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.
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.