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Interview with Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor The Open University

Martin Bean talks in depth about plans to offer free open online courses with UK universities and how Futurelearn’s courses will be different to others currently available.

Martin Bean
Martin Bean

What inspired you to start Futurelearn Ltd?

Experience has shown, time and again, that when the internet comes along and disrupts an industry, it doesn’t  go away. From music to books to newspapers, the internet changes how we work, how we think, how we see the world. And when you have that mix of lots of people, lots of money and great brands, change happens very, very rapidly. In 2012 that wave of disruption hit higher education. By the end of the year, 18 of the top 20 universities in North America were offering MOOCs – so that’s the “great brands” box ticked. Millions of students around the world were signing up – so that’s the “lots of people” element covered. And tens of millions of dollars were being pumped into MOOCs – that’s a LOT of money. So change was coming to higher education, but from where I was sitting the UK wasn’t making the most of the opportunities it offered.

What will be different about Futurelearn compared to other MOOCs?

Right from the start, everyone involved in Futurelearn is focussing on how to deliver the best possible student experience. We’re not saying “Let’s jump into MOOCs because everyone else is” or “Let’s launch a MOOC offering so we can have large numbers of learners”, we’re doing this because the OU and our partners really have something unique to offer our students.  In addition, Futurelearn will differentiate itself by being uniquely British. This isn’t just flag-waving, it’s a fact – we’ll be working with some great UK institutions and building on the country’s 800-year history of higher education to deliver that quality offering I mentioned before.

Which areas of OU expertise and technology will Futurelearn be able to draw on?

The  OU has a unique history of providing world-class education at a distance, and our expertise and heritage in this area are the primary drivers behind the creation of this new company. Some great universities are already offering MOOCs, but how many of them have offered online and open educational resources for as a long as us?

We also have an excellent academic offering, which will be brought to bear in the courses we will offer through Futurelearn.  And, of course, the OU was recently named the UK’s number one university for student satisfaction, a testament to how much effort we put into keeping our students happy and engaged.

Importantly, the  OU is already very successful in free open education – hundreds of thousands of people are working through our self-contained, free-to-access courses on iTunes U, for example. Futurelearn will build on all this experience and expertise to develop its offer to students.

The  OU has a unique history of providing world-class education at a distance, and our expertise and heritage in this area are the primary drivers behind the creation of this new company.

What will the relationship be between Futurelearn and the OU?

We are one of the founding partner universities and we are also, currently, the sole shareholder. Futurelearn is entirely independent of the OU, it’s not controlled or run by the OU on a day to day basis. But that’s not going to stop Simon Nelson and his team working very closely with us to deliver the best possible experience for students.

Some existing MOOCs have had problems with drop-out rates – how will Futurelearn be different?

That’s one of the issues we’re going to be taking a very close look at. We’re trying to understand why so many people drop out of first-generation MOOCs. We’re looking at what works and what doesn’t so that we can create a next-generation offering that is as strong as it can be. As I said before, it’s all about quality. We’re going to offer a best-in-class educational experience that will delight students, and instead of measuring drop outs, we’ll be rewarding success.  Futurelearn will celebrate everyone’s achievements, no matter where or how far their learning journey takes them.

We’re going to offer a best-in-class educational experience that will delight students… we’ll be rewarding success.

Futurelearn will be collaborating with a range of partners, how will that work?

We’re lucky enough to have a great team of partners, including some of the best universities in the UK.  I’m delighted that the British Library has also decided to join us, enabling us to enrich the Futurelearn experience with their exceptional archive. When everything’s up and running our university partners will offer courses through Futurelearn but we’re also working with them and the British Library to develop the offer in the first place. We want a teaching and learning experience that works for all the partners, suits their needs and enables the types of courses they want to offer.

What do you think this means for the UK Higher Education sector ?

I think it means we’re in the middle of an exciting, disruptive time in which anything is possible.  Higher education is already a UK direct export worth £7.9bn a year to the economy. I believe innovation will be a fundamental part of the value of our universities going forward. It’s critical that Futurelearn adds to the value of UK higher education to protect our export value today and keep us in the lead in future.

How do you see Higher Education evolving in, say, 5 years?

I don’t like trying to predict the future as there are too many variables, too many “unknown unknowns”. Five years ago Twitter was in its infancy, today people are sending half a billion tweets per day, so it’s impossible to say what surprises are in store between now and 2018! What I do know is that the internet has started to disrupt higher education and that disruption isn’t going to go away. Change has come and we, as a university and as a sector, have to embrace it.

What are your hopes for Futurelearn – what, ultimately, would you like it to achieve?

When people ask me what success looks like for Futurelearn, the answer is so simple that I can sum it up in three words: quality, not quantity. Futurelearn might not be the biggest but I’m determined that it will always be the best.  First generation MOOC providers have already attracted millions of students through hundreds of courses. Will Futurelearn ever reach those numbers? Maybe, maybe not. But will Futurelearn offer an educational experience as good or better than anything else in the MOOC market? Absolutely.

…quality, not quantity.

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