Out-Law News 2 min. read

Questions for universities as first UK-led provider of massive open online courses launches, says expert

Universities must weigh up the decision whether to invest in massive open online courses (MOOCs) with the funding constraints in the higher education sector, an expert has said.

Universities expert Nicola Hart of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, was commenting as FutureLearn, the first UK-led platform for the delivery of free online university courses, opened to learners around the world.

"There's plenty of room for technological innovation in the way higher education is delivered, but the question is what kind," said Hart. "That leads on to the problem for universities: the high cost of investing in new technologies which then might not turn out to be the right kind."

"The risks to costs are reputational as well as financial - so do they go for it and invest in MOOCs, or stick with more reassuring capital spending on bricks and mortar, or more likely glass and steel, to improve their estate?" she said.

An increasing number of higher education finance directors are ready to commit to capital expenditure to drive expansion, according to a major survey by professional services firm Deloitte last month. However, the majority of survey respondents said that the level of financial uncertainty in the sector remained above normal levels.

Wholly owned by the Open University, FutureLearn is intended to be the UK's first provider of free, high quality MOOCs. It offers courses from 23 UK and international universities, as well as cultural institutions including the British Library, British Museum and British Council. According to the FutureLearn, users from over 165 countries have registered their interest in taking part in a course.

The 'open beta' phase of the FutureLearn website will run until early 2014, and collect user feedback to inform the ongoing development of the site. Learners can currently sign up for one of 20 pilot courses, eight of which are due to begin before the end of this year. Early offerings will include courses on history, marketing, psychology and web science; from institutions including Leicester University, the University of East Anglia, Warwick University and Southampton University. Courses will be accessible on mobile phones as well as computers, and will incorporate elements of social media.

Although the platform will not offer any formal credentials or qualifications at this stage, learners will be able to measure their progress through online quizzes and an on-screen "record of learning". FutureLearn also intends to pilot "paid-for statements of accomplishment and real world exams at local test centres" later this year.

Universities Minister David Willetts said that the initiative was an "exciting development" for the UK education sector, with the potential to "revolutionise conventional models of formal education".

"MOOCs provide the opportunity to widen access to our world class universities and to meet the global demand for higher education," he 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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