Futurelearn may or may not succeed but is well worth a try

So there’s a new kid on the MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) block: Futurelearn. (Or FutureLearn or FUTURE/LEARN – I daresay the capitalisation question is one that’ll be answered fairly straightforwardly, at least in letters terms.) I’ll assume you’re already familiar with the basic idea from the press release and related news stories. (If not, Tony Hirst has an excellent roundup. )

The first thing to say is that this is a PR and organisational coup. Hats off to Martin Bean (the OU Vice Chancellor) and all involved (which must’ve been at least a small group) to get this organised and agreed between so many partners. (As an aside, I chatted to the folks setting up to record his latest video message to staff (OU only, sorry) and they said they couldn’t let me see the transcript or they’d be shot. I was slightly surprised – huge secrecy isn’t a usual part of his management style – but now I understand why: his message talks about Futurelearn!)

The second thing to say is that I think this is a great thing for the OU to be doing. As I’ve argued before (https://dougclow.org/2012/11/12/moocs-oer-and-wikipedia-for-great-justice/), MOOCs could open the doors to higher education much more widely, and are therefore a Good Thing. The OU has a track record in this sort of stuff.

I’m not at all sure whether Futurelearn will be a huge success or a flash in the pan, same as I’m not sure whether MOOCs in general will be a huge success or a flash in the pan. But I am increasingly sure that it’s a great idea for the OU to pursue this wholeheartedly. If someone’s going to be doing it, I’d rather it was the OU, with its 40-year tradition and commitment to opening access to higher education, than a venture capitalist with a commitment only to making money.

The rest of this post is me asking a load of questions that might appear to be knocking holes in the plan, or at least attempting to do so. That’s not because I think it’s a bad idea, it’s because I’m an academic and that’s what I do. If it was a really bad idea I wouldn’t waste my time. Ideas that still look good after a solid mauling are likely to be really pretty good. This is also a very-hastily composed quick reaction, rather than a considered opinion.

The corporate structure seems fairly straightforward. Futurelearn is a private limited company. Companies House says it was registered on 10 Dec 2012 (Monday) and the announcement was made on Friday 14 Dec. When they said it was an entirely new company they weren’t joking! This must’ve been planned for more than a week, though. I note that the first line of the company’s registered address is ‘Leagas Delaney Limited’, which is an advertising company. My guess is that the business set-up has been handled by the PR company dealing with the launch.

According to the press release, it’ll be majority owned by the Open University, which suggests that the OU is stumping up the majority of the startup capital (of which more later). The relationship with the others is going to be interesting. The press release says

‘The term “partner” in this news release does not constitute a partnership in the legal sense and the Parties shall not have authority to bind each other in any way. The term is used to indicate their support and intent to work together on this.’

which suggests there’s broad agreement that this would be a good thing to do, but no agreement on paper. The details are likely to matter here. (But then I always say that.)

Having a separate entity to take on a risky new plan seems like a very wise plan. The new company isn’t tied to the OU’s approach, and so is free to innovate. One might argue that setting up an organisation that cannibalises the business of its parent isn’t always a great plan. But there’s ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ argument: large incumbents find it very, very hard to innovate in to new spaces, and if they don’t do it, smaller startups will do it. Better to eat yourself, then, than to sit back and be eaten.

It could be synergistic, though: Futurelearn attracting a mass audience way bigger than the OU can handle at present, with some of them moving on to the high-support, full-service model of the OU. The potential upside is great.

The downside of a separate company is that it doesn’t have any expertise to start with. So a critical question for Futurelearn is what access it will have to the OU. What will it be able to call on in terms of OU materials, and – perhaps just as important – to OU expertise? Will there be a wave of secondments? They’ve got an excellent choice for CEO in Simon Nelson, with a track record of producing excellent, innovative online services (iPlayer). I’m confident he’d be able to hire an excellent developer and ops teams. But education is an orthogonal set of skills and expertise. But what about the learners? Who’s got the pedagogical view? Who’ll be the Chief Learning Officer? Or is Futurelearn going to go with the Nuremburg Funnel model of existing MOOCs and not really think about that? Or am I part of the dinosaur mindset here by worrying about such things?

(If they do things in the open, as I’d strongly urge, they’d get the benefit of most of the experts in this area chipping in and contributing their views for free. Or maybe what I’m saying is that I’d love to know more and stick my oar in. Any Futurelearn people reading this, do get in touch!)

The pedagogy is one of the two standard critiques of any MOOC. The other is money.

Who’s going to ultimately pay for all this, and how much? What’s the demand curve look like? We know from the pioneering connectivist MOOCs, and the xMOOC gang (Coursera, EdX and Udacity) that there’s at minimum a large backlog demand at a price of zero. That is not, as many have pointed out, a sustainable business plan. There presumably is some demand at a slightly higher price point … but how much? Can the economics work for a freemium model? And how can that work given an existing highly competitive ‘market’ (in as much as it is a market – see The Sinister Sausage Machine) for the premium model?

With a venture capital project, you know there’s a big pot of money to get the idea off the ground. With organically grown companies, early income helps pay the bills and the operation grows as the income does. Futurelearn can’t be using the organic growth model, so there’s going to need to be a big lump of money, at least to start with. How much have they got? From whom? Presumably mostly the OU. How long will it last?

