FutureLearn, the Open University-owned social learning platform, this spring turned five. The quality of the platform and its global reach offer good reasons to be cheerful. But challenges remain, not least the uncertainty faced by its OU parent funder. Chief executive Simon Nelson talks to Julian Blake.
Next year, one of the great UK education innovations of modern times – the Open University – marks its 50th anniversary. Combining academic know-how and broadcast innovation, the OU was in many ways an edtech pioneer when it formed in 1969 as a new distance learning university.
Given the success of that combination, it was perhaps unsurprising when, just over five years ago, the OU turned to a professional steeped in media innovation to help it start up its own new education venture, FutureLearn.
Simon Nelson (pictured) had just emerged from 14 years as a senior corporation executive, implementing major new digital products for BBC radio and TV, including DAB, digital radio station 6 Music, podcasts and groundbreaking on-demand services like BBC iPlayer.
“I started in ’97 and within a couple of years I had become head of strategy for BBC Radio,” Nelson recalls. “We were developing the strategy for the digital opportunities that lay in front of us. That included developing the digital radio standard, a whole range of new radio services to expand the BBC’s output, but also moving online with radio brands and starting to experiment with on demand.
“I ended up getting a chance to set up and run the team that would implement that strategy. That was my second big break and really moved me into the digital side,” he says. “It was a fantastic mix of brilliant content and talent and a business model that we didn’t have to make money off, which was great.”
For a while, it was good times. “I was heading up all of the online activities at BBC TV for four years and we had a lot of success,” he says. “But by 2010, the BBC announced it was going to cut back its investment in its website. In fact it was going to cut a whole range of jobs.
“It became a bit of a dark time for the BBC, especially for people like me who rather believed in its digital future. It was also trying to shed a lot of senior managers. So I took the opportunity to leave without necessarily knowing what was going to do next.”
Next in the short term for Nelson meant consultancy, advising media businesses on digital transition. “It was quite a long way from what I had been doing at the BBC. But it was quite refreshingly commercial for that,” he says.
It was at that point that Nelson chanced upon a “random” connection that would come to define his future career.
“In the middle of 2012 I started talking to the Open University about a small consulting project, helping them develop an aspect of digital strategy,” he recalls. “I was introduced to their vice-chancellor [Martin Bean], who said ‘actually we may have a bigger project for you’. That’s when he first mentioned the word MOOC to me.”
MOOCs – massive open online courses – may be more familiar now beyond the education world. But did Nelson know what a MOOC was back then? “No I didn’t,” he admits. “They explained and said they wanted to launch a startup as a UK entry into this emerging market. Would I be interested in setting it up? It was just luck really – the right place at the right time.”
Bean was “a very forward-thinking but also quite dynamic character”, says Nelson. “He said we needed to show the UK universities that they should wait before signing up with one of the new American platforms.”
Those US MOOC platforms included Coursera, a VC-backed Silicon Valley startup founded by a pair of Stanford professors, and edX, a joint venture between Harvard and MIT backed by $100m in funding. Also emerging were a number of continental MOOC players from Spain, France and Germany. Bean knew the OU needed to “fight back”, and fast, to get UK universities to sign up.
“Three weeks later we managed to get 10 UK universities on board and stood up and announced the launch of this platform and company,” recalls Nelson.
Key to the FutureLearn push was its combination of education and media expertise. “We recruited those universities on the back of the Open University’s reputation,” says Nelson, “along with a promise from me that we would be bringing some of the product development thinking that had gone into the iPlayer and other services to create something fresh and different in the market.
“That really appealed – the idea of the Open University’s expertise in online and distance learning, but brought to life as a kind of digital startup. The key thing was that I told the OU that if they wanted this doing at the pace they wanted, we had to be able to operate like a startup. It had to be run autonomously from the OU. We needed to build our own technology product.”
Nelson says that “hybrid” model put FutureLearn in a powerful position. “The status of the Open University as our sole shareholder enabled me to go to boardrooms of universities all around the world and make partnerships, because we were not run by venture capitalists. Nor were we purely a non-profit charitable endeavour. They could see that we had the dynamism of a commercial startup.”
Given the best-of-both-worlds approach, FutureLearn was well equipped for its mission. “We were looking to open up the world’s top universities to provide high-quality online courses that were free to learn, and were open to learners wherever they came from at whatever level of education,” says Nelson.
“We set out to be different by bringing the quality of those courses to another level, by creating the best platform we possibly could, using modern technologies and not being tied down by the legacy of older ones.”
If take-up and partnerships are measures of success, it’s an approach that has worked well so far. Today FutureLearn, run from the organisation’s Camden Town HQ, has over 7.5m learners in over 230 territories across the world, with 155 partners including 95 of the world’s top universities. Other partners, ranging from the British Library and British Council to the European Space Agency, now deliver courses on the platform.
This year FutureLearn will offer no less than 950 online courses from UK and international universities, as well as partner cultural institutions. Courses are offered across 13 categories and target beginners, advanced learners and business education too. Most courses run for six to 10 weeks, but many are shorter.
Courses are delivered via mobile, tablet or desktop, and one step at a time, “so you can fit learning around your life”, says FutureLearn.
It offers courses on a freemium basis, with the free version offering access to the course for its duration plus 14 days. Paid-for versions of the same courses offer unlimited time access, access to course tests and a certificate at the end.
The absence of legacy enabled FutureLearn to draw on the best of modern technology in its course delivery from the get-go. That immediately gave mobile and social massively prominent roles on the platform. Today nearly half the platform’s users come from mobile.
