Stephen Webb

FutureLearn – the first UK-led MOOC platform – is now in its fifth year of operation. It was launched in December 2012 by 12 UK universities, led by the Open University, and quickly established itself as a popular venue for people interested in learning online. From personal experience I’d argue that the MOOC offerings on FutureLearn tend to suffer from the same issues as those on similar digital education platforms – teaching can be of variable quality and attrition rates are high – but many people have chosen to study one or more of its courses: at the time of writing 5,758,685 learners (including most members of the TEL team here at Portsmouth) have signed up to FutureLearn. The FutureLearn consortium itself has grown too: it now features 109 partners. The majority of partners are UK universities, but non-UK universities are also on board; furthermore, FutureLearn is unique in this sector by allowing non-university partners such as the British Museum and the European Space Agency to deliver courses on the platform.

So FutureLearn’s growth has been impressive. But can it continue to grow in the way it has over the past four years? Perhaps not.

When it first launched, one of the key selling points of FutureLearn was its promise of free learning: anyone could register on a course and start learning with like-minded people. Students had to pay if they wanted certificates/statements of participation, but access to tests was free as was unlimited access to course content (even after the end of a course). This ‘free’ provision of content is a wonderful notion, but from the start there was a question mark surrounding the financial sustainability of this model.

The creation, delivery and administration of high-quality online learning courses is expensive. Extremely expensive. It came as no surprise recently, then, to learn that FutureLearn are introducing elements of a “freemium” model (see their blog post for more details). For courses starting on or after 6 March 2017 students will still get access to free online courses, but now they’ll have to “upgrade” if they want to get features that were previously free of charge. In particular, if students want access to tests or to access content more than 14 days after the end of the course then they’ll have to stump up between £24 to £69 (depending on the course).

FutureLearn is not the only successful MOOC platform in existence – and it’s not the only one that has changed its terms and conditions. Like FutureLearn, Coursera – a US-led educational technology company offering MOOCs – was founded in 2012; and like FutureLearn it started out with more free features on offer than at any time since. Registering and attending courses on Coursera is free, but an upgraded subscription offers more privileges and features. The income from learners who pay for the extra features is small, because the majority of users are content to use the free service and have slightly restricted access. While this access might be enough to acquire knowledge, it is not sufficient to acquire a Coursera ‘certificate’. And it seems that the students who pay for the extra features are more likely to complete the course on which they enrolled (they may be more motivated because they do not want to waste the money they spent; they may be motivated by the certificate they will get upon successful completion of their course; or they may feel better supported by the extra features they enjoy). Perhaps that is one of the reasons – among other more utilitarian ones such as marketing – that Coursera has managed to attract both academic and private sponsors, who give funding to prospective students following a quick application.

The FutureLearn business model, then, now seems to be the following. A small number of learners purchase the benefits provided by the upgrade; this provides enough income to permit free (but slightly restricted) access for all other learners. In these challenging times for HE, it will be interesting to see whether FutureLearn’s new business model will provide a financially sustainable future for the platform.