There’s also questions about whether all the partner universities will be willing and able to deliver significant courses through the platform that’ll attract significant audience. The OU could certainly do that if it chose to, simply by dumping all of its existing courses on there. We get about 250,000 people studying with us each year; I’d guess we’d see a slight uptick in interest if we dropped the fees to zero.

But that illustrates the tightrope for the OU and Futurelearn in stark terms. If Futurelearn succeeds, will it be at direct student-for-student expense of the OU? That’d be very bad news: we’ve no idea what Futurelearn might eventually charge but it’ll have to be way less than the OU does for its existing offerings.

There’s the market timing question too. This is late – it’s a long time (an age in Internet time) since the big splashes of Udacity, EdX and Coursera. Can Futurelearn make an impact now? Is it too late? Is there a demand for specifically British offerings?

The elephant in the room of any discussion here has to be the UK eUniversity (UKeU). This was a very similar idea that was started to much fanfare in 2001 and wound up in 2004 having spent £62m and not recruited nearly enough students to make money. Obviously, this time round the starting price point will be free, which would presumably get more people through the door, but also is not going to make more money. Key questions are: What’s different this time? Why won’t this follow the same route? Was that too early to market? Did it fail through simple mispricing? Or is it in fact the case that there isn’t a price point for online HE that gets sufficient bums on seats to pay the bills sustainably? We really can’t rule that out as a possibility.

(There are practical learning points from the UKeU too – like, to my mind, the importance of not basing your business on a massive waterfall-like development process.)

I’m reminded slightly of the King of the Swamp in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one … stayed up! And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.

These are really tough times for the OU. The new fees regime is profoundly challenging to our traditional model, as are MOOCs. Bold leadership and action is a much better strategy than turning turtle and hoping it’ll all go away. It won’t. Not everything we try will work, but we do need to keep trying and keep innovating. If we don’t even try to build a castle, we will slowly sink in to the swamp anyway. It’s like Samuel Beckett’s famous “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” (As another aside, I note that this is exactly the strategic plan Martin Bean promised the OU when he arrived: focus on reducing costs, addressing the new fees regime, and then innovate. This is very confidence-inspiring.)

There are many questions: I expect we’ll get at least nearly as many answers. (And as I’ve said, I’d love to help get some.) As I said, it’ll either be really successful (this really is the future of HE – or at least, a substantial part of it), or a real failure (it’s a recipe for burning money.) But it’s well worth a try, and it’s well worth the OU doing the trying.

Fundamentally, I am an empiricist. You can argue and rationalise about whether something will work or not, but the only final arbiter is whether in fact it works when you try it out. Let’s see whether Futurelearn works. It could be great. Martin Bean told staff “We’re doing this because it’s absolutely the right thing to do”. With a slight caveat around the ‘absolutely’, I agree.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

13 thoughts on “Futurelearn may or may not succeed but is well worth a try”

  1. Yes Doug, it needs to be distinctive and being Open would be a very welcome identity for Futurelearn.
    I’m particularly interested in how Futurelearn’s curriculum will be assembled. Presumably each of the partners will want to showcase subjects they currently offer as fee-paying courses, but would that lead to Futurelearn offering ten psychology courses from different members of the consortium?
    Acting as a showcase for the current fee-paying curriculum would also limit the degree to which the OU could dig into its archives to populate the platform wouldn’t it?

    1. There are real challenges here, but real opportunities too I think.

      The learning support model is going to be the clearest difference, I think.

      But you’re right that the curriculum is another key question. We already have lots of OU material up on OpenLearn as a showcase, to no obvious detriment to our bread-and-butter business: there’s good evidence that a lot of people come to our full-price offerings via OpenLearn. Simply bundling a little light support and more explicit course structuring (with timetabling, perhaps) round that lot would be a pretty significant offering in itself. I’d expect more.

      And yes, how this works across partners will also be interesting, too. I don’t think ten different psychology courses is necessarily a disaster – let’s face it, there must be at least ten times that already in the traditional market. Making it clear to prospective students is going to be a challenge.

      I can imagine a nice way this could work: Futurelearn is the platform, where the partners cooperate, but the content (and support and structuring!) is where they compete. This mantra – cooperate on platform, compete on content – is the mantra in UK broadcasting, and works well there. I’d guess that’s the direction we’re going with Futurelearn, given that we’ve hired Simon Nelson (of iPlayer fame) as launch CEO.

  2. a good reaction piece doug. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about the issue of autocannibalisation, similarly the ‘partner’ unis aren’t going to be offering competition to their own offerings, i suspect we’ll see a lot of ‘intro to management’ courses which will be viewed as marketing by the offering universities, rather than genuine learning materials, but i’d love to be proven wrong!

    1. Thanks Nick.

      I agree the self-competition issue is a big issue, but I don’t think it’s an insuperable barrier. MOOCs are not the same experience as traditional learning – certainly not traditional universities, and not traditional OU supported open learning. They’re a different and distinct offering, and I think at least potentially a distinct audience.

      Current MOOCs clearly attract an audience that isn’t attracted by trad HE (often because the audience already has a degree, of course).

      If there are people who would rather do MOOCs than trad HE, they are going to do MOOCs anyway. If that is a potential market loss to trad HE (I’m not sure it is), those punters are gone anyway, regardless of whether trad HE is offering the MOOCs or venture capitalist. I’d rather we tried to shape the future – if indeed this turns out to be the future.

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