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The Web We Want at FutureLearn

Matt Walton, our Head of Product, reflects on Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s the Web We Want campaign and how it relates to what we do at FutureLearn.

The Web We Want Festival logo

I recently spoke at the Web We Want Festival at London’s Southbank Centre. It celebrates a campaign started by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is using the 25th birthday of the world wide web as a moment to crowd source a Magna Carta – or bill of rights – for the web. Tim introduced the idea in March this year in a TED talk.

Essentially, the Web We Want’s mission is “to create a world where everyone, everywhere is online and able to participate in a free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and creativity over the open web.” It’s an important debate, and at FutureLearn, we’re delighted to be part of the conversation.

The campaign’s mission also neatly echoes our own: “to pioneer the best learning experiences for everyone, anywhere.” We simply sum this up on our homepage as “connecting people and ideas.”

In the talk, I gave a few thoughts on how the key principles of free, open and universal relate to what we do at FutureLearn. Each of them is an idealistic and auspicious aim. In order to achieve them, they need to be thought about realistically and pragmatically – the answers might be more nuanced and less obvious than upon first inspection.

Free

Our aim is to provide everyone, anywhere with free, high-quality education. We want to connect people and ideas by encouraging free flow of knowledge. Providing educational content, as well as the tools that allow people to collaborate to learn together, is central to FutureLearn’s purpose.

We also need to create a sustainable business, which has the resources to pioneer new ways of learning and rewards the people who create content and learning experiences. This poses an interesting challenge, but not an unusual one in the digital world.

Our courses are high quality, and therefore not cheap to produce or run. The costs of running FutureLearn itself, a business that now employs nearly 50 people, are also significant. Our solution to this problem is the classic “freemium model.” We provide learning to millions for free. And we hope that a small number of them will value the experience enough to buy something: evidence of what they have learnt.

We already know that many of our learners want this – we’ve sold thousands of our Statements of Participation since we introduced them in April, and many of our learners have proudly tweeted pictures of them.

Alongside these we’re piloting invigilated exams that will give learners proof of new skills and knowledge, and we’re working with universities and professional bodies to get these awards recognised. We also have plans for other premium products, which will be genuinely useful to our learners, helping them get on in life and celebrate what they’ve learnt.

Our aim is to always keep our core offer of courses and social learning free to all. But in order to do this, we need to offer a range of desirable and useful premium products that some people will pay for. So the web we want is one that supports creative ways to fund innovative products and services.

Open

Right now, to view content on our courses, you need to join up and take part. However, we’re currently working on making our videos, articles and other content discoverable on the open web. We want to help many more people find our courses, by allowing our learners to share and link to inspiring content, and for this content to be indexed by Google and other search engines for the world to find. We want our courses and content to be part of the web conversation.

This approach allows us to make available thousands of pages of educational resources for the world to use. It benefits our university partners, by helping them share their academic expertise with the widest possible audience, enhancing their reputation. We also believe that making our content open is the best way to grow our business, allow our learners to share the content that fascinates them and to inspire others to join our courses. We also encourage our partners to make content available under a Creative Commons license so that others may reuse it with attribution.

However, whilst we very much believe in openness, we also share one of the Web We Want’s key principles: “Protection of personal user information and the right to communicate in private.” As well as embracing open, we want to create space for intimacy and privacy where appropriate.

We’ve been genuinely stunned by the quality of the conversation that’s taking place on our courses. Much of this is down to the social environment that we’ve carefully created. Learners are encouraged to use their real names and be themselves, so conversation happens in the mutually supportive, semi-private atmosphere of a cohort of learners all moving through a course as one. Everybody feels like they’re in it together.

The subject matter of many of our courses encourages learners to share very personal stories and experiences: from issues about health on courses like “Inside Cancer” and “Parkinson’s Disease,” to discussions about conflict and democracy on courses like “Irish Lives” or “Identity, Conflict and Public Space.”

Whilst these conversations are hugely powerful in the context of a course – benefiting not only those who take part in the discussion, but many more who vicariously learn by reading them – our learners would not expect these to suddenly be visible to the world on the open web. And so we need to be mindful of that.

What you learn about is a very personal and revealing thing. You might not necessarily want your boss or government or indeed your own family to know what you’re studying, and we need to be aware of that when designing our user experience.

Our aim is to balance the incredible benefits of open content with the equal benefits of private and semi-private spaces. You can find out more about our approach to openness in our post, “The first ‘O’ in MOOC.”

Universal

We want to provide the best learning experiences for everyone, anywhere. Key to this is making the courses available for free, as I’ve discussed above. We also ensure that all aspects of FutureLearn work seamlessly on all commonly available internet connected devices, no matter what the screensize or input method. We aim to be AA accessibility compliant wherever possible, inline with the BBC and GOV.UK.

But we believe the biggest thing we can do to welcome everyone is to create a great user experience and make learning enjoyable. You can learn the hard way, but we think that making learning social, engaging and fun is a much better way to encourage more people to do it.

This means thinking about things like brand, good design and delighting people. Much of the problem with educational technology to date has been that it’s not very pleasant to use. We aim to fix this with simple, clean design that “just works” – that’s understandable to all, no matter their background or age – and with social learning – making it human and fun, and removing the loneliness of distance learning.

Our aim is to make FutureLearn so pleasant to use, that you forget the mechanics and focus on the experience of learning and connecting with others.

The Web We Want at FutureLearn

So in summary, we want a web that allows us to put a dent in the world, by making great education accessible to many more than currently have the opportunity. But we want a web that allows us to do so in a way that’s sustainable; rewards those who create the content and learning experiences; and enables us to continue to pioneer and develop our social learning product.

We want an open web that allows our content to be easily found, linked to and shared. But we also want to create intimate spaces where people can gather and feel comfortable about sharing and learning from personal stories, without worrying that this information might be read or used in unexpected ways.

And we want a web that allows us to create products that are easy to use and create delightful experiences. We want a web that is free, open, universal and… enjoyable.

What sort of web do you want? Leave your thoughts in the comments below – we’d love to hear them.

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