June 4, 2015, by Sandra Stewart

What’s happening in the MOOC space?

Back in summer 2013, when the University of Nottingham joined FutureLearn, the UK’s first private company developing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), our strategy was to look and learn, and to experiment with different formats as we worked out what MOOCs could do for us. Two years on, we have identified two strategic drivers. First, there is the harnessing of MOOC-related innovations to our teaching and learning; connecting MOOCs to existing and planned credit-bearing courses, using MOOCs to develop the digital learning literacy of staff and students. Secondly, there is the use of MOOCs to support growth in our postgraduate taught courses online, and in our CPD.

In thinking through what this second driver means, we’ve been reviewing the research literature as well as scoping markets and target groups. For example, ‘Preparing for the Digital University’, (Gates Foundation, 2015[1]), notes that it is ‘adult professional learners’ who both achieve the most from online education, and who are most satisfied by it (p. 37, 44). That’s not surprising – these learners are likely to be highly motivated, seeking knowledge and skills of relevance either to their existing profession or to a new profession they are thinking of entering. They are often educated to degree level and beyond with prior experience of online training and professional development. The low financial cost and accessibility of MOOCs (time and space to find rather than fees; easy one-click registration) may be attractive (as quick to leave as it is to join; no bureaucracy) while, at the same time, completion of a MOOC does require the organisational skills and commitment that these learners usually have.


FutureLearn data on learner demographics backs up the Gates findings. This has implications for curriculum, course format, certification and progression, suggesting that we should explore how MOOCs can intersect with formal CPD provision. Louise Mullany from the School of English looks set to lead the way in this with an online CPD offering linked to her ‘mini-MOOC’ on business communication: ‘How to Read your Boss’ (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/how-to-read-your-boss). And the CPD offer needs to include online if it is to successfully maintain and deepen our relationship with MOOC learners spread across the globe. With this and other courses we will be working through potential models which range from the simplest option of using MOOCs to generate interest in our fee-paying courses to running private, fee-paying MOOCs for individual recruits or sponsored cohorts.

The FutureLearn partnership includes not only high-status universities (e.g. 16 members of the Russell Group) but also institutions, organisations and professional bodies: the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Marks & Spencer, the BBC, the British Council, the British Library, the British Museum[2] and the European Space Agency. These partners are looking for brand exposure but also for the development of their staff and user communities in online spaces that allow them to connect across timezones, contexts and cultures. We are looking for the same things, using online learning to develop our global networks.


So, as we have moved our thinking on in the last 2 years, so too has FutureLearn with a shift away from growing the number of courses offered to growing a coherent portfolio. This portfolio will increasingly include courses that lead to externally-recognised CPD, ‘nanodegrees’ and ‘microcredentials’, growing value for ‘adult professional learners’. We want to be part of this development, working collaboratively with our business and educational partners and using our research and teaching expertise in MOOC-CPD courses that can have real impact.


Sarah Speight, Academic Director for Online Learning


[1] Preparing for the digital university: a review of the history and current state of distance, blended, and online learning, (George Siemens, Dragan Gašević, Shane Dawson, for the Gates Foundation, 2015) available at: http://vitomir.kovanovic.info/public/Siemens%20et%20al.%20-%202015%20-%20Preparing%20for%20the%20digital%20university%20a%20review%20of%20.pdf

[2] Nottingham’s latest MOOC, ‘Propoganda and ideology in everyday life’ has been developed in partnership with the British Library. There is still time to join in: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/propaganda

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