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Growth in online courses shows need for universities to incorporate new technology in their teaching models, says expert

“Forward-thinking” universities must be open to the benefits that new technology can bring to their teaching models and to their students, an expert has said, as the UK’s first online-only learning platform announced its one millionth enrolment.

FutureLearn, which is owned by the Open University, began offering access to free ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs) to learners around the world in September 2013. It now hosts over 220 courses from 44 partners, which include Monash University, Australia and the University of Auckland, as well as UK universities and organisations such as the British Library and the British Museum.

Universities expert Chris Martin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the figures showed that online learning was “definitely part of the future of higher education”. However, he pointed out that questions remained over how best to earn income from online learning, while calls for more face-to-face teaching time remained a common complaint amongst students.

“The growth of platforms such as FutureLearn comes as traditional universities learn to embrace and use new technologies to deliver education in the way that meets the needs of a new generation of students who want and expect the use of digital technology to be integrated fully in course delivery,” he said. “The best adopters will use technology to enhance their offering, without losing sight of the importance of face to face teaching.”

Martin also said that the growth of MOOCs would create opportunities for new players to enter the higher education market. Although FutureLearn has always been clear that its role is not to replicate the university experience, Martin said that as such platforms become more prevalent and sophisticated, the importance of “bricks and mortar” facilities for certain degree courses will diminish, albeit they will remain important, both in terms of delivering a sense of community for staff and students and for the delivery of practical "heavy" courses, such as medicine and the applied and physical sciences.

FutureLearn’s one million learners come from more than 190 countries and territories around the world, and have made 2.2 million course sign-ups between them, according to a blog post published on FutureLearn’s website. Of those that begin a FutureLearn course, 23% go on to complete the majority of steps and all of the assignments, while 39% of them interact with other users through social media, comments and conversations. In addition, 60% of FutureLearn’s learners are female, as opposed to the male-dominated trend of many early MOOCs, it said.

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