UK enters global online university race


Online student Saurabh Kumar: "The best thing is flexibility"

The UK's biggest online university project has been launched, with more than 20 universities offering free courses.

Students will be able to follow courses on mobile phones as well as computers.

The UK's project, called FutureLearn, sees UK universities entering the global market in so-called Moocs - massive open online courses.

It could "revolutionise conventional models of formal education", says universities minister David Willetts.

Mr Willetts, speaking at the British Library, said that the expansion of access to higher education was no longer necessarily about "bricks and mortar".

He said that the FutureLearn partnership would help to serve the unmet demand for university courses, particularly overseas.

The launch of FutureLearn sees 21 UK universities, plus Trinity College Dublin and Monash University in Australia, offering courses that are taught and assessed on the internet.

The UK universities include Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, Warwick, Bristol, Reading, Southampton and the Open University, which has headed the project.

The British Library, British Museum and British Council will make material available to students.

'Social architecture'

There are 20 short courses announced, with eight starting this year.

In this experimental phase, students taking these courses will carry out multiple choice questions, without any formal qualifications.


  • University of Bath
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Bristol
  • Cardiff University
  • University of East Anglia
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Glasgow
  • King's College London
  • Lancaster University
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Leicester
  • Loughborough University
  • Monash University
  • The University of Nottingham
  • The Open University
  • Queen's University, Belfast
  • University of Reading
  • The University of Sheffield
  • University of Southampton
  • University of Strathclyde
  • Trinity College Dublin
  • The University of Warwick

But universities are hoping that many people will be attracted by the chance to follow university-level courses without any travel or cost and at a time that suits them.

It will also provide taster courses for youngsters considering their university options.

When the University of Edinburgh offered Moocs through a US network it had more than 300,000 students signing up. The University of London international programme had more than 200,000 registrations.

FutureLearn will see the UK taking a much bigger step into the rapidly expanding online university market - with claims that higher education is now facing its own online revolution.

They are anticipating that each Mooc course will attract 20,000 students.

Universities also see the project as a way of recruiting students to degree courses. Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open University, described it as a "digital storefront".

But Mr Bean says he expects some universities to begin thinking about how to offer formal credits for Moocs.

Reading University is going to offer a Mooc course about basic computer programming.

"Offering free taster courses online is a no-brainer," says David Bell, the university's vice-chancellor.

"Universities shouldn't be afraid to open up teaching and research, either in the UK or beyond. Learning never stops and as the economy's demand for higher skills rises, universities should be in the vanguard when it comes to providing new opportunities.

"Making courses accessible online, on mobiles and tablets means that people can fit their studying around their lives, rather than their lives around study."

Southampton University is offering a course in web science, Leicester University's course looks at England at the time of Richard III and the University of Warwick has a psychology course.

FutureLearn's chief executive Simon Nelson says it will offer a "fresh approach" with all its courses designed to work across all kinds of online platforms, so that a student could begin a course on a laptop at home and then continue on a mobile phone while commuting.

He also promises a less isolated experience for students learning at home. He says that it can be a "solitary experience", but that FutureLearn will try to create a supportive online community, with "very strong social architecture".

This will allow students to discuss their courses and ask questions, using social networking-style comment pages alongside the lesson content.

This consortium will also draw upon the experience in distance learning of the Open University.

"Time and again we have seen the disruptive impact the internet can have on industries - driving innovation and enhancing the customer experience. I have no doubt Moocs will do the same for education," says Mr Bean.

There were also suggestions from the Department for Education last week that Moocs could be used for vocational courses for students in further education colleges and sixth forms in England.

Martin Bean, Open University: "When the Mooc phenomenon kicked off in the US it was a call to action"

Global race

Moocs have already had a major impact in the US, launching last year and spearheaded by alliances of top institutions, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford.

Coursera, set up by Stanford academics in California and backed by venture capital, has signed up more than four million students in its first 18 months for courses provided by more than 80 universities.

MIT MIT has announced online courses using webcams to verify students' identities. Pic: Jon Fildes

These projects have revealed a high level of demand for courses, but also exposed the difficulty in retaining students, with very high levels of drop-out rates.

It has sparked a debate about the cost of higher education and what students are paying for when so much information and so many high-quality university materials are available online.

These US online courses have begun to develop ways of giving students formal credits, such as students paying to take invigilated exams.

Among the Mooc pioneers has been the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which set up the edX online platform with Harvard.

On Tuesday, MIT announced a series of new online courses which will have an identity verification system using webcams and with plans for certification for courses.

But there have also been questions asked about the long-term financial viability of online university courses.

Last week, William Dutton, professor of internet studies at the University of Oxford, challenged whether many universities could afford to invest in the type of free online courses offered by wealthy institutions such as Harvard and MIT.

