FutureLearn, MOOCs and digital disruption to higher education


It’s just over a year since I had my first conversation about FutureLearn and I was introduced to the world of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs as they are commonly known.

We launched our product in beta in September and now seems like a good moment to reflect on how FutureLearn relates to the world of massive open online courses and the effects of digital on higher education in general.

I guess the first thing to say is, that although FutureLearn is certainly born of the MOOC movement and we have very much capitalised on the interest and momentum that massive open online courses have created, I believe that MOOCs are only the starting point for the groundbreaking educational digital product that we are building.

The innovation in user experience of a MOOC is that they create an event and introduce scarcity and a sense of jeopardy into an on demand world. If educational resources are made available on demand, even in the form of a course, they can be accessed at any time which means that despite the best of intentions, many people don’t get around to using them. However, if you introduce a sense that you need to complete something by Sunday, that motivates people.

Fundamentally connected to this is the social side. Gathering a large number of people around the event who will move through the course together, supporting each other and together create a social experience is also what makes the courses special. This is another reason why you want to do it by Sunday, you want to be part of the conversation. And social learning is at the heart of FutureLearn.

Although we try to avoid the use of the word ‘MOOC’ to describe our offer, as many of the potentially learners we are targeting have never heard the term, the starting point for FutureLearn is definitely about ‘courses’. However, as we grow our audience, introduce more sophisticated social learning tools and make our course materials more open, I hope that we move towards becoming more of a social learning network and community of lifelong learners than simply people doing discrete one-off courses. And when this begins to happen, I think we will begin to leave the world of MOOCs behind.

But for now, there’s a number of criticisms, worries and myths about MOOCs that I’d like to challenge from a FutureLearn perspective.

“MOOCs are taking audience away from traditional education” 

The first is they are a replacement for existing forms of education. And that because what they offer is different from traditional forms, they are devaluing education. Thinking about it in these stark black and white terms for me somewhat misses the point.

Most of FutureLearn’s audience are people who are not currently learning in some other way. Education in general is inconvenient: from the perspective of geography (you have to go somewhere), scheduling (it happens at set times) and cost (it’s often expensive). By removing these barriers, we are encouraging those that are interested, to start learning again. A common theme to comments I see all the time on our courses is “it’s so nice to get the brain cells working again”. Many of them are people who are rediscovering their love for learning, something that we have made possible. 

In general, I think FutureLearn (and other MOOCs) are growing the overall audience for education, rather than displacing it. We’re attracting people who aren’t taking part in any sort of formal learning. And that must be a good thing.

There also seems to be a small contingent that are learning alongside their existing studies to supplement their knowledge. 

This sort of thing is exactly what has been seen in the world of television where linear TV viewing is a record levels despite the fact that many people now watch on demand. Greater access often creates more interest in the medium as a whole.

For example, when the BBC began offering podcasts, many radio producers feared that it would lead to people listening to less radio. In fact, research showed that people who listen to podcasts listen to more radio. In the same way that podcasts help build passion, interest and habit in radio listening, I think massive open online courses will ignite more interest in traditional forms of educations. After completing a few MOOCs, you can well imagine someone feeling inspired to do a Masters course.

Of course, once there become better and/or more convenient ways to achieve the same job, existing mediums need to play to their strengths. Cinema has reinvented its offer as a more social event since people began watching more films at home, radio has found its place alongside TV, vinyl is going through a renaissance with record collectors alongside streaming music services and so digital and real world forms of education will find how they naturally complement each other. 

“MOOCs do not compare to traditional forms of education”

Digital learning will inevitably disrupt traditional forms as it will offer better or more convenient ways to provide similar benefits to its users around certain activities. For example, some elements of learning that traditionally took place in lecture theatre to a large audience might be better and more conveniently provided digitally. Digital technology will force traditional forms of education to focus on what they can do better - one to one support from tutors, making events and the gathering of people together feel more special, physical, hands on real world activities and seminars and the kinds of social learning that are more effective and enjoyable face-to-face.

MOOCs will also evolve alongside traditional education. There is a great Marshall McLuhan quote:

“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” 

McLuhan’s observation was that we tend approach a new medium by applying understanding of an older medium because we don’t yet understand its potential and differences. For example, TV drama initially was very similar to a theatrical production and the telephone was originally intended as broadcast medium like radio rather than one-to-one communication. 

At the moment, we are creating and judging MOOCs by using the principles that exist in the medium of real world education. The conversation around MOOCs is about dropout, cheating at tests and lack of contact with educators… all of these debates will eventually evolve in away that is more appropriate to the digital medium.

