Established in 2012, FutureLearn is Europe’s largest online social learning platform, where learning happens through conversation with other users.

Based in the UK, FutureLearn is working to transform access to education on a global scale; it has already attracted 8.5 million members worldwide. It delivers courses on a huge range of subjects for anyone looking either to progress professionally or perhaps explore a personal passion. FutureLearn is owned by The Open University and partners with over a quarter of the world’s top universities, as well as organisations such as the British Council and Unesco.

As well as offering MOOCs (massive open online courses, run entirely online, with thousands of people learning simultaneously), FutureLearn hosts academically and professionally accredited programmes, and entire online degrees.

We caught up with FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson, who previously led the BBC’s transition from analogue to digital, about the organisation’s work.

Who is FutureLearn for?

A quick look at those who learn with us highlights the global nature of FutureLearn. We have learners in every country, 70 per cent of whom are based outside the UK. We have built social interaction into our teaching philosophy from the beginning, meaning that our educators encourage discussion with thought-provoking prompts.

We’ve found that those who engage in social learning are six times more likely to complete a FutureLearn course. 

What impact has the world wide web had on education?

The world wide web has helped make learning an enjoyable, multimedia experience. Although some argue that the remote nature of the web can isolate us, as it reduces the need for face-to-face contact, online learning with FutureLearn is an inherently social experience based around online conversation. Fifty per cent of the learning on our platform now happens on mobile devices.

The integration of digital technology into education has had a profound impact, opening up distribution globally and allowing flexible, on-demand, around-the-clock services for learners. It also connects us to vast stores of information.

Have MOOCs brought about an education revolution?

At first, MOOCs were heralded as a solution for the gaps in education provision around the world, with some suggesting they signalled the end of traditional universities, which was nonsense. Digital transformation in higher education has brought about an education revolution, demonstrated by the increased variety of courses that we are able to offer now. The online space caters to the full range of learners, from those who are looking to dip into a subject to those who want to commit to an online degree.

How has FutureLearn evolved since its launch in 2012?

Since 2012 we’ve seen over 8.5 million people learn with us and we now have over 170 global partners.

Building on our first course, The Secret Power of Brands – delivered in partnership with The University of East Anglia and influential brand consultancy Wolff Olins – we have offered a wide range of courses on everything from the Ebola crisis to GDPR compliance.

We also now offer a range of degrees from our partners, all fully delivered online. Our 'try before you buy' model allows learners to try out a free course before committing to a full degree, so people get the chance to understand how much study is required, as well as testing if the subject area is right for them.

How can we ensure that there is equal access to education for all?

On FutureLearn we work to ensure that the courses we host across our platform appeal to the full range of our learners, regardless of their circumstances. For example, our work with PADILEIA (Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access) aims to help refugees and those disadvantaged by the Syrian crisis to develop the skills they need for higher education.

In summer 2018 we set up courses to test how digital education might work in a blended classroom (online and face-to-face) for refugees and other learners. Developed by PADILEIA in partnership with King’s College London, these elementary English and pre-intermediate English courses were specially created for Middle Eastern learners. The first run of each course attracted 25,000 people to sign up globally.

What skills do you consider essential for the future?

As with education, the workplace is becoming increasingly digitalised. The demand for computer scientists will increase globally in the next few years, and skills like coding and programming will become essential. We offer courses on these new disciplines through FutureLearn.

However, skills like emotional intelligence, creativity, resilience, conflict resolution, or leadership will never go out of fashion. As technology continues to redefine the world of work, the traits that make us human will remain as important as ever.

Which courses can learners sign up to on FutureLearn right now that would help them learn these skills?

We currently have 'soft' skills courses available on FutureLearn covering a huge range of topics. The Open University, for example, offers a fantastic free course called Management and Leadership: Leading a Team, which helps learners develop a business plan and build a team. For learners wanting to explore soft skills in more depth, they also have a free-to-join programme on FutureLearn called Business Fundamentals, which covers communication, networking, relationship building, and project management skills.

You recently launched your first online BA Honours degree. Can you see a future in which higher education will be delivered entirely online, or will there always be a place for classroom teaching?

There is definitely a steady move towards digital education, and I expect to see more universities adopting a blended approach of traditional and digital education delivery. But I don’t see online learning completely replacing the lecture theatre any time soon. The campus experience offers so much, and we’re seeing online learning supplementing traditional education, not replacing it.

However, global higher education enrolment rates are expected to rise rapidly at a rate of 14 million new students every year from now until 2030. If all these people were to be educated face-to-face, this would require 13 new universities to be built every week – 700 each year – with each serving 20,000 students. That’s not going to happen. Are we going to deny these learners, or are we going to offer them the education they deserve on an online platform?

Ultimately, it goes back to our mission: to transform access to education. Our courses won’t be for everyone but there are so many people who, for whatever reason, either won’t be able to attend a campus university, or won’t want to. Online degrees offer the perfect alternative. 

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