FutureLearn – an innovation in MOOCs

An essay originally written for the examinable component of a (now defunct) Masters course, I evaluate the FutureLearn platform and its role in delivering Massive Open Online Courses. Whilst the essay structure was dictated by the course requirements and not necessarily one I would use now, I find it still to be a useful analysis of the platform and its place in online learning.

1.1 Overview

The acronym MOOC hides a range of evolving educational ideas and principles. “Massive” means learning at a huge scale, too big for individual attention from tutors or experts. The onus to learn moves to the learner (rather than the teacher to teach), with connectivist pedagogy and design to facilitate. “Open” means available to everyone, theoretically crossing divides of existing education levels, income and dis/ability. The reality of this can still be questioned. “Online” sounds simple, but relies on devices, internet connections and increasingly complex software. And finally “Course” – again a simple enough term, but what is the purpose of the course? How can we know if this purpose has been met? Is it right or necessary to question learner behaviours and objectives?

FutureLearn is a MOOC platform that delivers courses from over 180 respected learning institutions, which aims to be a wide reaching, intuitive to use, high quality, social learning experience. The huge data sets provided by millions of learners has enabled significant research to be carried out on learning design and learner behaviour, which can then be fed back into course and software creation in this fast-paced field. With new developments such as Microcredentials alongside traditional academic subjects, FutureLearn is at the forefront of a shift in attitude and behaviour in education, with individual learner goals and interests becoming a central principle. 

1.2 Innovation

Innovation can be defined as change with the aim of improvement, whether the innovation is brand new or new within a certain context (Open University, 2020a).

In the case of FutureLearn, its founders utilised newly available web capabilities and a widening access to the internet through devices that were becoming both cheaper and smaller, to create an “entirely new company” (FutureLearn, 2012) which aimed for an innovative change in United Kingdom university access. The tagline “Our purpose is to transform access to education” is delivered by granting “free access to some of the country’s top universities” (FutureLearn, 2012). Against a background of traditional university fee rises in September 2012 (BBC, 2010) this desire to “Increase accessibility to higher education” (FutureLearn, 2012) was certainly a change from the established norm in education, with the desired improvement clearly defined.

FutureLearn was a technological innovation, transferring the Open University’s experience in distance learning to an openly accessed online platform. The need for expensive printed materials delivered to every learner’s door, or the learner to attend a prescribed location at a prescribed time, were entirely removed.

Founders were firm, however, that “quality not quantity” (FutureLearn, 2013a) remained a core principle. Working with highly respected universities meant quality material was almost a given, but innovations in pedagogy were also demanded, giving students the best online learning experience. The social element of learning, easily ignored for students studying alone at their home or work computers, was a key pedagogical factor.

Because of this connectivist basis, FutureLearn was never going to be a platform that only delivered learning material. Innovations in learning design meant that FutureLearn students were given the opportunity to work on their chosen MOOC as part of a community, sharing profile information, comments, discussions and activities. The capability to “follow” another learner or “like” other comments, as well as reply to these (FutureLearn, n.d(a)) made FutureLearn an innovative social learning platform.

1.3 Background

The first MOOCs were created in 2008, born from a combination of new technology for sharing content and having conversations online, and a desire to create a learning context that anyone could join (MOOCs, 2012)  MOOCs represent a shift in learner experience, from following prescribed syllabi to an emphasis on learner independence in choosing subjects and courses relevant to their own situation and life.

Both learning theory and methods have moved on significantly since the days of Behaviourism and then the Cognitivist focus on the organisation of knowledge. Piaget and Vygotsky emphasised the social construction of knowledge and the importance of scaffolding in teaching, but new theories are needed in a digital world, theories that underpin a pedagogy which takes into account fast developing online tools. As Stacey (2013) observes, “students tend to find online behaviourist and objectivist learning pedagogies boring, impersonal and not interactive or engaging”. Learning facts is no longer enough when sources of knowledge are constantly at our fingertips via portable devices; we must know which facts are important in our current context and how we might use them.

These are the underlying principles of Connectivism, billed as a ‘learning theory for the digital age’ and proposed by Siemens in 2005 – a full 2 years before the first iPhone. Siemens lists 8 principles of connectivism, all focused on learning through real time connections – with information sources or devices, with humans, with context – and the importance of learning the skill of using these connections when “choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information”. 12 years later, in 2020, we have even more opportunities to grow our Personal Learning Networks through online connections and sources.

The Open University (the founder of FutureLearn) “launched the first connectivist MOOC in summer 2008” (Ferguson, Coughlan and Herodotou, 2016a) and so had 5 years of MOOC experience to apply to the FutureLearn project, alongside their extensive traditional distance learning knowledge. FutureLearn Limited was incorporated in December 2012 and launched in September 2013. It describes itself as the “UK’s first platform” for MOOCs (FutureLearn Limited, 2019).

