Paid top dollar to attend a MOOC conference by UK
Universities in which Martin Bean (Vice Chancellor of Open University) and
Simon Nelson (CEO of Futurelearn) were to give talks. Although the conference was about MOOCs and online
learning, most of Simon’s talk was about the BBC. That was fine but
not entirely relevant. However, his other public interview on Futurelearn are not short of ambition:
“In three years’ time we hope to be offering
a level of online learning that we can’t dream about at the moment” says
Simon, “It may sound ridiculous in
ambition, but one of my team said to me that in five or 10 years, rather than
hanging out on Facebook of an evening, people will feel they can hang around in
the Futurelearn product.” I rather like this crazy level of optimism but it
needs a sense check. So I asked him some questions….
1. When’s it coming?
The aim, Simon says, is “to have products on the web by the middle of
2013, and a full consumer launch sometime in the autumn”. So we can expect
something soon. The question is whether this is too little, too late. He made a
great deal of the ‘virtue in coming
second’ but we had no choice in the matter. Also, as far from being second, Futurelearn is not even in the first ten
– Coursera, Udacity, edX, Udemy, NovoED, Openlearning, Google, OpenupStudy,
Open2learn, Iversity, Desire2learn…the list goes on. They may, by launch, not
even be in the top twenty. Nevertheless, there may still be wisdom in taking
your time and getting it right, a point well made by Simon.
2. Who are the partners?
British Museum and British Library.” You clearly need to have ‘British’ in
your name to be a partner. British Council could be useful in foreign marketing,
and the other two as sources of assets, but none have any business or
entrepreneurial spirit. There’s been lots of ‘digital’ initiatives with these
partners in the past, lots of ‘digitise this’ and ‘digitise that’ projects, but
nothing that’s succeeded in the learning space. None of the players have built
a business from scratch. That’s a worry.
3. What about the
past failures in this space?
I mentioned UKeU and BBC Jam but
could have included the OU’s disastrous expedition to the US, the NHSU and others. To be fair, Simon probably has no knowledge of any of this. He has
no experience in education or online learning, which could be a blessing (or a
curse). The reason I mentioned these, was that we must not repeat the mistakes
of the past. These included the wrong leadership (lacked business and start-up
experience), wrong partners (old school), bad technology decisions (idiosyncratic), late
delivery and poor, sometimes over-produced, content (wrong developers). One thing
I hope will not happen is a repeat of the BBC Jam experience, where experienced,
online learning providers were ignored in favour of the so-called ‘digital’ talent
of the day. I don't think this should dominate the debate as we need to move on but we do need to acknowledge the researched reasons for their collapse.
4. Does Futurelearn
have enough ‘entrepreneurial kick’?
“Time will tell”. Honest answer but this is my greatest fear. None
of the partners have ANY track record in real entrepreneurial enterprises. In
fact, they are all publically funded organisations. This worries me. Why didn’t
we open this up to the companies and experts in the UK who know about
innovative pedagogy and MOOCs? We had the knowledge, expertise and software to
do this, not from a standing start but from a position of strength. What we
needed was not a single throw of the dice but a spread bet to develop the market.
Futurelearn has switched the market off in the UK for at least a year. That
hasn’t deterred some UK companies. One I know is already selling successfully
direct to the US. One other large Maths MOOC is being funded by a charity
(watch this space). But monoculture in an emerging market is not often a good
idea. Then again, if the product is world beating and UK Universities get
behind it, it could just work. I just wonder how they got past OJEU rules?
5. How much is the funding?
“You’ll have to ask my
Chairman (Martin Bean).” I know
how much funding went into Udacity ($21m), Coursera ($22m), edX ($60m). Why the
6. Where has the money come from?
other than that I can’t say. You’ll have to ask my Chairman.” In the
absence of an answer, my guess is that Willets has done a deal in terms of
Government money, channelled through the Open University and that guaranteed service
revenues will have to come from the 21 participating Universities. This makes
sense but why the secrecy? This is the ‘Future’ of learning, not the Freemasons
– and it’s public money. Again, it’s not such a big deal but if I were a
potential customer, I’d want to know how the supplier was capitalised.
7. As the Open University is a publically
funded institution, should there be more transparency?
“You’ll have to ask my
Chairman.” This was getting awkward. You’ll have got the idea by now that
this is BBC speak for ‘no comment’.
Courses will take 6-10 weeks. Southampton
wants to offer Web Science and Oceanography in its first set of courses but
there’s little in the public domain on this. My guess is that they’ll obviously
avoid competition through duplication and play to the strengths of each
institution. There’s some wisdom in having a spread of courses available.
9. What does it
“I showed a couple of screen shots and will put it up on Slideshare.”
Thougt he wouldn’t and he didn’t (come on Simon). To be fair, e did show a
couple of screens; simple, white background, scrolling with centred text at the
top, lots of block text and a picture of the Moon at the top. They looked
awful, but this is just prototype stuff, so let’s wait on the real deal. I’d
have thought however, that as we’re weeks away from some releases, there’d be
some good ‘taster’ content.
10. What’s the pedagogic
Simon hinted at their MOOCs
being made up of “Units and Learning
Blocks”. A Unit is 2-6 hours of learning time with a clear end goal and
assessment. Within each Unit will be a number of Learning Blocks. A block seems
to be [video, text, discussion, test].
Nothing radical there but that’s OK – a clear, simple structure is fine. OER
content will be used but only when evaluated as relevant and of sufficient
quality. I may be wrong here, but reading between the lines he does seem to be
moving to a flexible approach where you can choose different approaches. This
would be interesting as it would move us beyond both the linear lecture
approach of Udacity, Coursera and edX approach without descending into the fragmented
mess of extreme social constructivism.
In the US, there’s a healthy ecosystem of entrepreneurial
Universities such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard, along with focused not-for-profit
organisations such as the Gates Foundation and others, along with knowledgeable
investment capital. They came up with the goods. This ecosystem, I believe, gives
it an entrepreneurial edge which we ignore at our peril. Nevertheless,
Futurelearn may come up with a different set of goods. Simon seemed like a
competent guy and Martin Bean’s a good leader, and no fool. The danger is
dishing up the usual British solution that lacks edge and commercial push. We
need this to work. I just hope to God it’s not another BBC Jam – all fur coat
and no knickers.