Futurelearn’s boss on breaking into Moocs

Simon Nelson brings BBC experience to the launch of the UK’s first course platform. Chris Parr reports

Simon Nelson, Futurelearn launch CEO

Source: Ken Sinyard

Digital adventurer: Simon Nelson also helped to launch BBC’s iPlayer

The UK’s first massive open online course platform has the potential to become a social networking site for the student community as popular as Facebook, according to its chief executive.

Unveiled as the launch CEO of Futurelearn in December, Simon Nelson has high hopes for the company, which is owned by The Open University and which will begin offering free online courses from a number of UK universities later this year.

“In three years’ time we hope to be offering a level of online learning that we can’t dream about at the moment,” he says.

“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.

“Going into an online environment to learn is fun, social, an alternative to television and some of the other things you do for entertainment at night,” Nelson says.

His background means he is well placed to make comparisons with television. Nelson spent more than 11 years at the BBC, where - among other projects - he oversaw the launch of the corporation’s online radio player, and assisted with the development of its on-demand service iPlayer, which allowed web-based access to BBC television programmes for the first time.

Although he has no previous experience of working in higher education, Nelson draws parallels between his current work and his time at the BBC, when the public broadcaster was learning to compete with a new breed of online providers. He remembers “an undercurrent of fear” that accompanied the changes.

“Digital [media] threaten the world that many people grew up and started their careers in,” he says, adding that the new order can appear especially frightening as it “is painted - by digital gurus and new entrants to the market - as requiring an entirely new set of skills and people.

“That creates the climate of fear around the industry. I definitely saw it in TV where there were wildly exaggerated claims about what on-demand would do to television viewing, and the destruction of TV channels that just hasn’t happened.”

In higher education, Nelson says, the majority of people realise that there are inherent strengths in the established model “that won’t get ripped apart overnight”. Nevertheless, he has detected the same elements of fear in the academy as he did in the media.

“There is hype about the destruction of the traditional higher education institution, but I think most people can cut through it,” he says.

Since the Futurelearn platform was announced at the end of last year, 17 UK universities have signed up to offer courses, along with two non- university partners, the British Library and the British Council.

Precise details of how the for-profit company will operate, and what timescale it is working to, have been thin on the ground - as has information about how it intends to turn a profit.

Nelson insists that Futurelearn has a “very developed business model” that could be “highly profitable in the long run”, but concedes that much of it is untested.

“This is a nascent market - so I have a very sophisticated model but it’s not until we start testing real products with real people that the assumptions behind it will be properly tested,” he says.

Product first, profit later

“The steer I have had from all our partners is that they want us to focus on creating an excellent product first and that the business model…will flow from that,” Nelson notes.

“It’s the excellence of the product and the quality of learning design and outcomes [where] we really want to position ourselves.”

Business models have begun to emerge in the US, where existing Mooc platforms such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity have partnered with other education companies to allow students to take “proctored exams” (on-site tests supervised by an impartial observer). Coursera has also introduced paid-for online courses that allow students access to more rigorous assessment.

“We are watching the existing US providers extremely closely - this is a rapidly growing and rapidly developing market, and there seems to be something new happening every couple of days,” Nelson says.

“I am full of respect for what those companies have achieved so far, but the rules of this market are not yet written. We can see a number of areas where we can offer something different, something that might change the game a bit, broaden the appeal, take it in a different direction.”

Key to the success of the project is reputation, Nelson emphasises. Of Futurelearn’s 17 university partners, almost all are in the top 400 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, while more than half are members of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. “We were inundated with requests to join,” Nelson says.

‘A great leveller’

The aim, Nelson says, is “to have products on the web by the middle of 2013, and a full consumer launch sometime in the autumn. We needed to limit the number of universities we had on board in the beginning and it is very difficult to draw that cutoff point.”

To select university partners, Nelson drew on “a range of league tables, in order to help us identify which were consistently ranked as the top institutions in the UK”.

However, he denies that this elitist focus will simply allow prestigious institutions to enhance their reputation and potentially threaten the existence of lesser-ranked universities.

“I think that the web is a great leveller. If you have excellence in your institution, or core strengths, as long as you can identify them properly then you can stretch them online. I suspect that the determinants of success or failure will be about that willingness to accept change rather than any historic notions of quality,” he says.

The door to Futurelearn is not closed, Nelson insists, noting that more university partners will be announced in the near future.

“In one year we will hopefully be looking at a successful launch. We have other partners in the wings and there will be other opportunities beyond that original launch period when we welcome others on board.”

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

Futurelearners

UK universities already confirmed as Futurelearn participants

  • University of Bath
  • University of Birmingham
  • Bristol University
  • Cardiff University
  • University of East Anglia
  • University of Exeter
  • King’s College London
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Leicester
  • University of Nottingham
  • The Open University
  • Queen’s University Belfast
  • University of Reading
  • University of Southampton
  • University of St Andrews
  • University of Warwick

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