Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Interview - British Moocs: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway: News

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Interview - British Moocs: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway: News

Article excerpt

Futurelearn's boss says UK's first course platform could be as big as Facebook. Chris Parr reports.

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. …

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