Tel Tales

Adventures in Technology Enhanced Learning @ UoP

Category: Online Learning

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.


3 eLearning definitions for new University students.

Tom Langston

After the stress of sitting A-level exams passes, and the last of the summer fades, the realisation dawns that you are about to start university. For many of you the first few weeks of university will constitute your first real taste of freedom away from your family home, and getting settled here at Portsmouth will be high on the agenda. You will rightly be concerned about making friends, joining clubs and societies, and exploring your new environment. Of course beginning your studies  is important too, so in this article I have tried to create a quick summary of what is to come in terms of eLearning.

In this post I have picked out the top three most commonly used terms that occur around the University. There are, however, many phrases, abbreviations and acronyms that you may hear which will soon become part of your own life’s lexicon. The Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) team has a glossary of eLearning terms that you might also find useful.

So the three terms that will be most likely to be relevant from your first day at university are:

  1. VLE.This stands for Virtual Learning Environment; at Portsmouth, this is Moodle. This is the place where academics and administration teams provide information, learning materials and interactive activities for you to complete during your course. Moodle is normally the place where you take quizzes, submit assignments and check your writing for plagiarism.
  2. Plagiarism.Plagiarism is essentially the copying of other people’s work and passing it off as your own – a serious academic offence. To help with this, the University makes use of software called Turnitin. Turnitin checks your work against its vast database of past papers, journals and internet sources for similarities; although many people refer to it as a plagiarism checker, all it’s really doing is checking how similar your work is to existing sources. Our Youtube playlist looks at Turnitin and Moodle Assessment to help you understand how to use the software. If Turnitin returns your work with a high similarity score the problem might not be plagiarism, but poor academic referencing. Which brings us to the third term I want to discuss.
  3. Referencing.Correct citation and referencing will help you to avoid high similarity scores in Turnitin – and might help you gain marks. Plenty of help is available. The University Library, for example, offers a comprehensive referencing tool to help you; and the Academic Skills Unit provide guidance and workshops on a range of subjects, including referencing – and in academic writing more generally. This video was produced by one of the ASK tutors called ‘One way to write an essay’ that will help you start, plan and execute your academic writing style.

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These definitions are just the first step into eLearning at the University. We hope you find them useful but remember they are by no means the exhaustive list of terms or services that can help you complete your studies. For instance, has been rolled out for the first time at the University and has increased the depth of resources for both staff and students. Read more about this provision in this blog post.

Header image taken from under a free to use license.

João Silas