Take those examples: dropout is a funny way to describe a world where you open the doors of your lecture theatre to anyone in the world to pop in and see what’s going on. And then make it easy for them to find the bit they’re interested in and remove the sense of embarrassment if they leave having already get what they came for. We’re very interested in engaging learners in our courses so that they want to learn more and go on a journey. However, we also want to celebrate all positive engagement and not consider people as dropouts if they don’t stay the course.

Tests are also quite a simplistic way of looking at how to judge how much someone has participated and learnt. In the digital world, it is much easier to see the footprints of learning in other ways than simple testing. Creating a footprint that is hard to game as it requires you to put in almost as much effort as learning properly. I believe proof of learning, particularly in the area of Continuing Professional Development will evolve away from just simple exams and certificates towards a more sophisticated form of proof that reflects engagement, collaboration, passion and understanding in a way that a simple written exam does not. In a world that is rapidly changing, these skills, not simply regurgitating knowledge are becoming ever more recognised as important.

The different role of the educator and cohort of learners is also fascinating. In the world of a massive open online course, we are finding we are attracting many very knowledgable people, lots of them as knowledgable as the educators themselves. There is also dynamics of a social learning network, how ideas and memes spread around them, how you might visualise them, how a moment of genius that might become amplified by others within the network and creating an environment where the course as a whole “comes to know” a new truth rather than necessarily specifical individuals within it. This is not a replacement for direct contact with a skilled and highly knowledgable educator. But it’s a really interesting, powerful and potentially complimentary alternative. Our current range of social tools on FutureLearn are relatively rudimentary and we’re just beginning to understand how to harness this incredible opportunity. 

I’ve also found it interesting to see how inspired some of our educators have become whilst running courses, when suddenly confronted with thousands of interested and well informed people from all over the globe. Only this week we receive an email that finished “It is by far and away one of the most lively, stimulating and refreshing experiences of my teaching career.”

“MOOCs only attract people with degrees”

The second much levelled criticism is the audience and that they only attract people that are already well educated. At the moment, there is some truth in this and more of FutureLearn’s current audience holds a degree than those that don’t. But the reason for this is that FutureLearn (and MOOCs in general) are attracting an audience of early adopters. Perhaps more surprising is that far more of them than not, have never done an online course.

These are people interested in (and perhaps involved in) education already. They are naturally curious and potentially already looking for opportunities to learn. They may have heard of MOOCs. They actively are seeking them out and it’ll be only once they tell their friends and family that word of mouth begins to spread. They are our mavens who will help us build our audience.

The other reason is because of the kinds of courses that universities are currently offering, which tend to be courses where some prior knowledge or interest in the subject is required. To grow our business rapidly and start to make it more sustainable, we are unapologetic about attracting this easy to win audience. However, FutureLearn is very much about attracting a mainstream audience and in keeping with the mission of our parent, The Open University, extending access to eduction. 

This is core to our approach: we want to create a simple, delightful and familiar user experience that is enjoyable, down to earth and that whilst offering serious material with the highest level of academic rigor, avoids being intimidating and stuffy. We want to inspire those that want to learn something to go on a journey, no matter what their background.

MOOCs are a little way from reaching the tipping point of mass adoption, but once this happens I believe a focus on learners and their needs, rather than reflecting the needs of institutions and replicating old models will be the best way to achieve this.

I would like FutureLearn to be talked about in the same way people talk about iPlayer, Spotify or Kindles. An easy to understand means to enrich or enhance their lives. It’s not about dumbing it down. It’s about making it easy, convenient and enjoyable. It’s also about making it relevant, social removing the potential for feeling bored, overwhelmed or lonely. Most of the current crop of educational learning products tend to fail at all of these.

We’ve also taken a “mobile first” approach to designing our product. This means that it works equally well on smartphones and tablets as it does laptop and desktop computers. In developing markets, cheap phones and tablets are already being rapidly adopted and leap frogging PCs in market penetration. By making educational accessible on these devices we start to make higher education accessible to millions that may not have had the opportunity before. And for many of these people it wont be replacing another form of higher education or allowing them to start learning again, it might be their first taste of it.

“There’s no business model to pay for it.”

The cost of the content being provided for free is also a much cited criticism. MOOCs, done well are expensive to produce, there is no doubt of that. But even at this early stage, we’re already seeing lots of potential to make FutureLearn a sustainable operation for both us and our partners. 

Fundamentally, MOOCs are a classic freemium model. If you get a large number of people learning, then you can convert a small number of them to upgrade to paid service. In the case of MOOCs the most obvious one being proof of what you’ve learnt. And we have an inbox full of people wanting something to show they have taken part and seemingly very happy to pay for it. This is an amazing position to be in as a digital service that has been running for just a few months. 