The aim of MOOCs includes Open Education Resources (OER) principles. FutureLearn follows a model of OER that Wiley (2007) describes as “the MIT Model”; it is a company with employees on which it relies – in fact, staff costs to the year 31 July 2019 were £8.8m (FutureLearn Limited, 2019). These employees are focused on developing the technical capabilities and learner experience of FutureLearn as well as sales and marketing rather than content creation. The courses themselves are developed by educational partners who can reuse material developed for degree courses by repackaging them into shorter, free courses hosted on the FutureLearn platform. In this way, the key issues of sustainability, pedadogy, barriers to uptake, learner support technology, quality and rights in OER (Open University, 2020b) are addressed to varying degrees.

It is worth noting that although FutureLearn is the UK’s most prominent example of a MOOC platform, others were developed slightly earlier in North America and are still going strong today, for example Coursera and Udacity. This success has come via a steep learning curve; MOOCs are not always successful. One of the best-known MOOC failures was Coursera’s “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.” The irony of this course name was not lost when over 40,000 students were let down by “technology and design problems” (Inside Higher Ed, 2013) and this very public MOOC failure in 2013 highlighted the importance of both titular elements.

1.4 Outcomes and impact

There is no doubting FutureLearn’s overall success as a MOOC platform. As of August 2020, FutureLearn lists 88 universities, 57 specialist organisations, 5 centres of excellence and 31 associate partners on its ‘Current partners’ webpage (FutureLearn, n.d(b)). FutureLearn Limited’s Financial Statements to the year 31 July 2019 describe “a community of over 9.5 million learners (2018 – over 8 million) from all countries in the world; these learners have signed up to over 25 million courses between them.”

So what about the two key innovations at the heart of FutureLearn’s launch; transforming access and delivering quality over quantity?

The potential to access material from 88 universities has been provided by the FutureLearn platform. However, access is not always free, and when it is free then some features, such as completion certificates, are not available. Learners are able to buy access on a course by course basis (usually under £50), or pay a one-off fee of £199 per year (with no obvious option to spread the cost monthly) for the “Unlimited” package, launched in 2019 (FutureLearn, 2019a).

While these fees can be viewed as fairly minimal – the equivalent of £3.83 per week for the “unlimited” access – paying upfront costs for access to educational materials is still a barrier for some, arguably those most in need of education. Add to this the requirement for technology and internet access, and the barrier grows.  FutureLearn made a loss of £6.6m in 2019 (FutureLearn Limited, 2019) so are certainly not financially benefiting from their MOOC platform – the costs of encouraging partners and students to join whilst continuously improving the platform simply outweigh the course price they are able – or willing – to charge. Adding to this degree level courses with minimum entry requirements – for example a BSc from Coventry university (FutureLearn, n.d(c)) – and  Cannell and Macintyre’s (2014) observation that “the O for open within MOOCs is often neglected” rings all too true.  

FutureLearn measure quality of their courses through learner feedback. This is both an innovative and some might say brave decision, showing a commitment to the perspective of the learner, rather than an academic rating, as a key performance indicator (KPI). FutureLearn rely on the power of the brand of its partners, with academic quality a given. Using the third-party review platform “Yotpo” (presumably to demonstrate independence), as of 1 September 2020 FutureLearn claim 56,728 learner reviews with an average rating of 4.7/5 (FutureLearn, n.d(d)).

The multitude of positive learner reviews also demonstrate the impact of FutureLearn on individual learners. Success stories such as “Ana R.” who has been “accepted in the organization I applied [sic]” after completing the How to Succeed at: Interviews MOOC from The University of Sheffield (FutureLearn, n.d(e)) give an insight into the role each MOOC has played in such an important life event; small in terms of 1 learner in thousands, but a huge impact for that individual.

MOOCs have also enabled a fast response to the global pandemic of 2020. With a platform ready to go, learning institutions have been able to rapidly create and deliver content that supports new learners in the unique situation of ‘lockdown’. For example, the Coventry University MOOC “Work-Life balance and the Impact of Remote Working” has, at the time of writing, over 14,000 enrolments and a 4.7/5 learner rating (FutureLearn, n.d(f)), demonstrating the positive impact of this for many.

The impact of the FutureLearn innovation can be also be considered by the impact the platform has had on the field of education. MOOCs as a group have been the subject of much research by the universities that create them, tempted by huge datasets and insights into a new type of learner. UK university partners of FutureLearn have joined together to create the FutureLearn Academic Network (FLAN), a “network of world-leading universities engaged in research into design, analysis and evaluation of massive open online learning” (Ferguson, Scanlon and Harris, 2016) – note the word ‘learning’ rather than courses; it is learning in a technological age that is the focus of research. This analysis aims to “inform design of courses, design of innovative approaches to massive-scale learning, and evaluation of learning effectiveness” (Ferguson, Scanlon and Harris, 2016).  Through sharing research, priority areas for the advancement of the FutureLearn innovation and MOOCs overall are being identified.

