Massive Open Online Courses landed in the UK today with the launch of FutureLearn, a project led by the Open University and including around 20 universities from the UK, Monash University in Australia, Trinity College Dublin as well as organisations such as the British Council and the British Museum.
Chief executive Simon Nelson said this morning that more than 20,000 people had signed up for the eight courses available in the past 24 hours. Each course is between four and eight weeks long and involves a few hours of study a week. Topics on offer include the causes of war, England in the time of Richard III, climate change and how the web is changing the world.
The UK stamp
Until now, significant events in the growth of MOOCs have emanated from North America following the movement’s birth in Canada. Companies such as Coursera and US universities like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which announced a MOOCs partnership with Google last week, have so far been dominant in driving the direction of open online education.
But excellence in university education doesn’t just come from North America - that is obvious in the offline world and will soon be clear online too. It’s early days for FutureLearn, but UK institutions could bring a new angle to what is already on offer, be that different pedagogical approaches or different content.
In the US, MOOCs have often been based around individual academics who shine. Courses centre on their areas of expertise and their interests. Many of the universities involved in FutureLearn wanted the courses to be structured around departments rather than individuals, which means that different voices can contribute to the design of a course and the way it is run.
The UK could also become a leader on the social side of MOOCs. There are certainly groups in the US that understand the importance of making online study an interactive experience but FutureLearn has an opportunity to make learning as part of a cohort a central element of its courses from the outset. That includes interaction between students taking the same course and between learners and teaching assistants.
The Open University has been a pioneer in opening up higher education since its very inception, so it stands to reason that it should now become a leading player in the MOOC movement.
Power of the brand
The news last week that Coursera has made its first million dollars by allowing students to pay for MOOC certificates marks a major milestone in the open education movement. It shows that you can indeed make money offering free online courses.
FutureLearn is a for-profit organisation that is likely to follow similar models to those already used in the US to make MOOCs a going concern. Certificates are an option, as is bringing in other more formal elements to these otherwise informal learning programmes.
For the universities in the partnership, FutureLearn is a chance to raise profiles. The eight courses on offer include those which could be considered as tasters for more traditional university courses such as dentistry and forensic science. Others, such as an introduction to programming, are more geared towards developing skills for working life. Those like Web Science are about skills for today and the future.
Offering MOOCs certainly provides a means of getting a message out about the areas in which your university excels but these courses are unlikely to become a direct line for recruiting students. It would be nice if potential university applicants used the opportunity to take taster courses before enrolling on a full-time degree at the same institution but that is probably wishful thinking.
What is more likely is that teachers, for example, will take a MOOC and then pass on the insights they gain to their students, encouraging future generations to be more open to applying to a broader range of degrees.
Businesses can use FutureLearn to find out about the areas they should be investing in. Often, a business doesn’t know what skills it should be looking for when recruiting new employees. For example, if it needs computer specialists, a MOOC might provide some indication of what potential employees should be able to do or have the potential to learn.
Changing the world?
MOOCs have grown up incredibly quickly and so uncertainty about their place in the existing higher education structure is only natural. We don’t yet know exactly where they belong but we can see that they have not killed off higher education in the US and can feel confident that they won’t do so here either.
Education is constantly changing but the system we see today is not exactly unrecognisable from that which has operated for centuries. Innovations emerge at the edges, improvements are made, but the fundamentals remain reasonably stable. In the same way, MOOCs will not stop people from wanting traditional degrees, rather they will bring new opportunities.
However, MOOCs are revolutionising online education. They have generated an enthusiasm that has not been seen in this field for a very long time. Online learning has been revitalised by this new addition and that means we can really begin to explore sensible, scalable options for educating via the web, be that in the form of MOOCs or as component of a more traditional degree.