A number of our courses have attracted the interest of sponsors. One of our more specialist courses has already converted learners from doing a FutureLearn course into lucrative masters students. And all our partners our convinced that they have learnt a great deal from running courses and that it has improved their reputation.

We’re in beta. We’ve barely got started in working all this out. But we already can sense we’re onto something.

To conclude

So in conclusion, MOOCs are attracting an audience of non consumers and broadening the audience for education. At the moment, much of this audience are early adopters who are actively interested in and seeking out education and so therefore tend to be better educated than most. However, as word of mouth spreads and MOOC platforms like FutureLearn become more consumer friendly and offer better user experiences, this will begin to change. 

MOOCs offer something different from traditional forms of education and comparing them is not helpful and misses the opportunities that the power of networked learning provides. They will evolve and will find their own digital language that is distinct from that of real world education. 

Meanwhile, traditional education, if wisely managed, will slowly start to embrace digital as a way to complement it’s core offer. It will provide a catalyst for focusing on the things that can be done best in the real world and the institutions that do so alongside embracing digital will be successful. 

We’re at the very beginning of a journey. One that offers amazing potential and opportunity to extend the reach of education and provide it in a way that is appropriate to a world where to get on, we will all need to be life long learners. It offers the opportunity to inspire those that might not have been before, connect them to thousands around the world like them and let them learn on their own terms. They also offer institutions the opportunity to learn, evolve and develop their own offer in a way that is more appropriate to today’s world. 

Education has to embrace digital and if existing institutions don’t, somebody else will. But rather than be negative or defensive, it’s something that should be whole heartily embraced. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.

A rather nice session track from Elbow’s new album released today, courtesy of The Guardian. I’m rather liking Guy’s new specs too.

The full album, The Take Off And Landing Of Everything has also just appeared on Spotify. I am yet to reach a verdict…

Great piece by Ev Williams on the first 12-months of Medium. Why small teams are better at the start and why setting yourself a deadline is important.

“With anything young and tender the most important task is the beginning of it; for that is the time in which the character is being formed and the desired impression more readily taken.”
— Plato, The Republic

A really interesting article on Stafford Beer’s attempts at creating a “cybernetic government” in Chile in the early 1970s. This picture is the control room of the government, not a Bond villain lair. Sadly it was never put to the test.

I was inspired to find out more by a great talk Mike Sharples our academic lead did on “Learning as Conversation” and by David Thair who, clearly similarly inspired, posted this link.

A session from Copenhagen’s Indians one of the beautifully shot 4AD sessions.

The rather brilliant debut album is Somewhere Else and is available on Spotify.

The Mind Is Flat and why we humans are improvising collaborative storytellers


“It’s like we think we’re reading from scripts. And then we realise, oh no, we’re actually inventing the play… that’s pretty cool. Not only that, I’m inventing my part, your inventing your part and it all seems to work as a pretty coherent narrative. How on earth do we manage to invent so brilliantly?”

This is Nick Chater, the lead educator of The Mind Is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of the Human Psychology, reflecting on his thesis and the questions that have come up during week 6, the final week of his massive open online course. 

The Mind Is Flat is the first FutureLearn course I have completed. As Head of Product, I’ve been dabbling in all of our courses but I’ve taken part in this one as a real learner and posting comments, doing the tests and completing all the steps. I intend to keep this up, picking courses whose subject matter particularly appeal to me and taking part alongside our learners. I’m going to start a course on Hamlet on Monday.

In an extra display of professional commitment, for The Mind Is Flat I’ve also signed up to do the first ever FutureLearn exam at a test centre in London, which will test me on what I’ve learnt. Gulp.

That being the case, I thought I would indulge in a little reflective learning by writing a blog post about the course. Basically, its a good way to avoid revision whilst pretending I’m doing some… which feels like proper student behaviour.

The basic premise of the course is that we are not nearly as ‘deep’ as we instinctively think we are. We are, in fact, “just making it all up as we go along”. Now, Nick is at pains to stress that this by no means devalues to complexity of the human mind, as the quote above indicates. We are doing amazing things that we are only just beginning to understand. 

It’s just that, rather than delving into our mind in order to reach decisions based on deeply held opinions and long held beliefs, we in fact use information that is available to us in the moment, recall decisions we made in similar situations in the past and then improvise as best we can. And with startling results, hence our mistaken assumption that there’s a lot more inside that we draw upon than we really do.

