UK Universities Forge Open Online Courses Alliance: FutureLearn Consortium Will Offer Uni-Branded MOOCs Starting Next Year

The dynamic online learning space is about to get a little more crowded, thanks to the arrival of another group of established learning institutions who are joining forces — or rather pooling resources — to get into the brave new world of MOOCs. What are MOOCs? The short answer is ‘massive open online courses’ — typically free, conducted online and open to anyone who wants to participate (for a more detailed discussion of MOOCs, read this and watch this). There are now enough of these MOOCs out there they even have their own listings/review startup service (called CourseTalk).

Today’s news means even more MOOCs will be offered next year, as 12 UK universities are getting together to form a new company that will offer the online courses — under the brand name of FutureLearn Ltd. The universities are: Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, LancasterLeedsSouthamptonSt Andrews and Warwick, along with UK distance-learning organization The Open University (OU).

Several U.S. universities have already jumped aboard the MOOC mobile, including the likes of Harvard and MIT, and while FutureLearn’s partner universities are not the first UK universities to chase a slice of MOOC pie either — Edinburgh University, for example, joined the Coursera consortium in July — they appear to be the first such large group to set up a dedicated MOOC business located in the UK.

Details of the course content that will be offered by FutureLearn are limited at this point, as the finer points of how this will all work are still being decided but the OU said FutureLearn will be open to students in the UK and the rest of the world, and it:

  • Will bring together a range of free, open, online courses from leading UK universities, that will be clear, simple to use, and accessible.
  • Will draw on the OU’s expertise in delivering distance learning and pioneering open education resources to underpin a unified, coherent offer from all of its partners.
  • Will not replicate class-based learning online but reimagine it, realising the potential offered by digital technologies.

Last month the OU announced it was repackaging its own course materials to work as apps — and presumably it’s that sort of technology expertise it will be bringing to the table at FutureLearn.

According to the players involved, FutureLearn will be an independent entity — but it will be majority owned by the OU, which is putting up the seed funding and providing the technology that will underpin the MOOCs (distance learning being the OU’s speciality). The other universities involved in FutureLearn are contributing courses, with other details — such as where the course staff will come from — yet to be hammered out. The individual universities’ brand names will be present on the FutureLearn platform, though — so expect to see MOOCs offered in the following format: ‘An introduction to genes and hormones by Birmingham University.’

Also yet to be determined: the business model. A spokesman for the OU/FutureLearn told TechCrunch there will “probably” be numerous models, depending on the course, with each university determining its own models — with possible examples being pay for certification/degree, or pay to take an invigilated exam in your local area, or some kind of subscription fee model. “MOOCs are a bit like the early Internet: everybody knows that it will change the world, but nobody knows which financial model works,” he added. “But for starters, think of it as the democratisation of education.”

The OU has recruited Simon Nelson to head up FutureLearn as its Launch CEO: a former long-time BBC exec who spent 14 years working in management and development for BBC Online, including helping to set up the BBC’s on-demand digital TV player iPlayer and its forerunner Radio Player. Nelson left the corporation at the end of 2010 to rejoin the commercial sector.

There has been rapid and widespread growth in open online courses, but until now UK universities have only had the option of working with U.S.-based platforms,” noted Nelson in a statement. “FutureLearn will aim to bring together the leading UK universities to create a combined and coherent offer for students in the UK and internationally. I look forward to using the OU’s proud history of innovation and academic excellence to create something the UK will be proud of and the world will want to be a part of.”

“MOOCs represent an enormous development in higher education, one that has the potential to bring about long-lasting change to the HE sector,” added Martin Bean, the vice chancellor of The Open University, in a statement. “The OU has decades of experience in world-class distance learning – each year we teach around 250,000 registered students, with literally millions of others accessing our free, informal, online offerings. FutureLearn will take this proud heritage and work with some of Britain’s best-known universities to write the next chapter in the story of British higher education.”