dozens of MOOCs on Coursera. Steenburgh said the business school will bring a handful of them -- including courses on design thinking and marketing analytics -- to FutureLearn.

Steenburgh and administrators at other universities also said that by partnering with FutureLearn, which is based in London, they get access to learners around the world who are not taking courses on the platforms where their institutions are already represented.

“We’re always looking for new ways to internationalize our curriculum,” said Karen Pollack, assistant vice provost for online and blended programs at Penn State.

Steenburgh said the user bases of Coursera and FutureLearn don’t completely overlap. More than half -- about 60 percent -- of FutureLearn’s users are female, for example. In a 2014 survey, 40 percent of Coursera users were women. Nelson said FutureLearn’s relative lack of computer science courses (in which men are often overrepresented) and abundance of teacher training courses may be some reasons why women are drawn to the platform.

FutureLearn last year added MOOCs that award credit and, in December, announced it would offer full certificate and graduate degree programs from Deakin University in Australia. None of the MOOCs created by U.S. universities will have a for-credit option, though Nelson said he would be “surprised if it’s not a direction of travel in the near future.”

Some of the universities also said they are open to the idea of offering credit through MOOCs in the near future.

“If you want to have a diverse student audience and diverse engagement of academic partners and professionals, this is an excellent way to do it,” Pollack said.

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