It’s a bold idea and one that when the course began, had many of my fellow learners spluttering at their iPads. But as the weeks progressed, I like many of them, began to embrace at least some of this way of thinking and start to question some of the assumptions we make about our perceptions. 

The first few weeks of the course took us through a number of interesting theories and research findings that have led Nick to his belief in flatness. Essentially, The Mind Is Flat perspective, as he refers to it, seems to be a way to bring a coherent theory as to why these often surprising findings might be the case.

For example, we discussed change blindness and choice blindness, both of which suggests that our choices are easily influenced and relatively unstable depending on the context in which particular options are presented. We may also be unduly influenced by things like ‘anchoring' ourselves to a number suggested by others (or even ourselves previously) or if options are presented in a particular order or as something to select rather than reject (we tend to pick the most extreme option in both situations).

On perception, much of what we see and hear is based on us quickly turning our vision and mind to things and unconsciously mentally filling in the gaps in order answer questions on the fly. As an example of this, one step linked to a fascinating clip from Horizon on something called the McGurk effect where you amazingly hear something different when the sound is teamed with a different visual despite it being the same. Check it out for yourself in the clip below.

It’s examples like this that start to make you think that Nick may be on to something…

We talked about the Easterlin Paradox, where people feel content until they see others doing better than them. This led us to a number of theories around how humans are creatures that are brilliant at comparison but really bad at absolute measures from everything including pain and happiness to brightness and weight. In Easterlin’s paradox wealth becomes a problem only when you have something to compare it to. Which reminded me of the James lyric “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.”

(As an aside, we as a development team have recognised this absolute measure vs comparison issue and deliberately avoid using absolute time as a way of estimating because it is generally inaccurate and instead we give tasks point scores and compare their complexity against one another. Over a two week period, you see how many points you get through and this gives you a pretty accurate measure of how much you might get through in the following fortnight if the same people estimate things in the same way.)

We looked at circular preferences and how you can turn people into a “money pump” by constructing certain kinds of choice architecture, how our natural preference is to avoid losing things rather than gambling for something bigger (loss aversion) and how the difference between smaller numbers seems greater to us than the difference between larger ones, even when they are relative. There was also hindsight bias where because it is difficult to forget knowledge you have acquired, you have a sneaking suspicion you knew the answer all along. All fascinating stuff and entirely recognisable once someone points it out to you.

However, for me the course started to get most interesting when we began to look at how we instinctively construct a narrative to help us understand our own behaviour, choices and decisions. And it became even more so when we begin to see how this works when it comes to interacting with others.

This is where the course began to explore two fundamental truths I already knew about human beings but provided a different and novel perspective from which to think about them. The truths being that we are instinctive storytellers and that we are naturally collaborative creatures.

Nick talks about “We Thinking”. This is our ability when interacting with others to think as a team where we both play our part. This is generally done without us even realising it. For example, most conversations rely on us communicating because we rely on common knowledge that all the participants are aware and making certain assumptions.

A classic example, and one that is apparently notorious for baffling attempts at artificial intelligence, is the following: “It’s Mary’s birthday. John decides to get to her a balloon. He goes to his piggy bank and shakes it but it makes no sound.” 

This is fairly straight forward for us humans to understand and the story’s implications. We assume that both Mary and John are children. That its not a hot air ballon but a party balloon. That John has no money and so therefore he wont be able to buy Mary a balloon. And that he will probably be upset by this and she might be disappointed… 

A machine would find it very hard to infer any of this. But a human can because we rely on an enormous amount of shared knowledge we can instantly apply.

Because we communicate in this way all the time - always inferring motives, explanations, reasons and the relationship between peoples activities - we are fantastic storytellers. It’s how we understand the world, each other and ourselves. Nick also suggests that our creativity may partly come from a byproduct of this automatic behaviour.

He also suggests that language itself has evolve culturally in this way (something that happens much swifter than biological evolution). We follow in each other’s footsteps and because we are all similar and share references, familiar patterns stick. Patterns that are too hard to learn are not passed on and disappear.

The course opens by discussing Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and suggests that when we think about the motives and actions of a fictional character, this actually isn’t very different from how we think about those of others and most interestingly, our own. That we constantly create stories to justify and make sense of our actions and these help us create some sense of order, stability and ongoing coherence. Some elements of these stories are based on memories, experience and the evidence presented to us in the moment. But some are just that: stories. Stories to help us create narrative and understanding when our perceptions and knowledge can’t help us.

The course is running again in March if you fancy it - I would heartily recommend it. You can check out the trailer below. 

