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FutureLearn and the Evolution of MOOCs

FutureLearn and the Evolution of MOOCs main image

Jane Playdon, QS education writer

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are set to be a major feature of UK higher education, following the recent announcement that 21 UK universities are signed up to provide them through new project FutureLearn. This is the first UK-led provider of MOOCs, though the University of Edinburgh and University of London have already launched their own through the US-based Coursera platform.

Courses from FutureLearn, which is owned by The Open University, will initially be in beta version, with students answering multiple choice questions and providing feedback for further development. So far, students from over 165 countries have enrolled. 

The Open University's vice-chancellor, Martin Bean, said: “Time and again we have seen the disruptive impact the internet can have on industries – driving innovation and enhancing the customer experience. I have no doubt MOOCs will do the same for education."

Newell Hampson-Jones, an MBA graduate and education development professional, was quick to sign up for a beginners course in programming when FutureLearn launched last week. He said: “It’s the first MOOC I've signed up for and I went with FutureLearn because it is an Open University project, so I have a bit more faith it can be recognized by UK employers in terms of quality judgment than Coursera if I move forward to it. I also think FutureLearn has a better strategic position than others for increasing their UK contributors.”

Building on the Open University’s 44 years of experience in distance and open learning, the FutureLearn platform appears well equipped to adapt the university’s expertise to the fast-growing and rapidly evolving MOOC sector.

DOCCs, SMOCs and the ‘Year of the MOOC’

Undoubtedly one of the hottest topics in higher education today, MOOCs were hailed last year as a phenomenon and a revolution in higher education in the US, with 2012 dubbed ‘The Year of the MOOC’.

In an eternally evolving business model, variations have advanced from traditional one-way online content to synchronous massive online courses (SMOCS), and distributed open collaborative courses (DOCCs), among other variations.

SMOCS incorporate typical online content offerings with synchronized class times around the world, while the DOCC model aims to distribute expertise throughout all participants instead of concentrating it with one or two individuals, an approach that has largely emerged from feminist thinking. Not to mention the ‘make your own MOOC’ option, exemplified by Google’s open-source platform mooc.org.

Like many of these MOOC mutations, FutureLearn also moves away from traditional one-way online content by encouraging students to interact through features such as learner profile pages and social media, and the option to access courses using a variety of devices.

Professor Giles Perryer, academic lead for e-learning in the College of Medical and Dental Sciences at the University of Birmingham, described the plan for an upcoming FutureLearn dental photography MOOC: “There will be one main teacher, with support from two others. The course will feature a strong emphasis on peer learning through group discussions and group help, with excellent support from course teachers when guidance is needed.”

“The course is an adaptation of an existing SPOC (small online paid-for course), part of an online MSc in Advanced General Dental Practice from the University of Birmingham. It has had a ground-up redesign to make it suitable for MOOC audiences… [and] will have a synchronous start, with weekly sections.”

Perryer added: “Students will upload the clinical photographs they take during the course for peer review, and to receive both praise from other learners, and advice on how to make further improvements.”

The future of MOOCs: Opportunities and limits

So, with all the predictions about MOOCs that have been made from the US to the UK, how are the arguments for and against shaping up?

On the positive side, the MOOC experiment attracts talented instructors and entrepreneurs, who provide their expertise to students around the world for free. But they simply cannot provide personal supervision to such a massive audience, and this may be one of the reasons MOOCs carry a drop-out rate of 90%.

This may change in the UK. According to Perryer, “FutureLearn as a MOOC provider is concentrating on pedagogy and student experience. The US MOOCs have concentrated on being first to market. Generally, the UK MOOCS will have a strong brand identity backed up by academic rigor.”

On the negative side, there is a possibility that MOOC providers will profit at the cost of faculty jobs if they offer the courses for academic credit. However, it is unlikely MOOCs will completely replace personal tuition with remotely mediated labor anytime soon.

Some people may think that MOOCs provide a simple solution to funding problems in higher education, but this simply isn’t the case. Most students who enroll on MOOCs have already graduated and are learning for casual reasons or to supplement a hobby.

Then again, this may change with the incorporation of MOOCs into traditional degrees as a supplementary resource. Hampson-Jones said that one option would be to “complete the [MOOC] course and if you want to carry on, you pay for the full degree and upgrade, either distance or on campus… [The provider] can then focus on selling the student experience of the campus to ensure the students are better informed from day one”.

However, Professor Bean has said that the FutureLearn platform will never confer university credit. That will always be up to the university.

What MOOCs certainly can provide is a ‘taster’ experience for students considering different subjects, useful supplementary knowledge and training for those already working in a particular sector, and the simple delight of learning something new. Plus, if you complete the course, the satisfaction of knowing you’ve achieved something 90% of others didn’t.

Jane Playdon's profile image
Written by Jane Playdon
Jane Playdon is a TopUniversities.com author and blogger.

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