1.5 Issues

Innovation is rarely 100% successful; a new approach can bring new problems. FutureLearn aimed to “transform access” to learning and we have already highlighted above how the courses cannot be considered fully ‘open’. Despite this, FutureLearn counts its learner numbers in millions. Full course completion rate data is not publicly available (some attempt at collation has been made by Jordan, last updated 2015), however it is widely acknowledged that MOOC “drop-out/non-completions rates are substantially higher than in more traditional education” (Clow, 2013).

In traditional education this would be considered a key issue to be immediately addressed, however student behaviour is different in an online environment. For FutureLearn, it can be argued that non-completion is not due to poor course delivery or quality; the learner is simply exploring options and chose not to continue – perfectly valid learner behaviour. A key consideration here is the type of learner that FutureLearn attracts, which FutureLearn themselves have split into 3 categories: those focused on work and study for career reasons, those who use it to address a problem in their personal life, and those who learn for leisure (FutureLearn, 2018).

Recommendations have already been made by the Open University on how to address retention issues, mainly focused around shorter courses with guidance on combining these.  It is also interesting to note that “peer grading for assessments is associated with lower completion rates” (Ferguson, Coughlan and Herodotou, 2016) – an apparent failure of a social learning pedagogy for assessments.

The technology that has enabled MOOCs generally and FutureLearn specifically have also introduced privacy issues, a concern that technology users are becoming increasingly aware of and sensitive to. FutureLearn use learner behaviour to create a recommendations page, stating “we think you might like these courses based on the courses you’ve joined”, which will be different for all users (FutureLearn, n.d(g)). However, privacy issues go much further than this when a learner signs up to a course. Personal details such as name and email address are overtly recorded as part of the sign up process, but other records are more covertly kept, for example “how long you have used the Website and the Online Courses and Content for”(FutureLearn, 2013b). These are of course all laid out in the privacy policy, and are (presumably) collected with good intentions to improve courses and performance, but there is currently no option for a student to opt out of this data collection and still complete the course. The ethical implications of data collection and processing by platforms such as FutureLearn are complex and an ongoing issue.

1.6 Next steps

A key next step for FutureLearn is a continued development of the 2019 innovation of microcredential courses, backed by the Common Microcredential Framework (CMF).

Microcredential courses are “created or accredited by leading universities… designed for you to build in-demand career skills” (FutureLearn, n.d(h)). They represent the continued change in education paths, “designed to upskill you for work in rapidly-growing industries, without the time and cost commitment of a full degree” (FutureLearn, n.d(h)). The cost to the learner is substantial, around £1,000 for a 12-week course, as they include tutor support and assessment, and some require previous qualifications. It can be argued then that these courses are not “open”, however they are a route to personal learning – “learning when the learner is ready” (Downes, 2020).

The creation of CMF by the European MOOC Consortium, of which FutureLearn is a member, aims to “encourage the development of qualifications that will better meet the needs of modern learners… helps you gain knowledge and skills at a higher education level in smaller units, delivered in a way that fits around your lifestyle and tailored to meet your interests and needs” (FutureLearn, 2019b) In this way FutureLearn is continuing to “transform access to education” through connectivist principles, whilst upholding quality standards.

References

BBC (2010) Students face tuition fees rising to £9,000 [Online]. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11677862#:~:text=Universities%20in%20England%20will%20be,ensure%20access%20for%20poorer%20students (Accessed 3 September 2020).

Cannell, Pete and Macintyre, Ronald (2014). Towards Open Educational Practice. In: EADTU Annual Conference: New Technologies and the future of Teaching and Learning, 23-24 of Oct 2014, Krakow, Poland. Available at http://oro.open.ac.uk/41230/1/Cannell%20and%20Macintyre%202014%20TowardsOpenEducationalPracticeFinal%20EADTU.pdf (Accessed 3 September 2020).

Clow, Doug (2013) MOOCs and the funnel of participation [Online], Third Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK 2013), Leuven, Belgium. Available at http://oro.open.ac.uk/36657/1/DougClow-LAK13-revised-submitted.pdf (Accessed 3 September 2020).

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The Open University (2020b) ‘Priorities of openness?’, H817 Openness and innovation in elearning [Online]. Available at https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1561567&section=5  (Accessed 3 September 2020).

Siemens, G. (2005) ‘Connectivism: a learning theory for the digital age’, The International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, vol. 2 [Online]. Available at http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Jan_05/article01.htm (Accessed 3 September 2020).

Stacey, P. (2013) ‘The pedagogy of MOOCs’, Musings on the edtech frontier, 11 May [Online]. Available at http://edtechfrontier.com/ 2013/ 05/ 11/ the-pedagogy-of-moocs/ (Accessed 3 September 2020). 

Wiley, D. (2007) On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education [Online], Paris, OECD. Available at http://www.oecd.org/ edu/ ceri/ 38645447.pdf (Accessed 3 September 2020).

Published by sarahjalcock

PhD researcher at the Open University with a focus on Learning Analytics and Learning Design. Follow me on Twitter @SarahAlcock19. Author text is licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA

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