Right, I’m off to brace myself for that exam…


“If I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”
— Various

Band vs orchestra

The classic Scrum team is always described as being eight people or less. And there’s a reason for that. Small teams tend to be more creative and productive. I think there’s two main reasons for this:

1. Ownership

The more ownership somebody feels of a project, the more enthusiastic, committed, responsible and proud they become. This leads to more, high-quality work being done. The more people covering the same discipline, the more diluted this sense of ownership is, the more compromises are made and the more creative tension there is. Some creative tension is good, lots slows you down. The best people, like to own something. And ownership leads to products with character, passion and soul.

2. Communication

A small team working closely together are constantly communicating, aligning their views and know what each other are doing. They develop their own language. Project management becomes easy if everyone is talking to each other. The more people are in a team the more talking is required and the less doing gets done.

Smallest and biggest

Three is probably the smallest team that can practically deliver a high quality product. And this can feel tight if you have lots of stakeholder management to do. But eight is the biggest team that can move quickly and feel real ownership. Beyond that speed, productivity, communication and passion tends to drop.

Band vs orchestra

Having played in bands in the past, I’m of the opinion a dev team is very much like a band. You get the same creative battles, the same camaraderie, the same collective sense of pride over something you created together. They’re self-organising and require little formal project managing.

The smallest band is generally a power trio (if The White Stripes is the exception that proves the rule). A band that has more than eight, generally becomes more like an orchestra. And an orchestra is a very different thing, is organised in a different way and requires a different way of managing things with a band leader/conductor. People playing parts that are written for them. Once you have an orchestra, it stops being self organising, communication is top down and you lose the some of the sense of ownership. 

Most bands have between three and six members.

So do you want a band or an orchestra? Can you do with less people? And what do you do if you can’t?

Creating a festival

The solution is probably to create something like a festival. Get a number of bands playing together in a coordinated way, in order to create a coherent result.

At FutureLearn our team has grown beyond a being band. And over the next few weeks we going to start experimenting with creating a festival. 

To be continued…

A very grown up spaghetti Bolognese


When I was a kid, spaghetti Bolognese was one of my favourites. The meal my mum might cook if she was trying to be nice to me. And I cooked a lot of it when I was a student - a vat to last the week and eek out. But it’s something I’ve not cooked for years. 

This Christmas, I received Nigel Slater’s wonderful Kitchen Diaries from my dear little sister and his comforting entry of 17 January is… spaghetti Bolognese. Which reawakened a desired to experiment with this king of meals.

Now, I’m a little earlier in the year than Nigel was, but here’s my new version. It’s a mixture of what I believe makes a great Bolognese, fused with the inspiration Nigel has provided. What I like about it is that it has undertones of Boeuf Bourguignon, another dish of which I am very fond. It makes for a quite sophisticated and deep flavour. Certainly more grown up that of my childhood favourite and the staple of my student years.


  • a glug of olive oil
  • 2 red onions, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely sliced
  • 2 sticks of celery, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • a large handful of cubes of very smokey bacon
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a generous sprinkle of dried mixed herbs (like herb de Provence)
  • 500g minced beef
  • pepper
  • 300g crushed tomatoes / passata
  • a glass of red wine
  • a good slug of Worchester Sauce
  • 3/4 mushrooms, sliced
  • a glug of milk

Heat the oil in a stewing pot and sweat the onions, carrot and celery. I believe this is sometimes referred to as the Holy Trinity.

Add the garlic and smokey bacon and continue to cook with the lid off. I used bacon offcuts I get from my local butcher, the lovely Richard in Diplocks yard. These are amazing in stews and the like, as they come from properly smoked strips of pork belly and being the ends tend to very smokey. This means they provide amazing depth of flavour when slipped into things where other meats are the star. Such as Bolognese. Sprinkle in the mixed herbs and tuck in a couple of bay leaves.

Add the beef and grind on plenty of pepper. Mix and continue to cook until the meat is broken up, sealed and starting to brown. Pour in the tomato passata and the glass of red wine. It is using red wine rather than lots of tomato that adds to the sophistication. Then add a good slug of Worchester Sauce, the magic secret ingredient, one from those days as a student. Add a little water if you need to. Give it yet another good stir.

Cook on the hob for as long as you can but at least 45 minutes. The longer the better. Keep the lid on to begin with but remove towards the end to reduce the sauce - you don’t want it to be watery. Before you put the spaghetti on, pour in a good slut of milk and add the sliced mushrooms and continue to cook for the final 15 minutes or so.

Of course, it should be served with Parmesan. And you’ve opened that bottle of wine now and it is a meal for grown ups after all…