“From day one everything we did had to work on mobile and we built our whole approach around a social approach to learning, rather than the more instructivist approaches around at the time,” explains Nelson. “That forced our universities to think more in terms of telling stories and engaging audiences through high-quality content.”
Alongside great content, the courses lean heavily towards interactive, social engagement. “What we always felt was most interesting was not people watching videos – it was people doing that together. It was about vast numbers of learners learning in communities at the same time.”
It’s an approach that helped not only FutureLearn but also the OU itself, says Nelson. “Our theory – inspired by and then borrowed by the Open University – was that if you can get people not only to consume the content but then discuss it too then you would deepen the impact of the learning.”
The approach clearly appealed to UK universities. “We quickly dominated the market because we within a few weeks we had 10 of the top British universities, and within a few months we had 20. We got good profile and good partners and we grabbed the market.”
The core FutureLearn market is far from the traditional student. “Largely they are older than the undergraduate age,” he says. “Our sweet spot is probably 25-40, but we attract everyone from school leavers to retirees.”
Nelson says this offers an opportunity for digital transformation in the sector overall – for universities to rethink their core audience.
“We need ongoing access to education,” he says. “If you look across developed and developing countries, the opportunity exists for universities to unlock the content that’s within their walls and get into people all over the world at every stage of the market who might need or want it. That’s what we focus on.”
Thinking about MOOCs generally, the key challenges are low take-up and course completion, along with comparatively low levels of learning taken away. How is FutureLearn addressing those issues? How are technologies like social and mobile helping with retention and learning?
“We placed our bets in the beginning on the fact that quality was going to be key,” says Nelson. “The quality of user experience, the quality of content and additional functionality that was designed to engage and retain the interest of the learner.”
That means, he says, that of the people who start courses, 30% will do the majority of the course and 20% will complete it. “It looks like we are two to three times better on those metrics than other players in the market.
“The one where we really stand out – five to 10 times better – is on social interaction,” says Nelson. “People who leave comments are much more likely to complete the course. Nearly half of people doing our courses will leave at least one comment in our social areas. When you compare that to other platforms, it’s off the scale.”
Looking at the FutureLearn audience, it’s interesting that most of its users are non-UK. Currently 28% are based in the UK, with 72% overseas. Was that something the organisation set out to do at the start?
“Yes it was,” says Nelson. “We felt that if we were really going be major players we had to be international. And the international audience definitely generates a significant amount of our revenue.”
As it enters its landmark 50th year, there’s little doubt that FutureLearn’s OU parent faces an uncertain future. Big changes to the funding of higher education – primarily university tuition fees – have hit the OU hard, with a reported 56% drop in the part-time students that make up so many of its total.
These changes have meant that what had been a financial surplus for the OU turned into a £20m deficit, with the OU facing a need to save £100m to balance its books.
The pressures have been felt at the top of the organisation. Just last month, OU vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks resigned following a no-confidence vote by staff. Horrocks said the university faced “a scale of challenge that is unprecedented”.
Where does the wider OU situation leave FutureLearn? The organisation has received in the region of £28.75m in funding from the OU, according to its company return.
“We are not profitable yet, but we have enough funding,” says Nelson. Becoming more self-funding and sustainable is clearly a priority.
When the Open University embarked on the FutureLearn project, did it foresee that the business might not be profitable five years down the line?
“The Open University was well aware that this was a risky and unpredictable venture,” says Nelson. “It was also doing this for a variety of reasons that were not just financial. From quite early on it was blown away by the quality of the platform we had built, the scale of the partnerships we had built, the volume of the content we stacked up and the number of learners we had brought in.”
“Reputationally I think that has been a very powerful extension of the OU’s mission and strategy,” he says. “But there is no doubt that it has put significant investment into FutureLearn and it expects a return on investment. So it is important that we monetise and generate revenue, repay that investment and start to return a profit.”
Aside from the financial considerations, Nelson wants to ensure that FutureLearn continues to develop its platform “to make sure that what the learner gets is better and better”. He wants to see more effort going into data infrastructure, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning.
“As a social learning company, we are exploring how machine learning plays a part in the rich conversations our learners have within courses,” he says. “While we do not currently augment discussion, for example with bots, this is a space we’re keeping an eye on for the future.”
Despite its own uncomfortable times, the Open University has stayed positive about FutureLearn. In March, FutureLearn marked its fifth birthday with a parliamentary reception. There it confirmed that the OU plans to deliver new postgraduate degree courses on the platform.
The message from the top of the OU was positive too. “This feels to me like an enormous UK success story,” chancellor Martha Lane Fox (pictured) said. “It is so important that we continue to challenge ourselves about the best way to learn, that we continue to improve, change and innovate around the way we learn, and FutureLearn is the best example of that.”
The last five years have taken Nelson on a challenging journey, for sure. It seems clear that he remains upbeat and positive about the future. Five years in, where does Nelson’s passion for the role lie?
“I’m very proud of the team that I lead, of the culture and spirit in the organisation, and of the quality of the output,” he says. “But the thing that really inspires me is where you hear from real learners who you are helping to progress in life,” he says.
“It’s when you go into a course, look at what people are saying and doing in there and you just realise you have just lit the blue touch paper really on other people’s lives, rather than built something that you control completely.”
Simon Nelson – CV
Chief executive, FutureLearn
Digital Advisor, Phaidon Press
Advisor on digital strategy and business transformation, Sineo
Controller, multiplatform and portfolio services, BBC Vision
Controller, interactive, BBC Radio & Music
Senior strategy manager then head of strategy and new service development, BBC Radio
Brand development manager The Independent.
MBA, University of Manchester – Manchester Business School
BA, Classics, Downing College, University of Cambridge
Manchester Grammar School.