British Universities to Offer Free Online Courses Through FutureLearn

The world’s leading universities and colleges are now joining a global trend of online learning started in the United States — using massive open online courses to make education available to anyone with an internet connection. Now in the United Kingdom, dozens of universities have announced plans to offer free online courses through FutureLearn, wholly-owned by the UK’s Open University.

FutureLearn is working to develop online courses and become a significant massive open online courses (MOOC) provider to join the conversation with Coursera and Udacity. To get to that level, British universities have initially offered 20 courses, and pre-registration opened Sept. 17.

There was an overwhelming response from students around the world. In one day, 20,000 people from 158 different countries signed up, according to Agence France-Presse of The Raw Story.

The universities will use FutureLearn’s online portal to offer courses about topics like the Causes of War from King’s College London, Studio Production from Queen’s University Belfast and Introductory Particle Physics from the University of Edinburgh. FutureLearn is still working to complete its portal site, which will run in a beta phase for several months.

The scheme brings British universities in line with many of their rivals in the United States, where so-called MOOCs are hugely popular.

Karen O’Brien, Vice Principal at King’s College London, said she was “delighted” that King’s was taking part. “It offers an opportunity to open up some of our most innovative and popular courses to a global audience and allows learners to study flexibly anytime, anywhere,” she told AFP.

Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and other top universities will not be offering online courses through FutureLearn and seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Cambridge said it closed online courses for the benefits of its own students.

“At present we have no plans to produce such courses for university-level material though we are watching developments elsewhere with interest,” Cambridge said in a statement.

Simon Nelson, chief executive officer (CEO) of FutureLearn, is hopeful that other universities would eventually come onboard.

“I’m very hopeful that when they and other potential partners see the quality of what we’ve developed in such a short space of time then it may encourage them to think of joining,” he told AFP. “If not, then I’m delighted with the quality of the institutions that we’ve got.”

Nelson said that adopting FutureLearn’s standard platform will allow universities to focus on the quality of their courses, which run between six and ten weeks and involve videos, text and discussions over social media.

The company plans to offer free online courses just like other large MOOC providers, but would like to generate revenue by offering added-value services such as exams and certificates of completion.

According to Nelson, 21 top universities have partnered with FutureLearn and will provide online courses through its platform. In June 2013, Monash, which is the largest university in Australia, announced that it had joined FutureLearn as its first non-UK partner.