Yesterday I interviewed Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, which is the new UK platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The interview is for a New Statesman piece I’m writing on adult education, but it was so interesting I thought it’d be useful to publish the whole thing here. How can academics get their research turned into a MOOC, and potentially reach a huge global audience? Turns out you only need £10K or so.
Thanks for your time, Simon. So FutureLearn is live but still in beta-mode. When does it start for real?
We are live already, with a quarter of a million people registered and thousands learning on dozens of courses. The beta-tag is to show that we’re still in development. We have put down the foundation of a great service.
Is this the only UK MOOC platform?
Yes, it’s the only UK MOOC platform working with universities. There are several US ones, the two working with universities are Coursera and EdX. The French government has launched one called FUN, Germany has launched one called Iversity and there are similar platforms in other parts of the world.
Who funds you?
We’re 100% owned by the Open University.
Can universities make their own MOOCs in-house and then put them on FutureLearn?
Some of the content can be made in-house but the design of the courses is done using our tools and technology, and an approach we’ve developed.
I see – so FutureLearn is not just a platform, it’s very involved with making the courses together with the universities?
Yes. We’re enabling universities to make great courses, drawing on the Open University’s expertise in distance and online learning. We also aim to help train partners in the principles of online learning through social media, online assessment and so on.
What kind of principles should academics be aware of in making a MOOC?
For a start, we encourage them to think of the web not just as a distribution platform for lectures but as a different creative canvas, using rich media like audio and video, linking out to different environments to encourage people to research further. We work very hard to prioritise social features. Our belief is that people learn better together. The web has now got to the stage where the majority of online users feel comfortable with social tools.
What kind of social tools do you use?
On every page of FutureLearn courses, there’s an opportunity to comment, ask and answer questions, as well as the ability to Like comments, follow lecturers and so on. It’s still rudimentary, and we’re focusing on improving that side of FutureLearn.
How involved is the teacher, once the MOOC has been made and launched?
We encourage educators to be active in social environments during the course of the MOOC. The advantage of MOOCs compared to other online courses is that MOOCs are events, with a start date and end date. So learners join a cohort who go through the course together. We’re trying to find ways to motivate and reward learners for staying with it.
Do MOOCs ever involve offline communities?
We don’t facilitate that actively but they sometimes spring up naturally.
You could include links to things like meetup.com to help facilitate that.
How long do MOOCs typically last?
It can be anything from six weeks to eight weeks to the two-week ‘mini-MOOC’ model. The optimum level is perhaps six to seven weeks.
And there would be perhaps one session per week?
We try to make sure each week has a topic area and a learning outcome. The week is structured into activities and steps. The steps could be a video, an article, a piece of audio, a slideshow, or a test / assessment.
How long are the videos typically?
They vary wildly. In some cases one minute long, in some cases 10 minutes. The sweet spot is somewhere between that.
Really? Because a lot of academic lectures on iTunesU are between an hour and two hours!
Yes. We prefer to see things broken up into manageable chunks of learning.
Who pays to make the MOOC?
Universities pay for the use of the platform and for our help in making it. They bring excellence in educating and we bring a background in digital media and online development.
Could universities build their own MOOCs and still host them on FutureLearn?
How long does it take to make a MOOC?
It could be a few months or less.
Do universities make the video in-house or do you do that?
Some may do it in-house, others do it through us.
Do some MOOCs incorporate things like animation?
Some do. It’s quite useful.
What’s the typical budget?
As a guideline it might cost £20K – £30K to create and run a MOOC. That’s just a guideline. You could do a very good MOOC for £10K.
Really? So it’s a lot cheaper than TV, say, where for a BBC series you’re looking at £100K an hour.
Yes, we’re nowhere near that in terms of the volume of video or the production quality of TV.
So we shouldn’t accept a MOOC of the production standard of, say, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation anytime soon?
It’s a direction of travel I’m interested in. My background is with the BBC [Nelson managed the launch of the BBC's iPlayer among other achievements]. Part of our training and support is in the ability to deliver new forms of story-telling. I hope you’d see varying approaches to that. Story-telling in TV is not just about video content, it’s about making a narrative journey and using the connecting power of the web. The second point I’d make is that we have other non-university partners, including the British Library, the British Council and the British Museum. We’re working with them to make MOOCs, to access their academic expertise and their digital archives.
How about making MOOCs with the BBC, who obviously partner up with the Open University on lots of projects?
Yes, we’re talking to the BBC, which is more and more interested in online learning. A recent BBC innovation, launched in January, is IWonder, which are basically short learning guides. The BBC launched one about the First World War for example. When I worked there, I was in charge of all online learning and activities. There is so much educational value locked into the BBC archives, and I’m passionate about bringing it online.
How about working with independent MOOC makers?
Yes, there are some independent TV companies who are very interested in this area. There are lots of independent production companies sitting on incredible archives, which they don’t know how to open up. Even if they do, putting it out there is one thing, curating content is another. I’d love to be seen by those media organisations as a bridge between their archives and online learners.
What’s the payment model for learners?
Our model is that our courses will be free to anyone anywhere. We or our university partners may charge for additional services, such as purchasing a statement of participation or taking an exam in a test centre. Most MOOCs aren’t marked – that’s the idea behind letting thousands of people access them.
Are other MOOC-makers charging?
There are a variety of models. We have solid financial backing from the OU so don’t need to go down that route.
Why would universities pay £20K for something they give away free?
For a range of motivations. Firstly, it’s the best way to market to students. Secondly, universities know this is potentially a game-changer, and they need to experiment and innovate in online delivery. MOOCs are widening access and opening up institutions worldwide. They may be intrigued as to whether this will grow into a significant part of higher education. If so, they should get in to the market now.
Could MOOCs be made through corporate sponsorship?
There are a variety of ways that the cost of making a MOOC could be off-set.
So there you go. Interesting stuff eh? My own thinking is that a FutureLearn MOOC would be a great way to reach an enormous audience, and it doesn’t cost that much to make one. I’m interested to know if funders like the AHRC might help academics fund the cost of making MOOCs. For an academic like me, who is also looking to make money, it raises the interesting question of whether I’d want to give my ideas and teaching away for free…Is there a way to make online courses and charge for access? Perhaps to give away the first session free and charge from then on? Or perhaps MOOCs could be seen as a good way of reaching a big audience while promoting your book and media presence? Share your thoughts or ideas in the comments.