Tel Tales

Adventures in Technology Enhanced Learning @ UoP

Author: Stephen Webb

The future of FutureLearn

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.


Online essay-based exams?

Students in some subjects are still required to sit traditional, essay-based, three-hour examinations. Those students are thus required to do something they are increasingly ill-prepared for: write by hand for an extended length of time.

Most people nowadays use a keyboard to write. I recently tried to write a longish letter using a pen, and my hand quickly tired – legibility soon dropped. The same decrease in legibility happens to many students – in some cases to the extent that markers cannot read exam scripts. It’s entirely possible some students fail simply because they cannot write legibly for a long period.

There’s another problem with getting students to write essays by hand: it requires them to use a method of composition with which they might have little familiarity. When someone uses a keyboard to write they are likely to get material on screen quickly and then edit individual words for spelling and whole sentences for meaning. When someone handwrites they have fewer editing options; the writing process instead requires that sentences are thought out in their entirety before pen touches paper.

Wouldn’t it be better to permit students to use a computer – or perhaps even allow them to use their own device – to sit essay-based exams? Students could then concentrate on the content of their answer rather than worry about the legibility of their handwriting; markers would no longer have to worry about trying to decipher illegible scripts.

Moodle is already being used to deliver some exams, but these tend to be MCQ-based. Moodle itself is not an ideal platform for delivering essay-type exams. However, a number of companies are exploring options for conducting highly secure, written exams in an online context. Two options we’ve looked at recently are DigiExam and TestReach. If you are interested in the possibility of delivering online exams, please get in touch the the TEL team (


JISC Student Digital Experience Tracker

Stephen Webb

Back in spring 2016, JISC piloted a tool – the JISC Student Digital Experience Tracker – intended to allow institutions to gather evidence from learners about their digital experiences. The motivation behind the Tracker was to enable institutions to make better-informed decisions about the digital environment, to target resources for improving digital provision, and to demonstrate quality enhancement and student engagement to external bodies and to students themselves. Portsmouth was one of 12 universities chosen to deploy the Tracker.

We chose to gain a snapshot of our learners’ digital experiences at Level 4, and many of the findings were in close agreement with the national picture. Students – both here and at the other pilot universities – said they wanted universities to stop sending irrelevant emails and to stop “death by PowerPoint” in lectures.

Students said they wanted universities to offer recorded lectures; to make better use of digital learning environments; to offer more activities online; and to provide access to more computers. Just under three-quarters of students (74.4% at Portsmouth; 72% nationally) believed that when technology is used effectively by teaching staff it enhances their learning experience.

A particularly pleasing result for us was that 97.1% of Portsmouth students found Moodle either very useful or quite useful in supporting their learning.

If you would like to read about the results of the 2016 JISC Tracker pilot in more detail, please contact the TEL team. And be on the lookout for results from a second iteration of the Tracker, which was delivered in February and March of 2017. We hope JISC will allow the Tracker to become an annual event: that way we will begin to understand changes in the student digital experience, at both local and national level, over time.

Image credits: Jisc logo –