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 Council, 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 secrecy here?
6. Where has the money come from?
“Open University, 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’.
8. What courses?
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 look like?
“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 structure?
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.