A revolution in on-line education

January 2016

MOOCs enjoy huge international popularity. Many think they could revolutionise education, with potentially far-reaching implications for the UK’s education sector, its economy, and its influence abroad.

In the summer of 2015 a British Council English language learning ‘MOOC’ or (‘Massive Open Online Course’) became the most popular ever single-run of a MOOC in the world. ‘Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests’, delivered on the FutureLearn platform, gained an enormous 441,000 registrations across the world in a single run – more than all the foreign students who came to the UK to study in 2015 - making it, when it finished, the world’s most popular single-run of a MOOC ever.

The MOOC undoubtedly took advantage of the huge international demand for English language learning. But it is also part of a wider trend that many believe is revolutionising education.

MOOCs are an excellent way of delivering educational products to huge audiences fast, and with limited outlay in cost and personnel

MOOCs are an excellent way of delivering educational products to huge audiences fast, and with limited outlay in cost and personnel. The record-breaking MOOC cost just £45,000 to produce. The ratio of educators to registrations was 1:49,000. The production cost per person registering was just 10 pence. Clearly this represents a completely different order of magnitude for potential cost and reach, compared to more traditional teaching methods and products.  

MOOCs are typically free for consumers. This has implications for the business models of the organisations that produce them. They are a very cheap way of providing education-related products. But they are hard to monetise when people expect such online products to be free. One way of generating income that is increasingly being explored is to charge for related exams or certification for those finishing the course, though this model is still in its infancy.

The popularity of MOOCs therefore poses both challenges and opportunities to providers of education and training. The UK is the second biggest destination for international students in the world, with over 400,000 coming to the UK for higher education every year, along with over 600,000 more coming to take English language courses. Education is worth over £17.5 billion per year to the UK economy and is the country’s fifth largest services export. The UK’s English language teaching industry alone is worth over £2 billion every year - expected to climb to £3 billionby 2020. Some people believe MOOCs may one day threaten traditional face-to-face education and English language teaching. But if anything MOOCs are currently acting as positive marketing and expanded reach for traditional UK education providers, encouraging some learners to consider following up with study in the UK and reaching others who could never afford such study. 

One way or another, how MOOCs evolve could have a major impact on the numbers of international students travelling to the UK, and indeed to the UK economy. The UK is already a leading player in the new market for MOOCs, though it faces stiff competition from other countries. It is perhaps telling that the other nine of the top ten most popular MOOCs in the world were all from American universities. The UK education sector will have to respond and is already starting to do so. The Open University, for example, has committed to invest millions of pounds into growing the scale and impact of the FutureLearn MOOC platform.

Magna Carta via MOOC

One strength of MOOCs is their interactiveness: a small team of educators are available to respond to some of the questions put by learners. Perhaps more importantly, they facilitate a conversation between the learners themselves, who also talk extensively to each other, often continuing to stay in touch after the course is over. As such, MOOCs combine features both of more traditional online courses and of social media channels. Indeed, many people using these MOOCs find out about them via social media and then continue to interact with related social media outlets after they finish them. They can therefore be seen as important examples of people-to-people interaction in the context of UK international relationships.

It is worth noting that a previous popular British Council MOOC on FutureLearn benefitted from using content from the UK Government’s GREAT Britain campaign, with a focus on UK music, landscape, history, and entrepreneurship. As such it arguably operated as an excellent advert for the UK, its culture and values as well as a simple learning tool. In December 2015 a British Council MOOC on Magna Carta was launched to interested learners from around the world and quickly attracted tens of thousands of registrations. Another MOOC to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death has just been launched by the British Council this month and is also hoped to achieve world-wide popularity. 

The Gulf States, accounting for some 43% of those taking the course, with over 130,000 joining from Saudi Arabia alone

One particularly striking result for the record-breaking IELTS MOOC was its huge popularity in the Gulf States, accounting for some 43% of those taking the course, with over 130,000 joining from Saudi Arabia alone. Given UK and international efforts to engage with people in the Middle East and the benefits to the UK of enhancing English language learning, this arguably represents a potentially important avenue for the UK’s influence as well as for its education system. Indeed the countries in which MOOCs are most popular - including Russia, Ukraine, Burma and Indonesia – are all of significant strategic and economic interest to the UK. Given the power of MOOCs to reach huge numbers of people in such countries quickly and cheaply – and their ability to promote the English language and culture and potentially the attractiveness and values of the UK - MOOCs could be thought of as a soft power asset as well as a transformative educational tool.

Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, with thanks to Ulla Hjerting, Product Support Manager, UK English and Exams for the British Council.