He suggested that online courses might work better as part of a "blended" course, where students spend some time together in the classroom as well as studying online.

Sir Michael Barber, chief education adviser to Pearson and former Downing Street adviser, said that online universities represented an overdue technological advance.

"The models of higher education that marched triumphantly across the globe in the second half of the 20th Century require radical and urgent transformation. My fear is that the nature of change is incremental and the pace of change too slow.

"The establishment of FutureLearn represents an important step in realising this change and seizing the opportunities technology offers in creating a broader, deeper and more exciting education system."

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "I encourage all our institutions to explore the opportunities offered by new modes of technology, such as Moocs. This will keep the UK ahead in the global race to deliver education in worldwide markets."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    As a sixty something who has never tired of learning, I look forward to starting the two courses I have signed up for.

  • Comment number 123.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    might as well be online, given the ridiculously small amount of contact time my kids have had at uni.
    not everyone wants to waste 3 years doing a course away from home, (& as for growing up?using a loan?? ) that someone who is enthusiastic could do in 12-18 months, without being shafted by student accommodation or pxxxxx half the maintenance fees down the pub drains.
    Uni experience? what a joke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    #Milton (114), As someone with a University of Cambridge degree, I'm very interested in these courses and have signed up for three of them. I love to study but can't afford the current university courses so I appreciate the best point of these: they're free!

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    @89 oh yes, just make everything free, I'm sure the staff will willingly work for nothing, and if they don't we'll just put up taxes to pay for it all, that won't cause any problems I'm sure while people are struggling to pay for food and fuel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    I graduated at one of the-top 7 UK university (Bolton University) and I hope they allow online as well because some top top students would not get in at the University

    I have 3 Masters and undergraduate degrees and starting another undergraduate soon this September

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Tried to take part in one of these courses. What they don't tell you when you sign up - you need a very modern computer to take part. So yet again - free only for the (comparatively) rich.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Highly amused by Milton (#114) - apparently as someone who has followed Coursera courses for fun and study practice, and who is looking at this new development with interest, I am someone who "can't cut it at university". I'm sure my MRes supervisor will eject pronto then ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    excellent idea. no doubt the snobs will hate it. if you going to take a course then u can get the finest lectures but the best teachers from around the world universities originally were set up as a system of state suppression of any knowledge that threatened the christian world view. if this throws open the windows more then good.

  • Comment number 115.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    These online courses are fine for those that can't cut it at university, but it will always be seen as a soft option. These students will find it much harder to get job due upon graduation due to employer's lack of trust of the degree and a lower level of transferable skills that you can gain when you physically go to university and interact with peers and mentors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Look at something like to get a feel for the latest releases of these types of courses.
    They are recorded specifically for the MOOC, not replays of old lectures.
    FutureLearn has just launched, currently no live courses, I doubt they would be replays. has an edXDEMO101: edX Demo course where you can explore the media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.


    on line education is put up as a Cheap method of meeting SEN school phobia.

    but not as a updating of learning to pupil centric.

    World class education is pupils developing at own rate, Age based cohorts passive rote learning Gove's lists is going to kill the economy for sure

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.


    "can native intelligence be educated out of you?"


    Very much so. Most stupidity is learnt: e.g . "knowing what eyeliner Katie Price uses is more important than mastering my own language properly"

    However, tribal brainwashing like that's hardly "education", powerful though it is.

    Ever been to Yorkshire?

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Lovely idea; but, I'm tired of meeting promising
    highly qualified people with zilch life skills/common sense..can native intelligence be educated out of you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    It will be interesting to see how this develops. Much of the free content I have seen so far consists of a fixed video angle of a lecture. They are truly awful.On the other hand a small amount of money spent on this might go a long way

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    It will be interesting to see how this evolves.
    For me the stand out statement is "He says that it can be a "solitary experience", but that FutureLearn will try to create a supportive online community, with "very strong social architecture".
    Good to know that this is a consideration. However
    attending HE also about developing life skills, something that can not be realised by DL

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Just a start oh so slowly, in the dragging of education into this century. Now get on with it, develop more at all levels. The future of good individual education to everyone's needs, ability and speed is expected, and all schools closed as the failed institutions they are, unfixable, wrongly based on herds of the same ages, with appalling socialisation bullied on, even food bullying free lunches.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    I have completed five MOOCs on Coursera. I think the high drop out rate is actually indicative of their vast appeal. These are easy-come-easy-go courses that remain intellectually vigorous. Many students find that what seemed like soft subjects soon prove too testing of their faculties. I know. I may have completed five, but I've dropped out from seven!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.


    This is not about UK universities remaining in the stone age. The wheel should never be reinvented- a revamp would work. Why not combine the tried and tested with online learning? The seminar environment can never be adequately reproduced via electronic means and direct discussion with peers is one of the best way to learn- especially those soft skill employers always hanker after!


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