The study of dental photography and the “secret power” of brands are among the pilot courses to be offered free online by UK universities in a bid to advertise their academic expertise to thousands of students in the UK and beyond.
The launch of FutureLearn – a series of academic lectures, reading materials and learning forums available on mobile, tablet and laptop devices – marks Britain’s first foray into the arena of “massive open online courses”.
Moocs have already been rolled out by US universities such as Stanford, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which have built up millions of subscribers through a range of free web offerings.
But even as the UK version opened in beta form on Wednesday, unveiling its list of 20 initial courses, organisers were forced to defend the absence of key names in British education from participating universities.
While several of the leading Russell Group universities have enrolled, the UK’s Ivy League equivalents of Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College and the London School of Economics were noticeably absent.
When asked whether this would undermine the brand, Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University – which is leading the development of FutureLearn – suggested that other universities, including overseas institutions, would join “along the way”.
“I am incredibly proud of the list of universities that we have here,” Mr Bean said. “These are courageous, innovative, pioneering institutions that are willing to go into this space – there’s no certainty in the Mooc space and the business model isn’t proven.”
Moocs would be seen as the “digital storefronts” of the universities of the future, he added.
Dr Sally Mapstone, pro vice-chancellor for education at Oxford university, gave a much more guarded assessment earlier this year, warning against a “lemming-like rush” towards Moocs and telling the BBC that Oxford’s model was based on one-to-one tutorials which they were “not going to give up”.
In the meantime, the FutureLearn consortium is relying on 24 universities including Bristol, Edinburgh, Kings College London, Trinity College Dublin and Monash University in Australia. In the next four years, the programme aims to sign up more than 100 partner institutions around the world.
Of the 20 pilot courses announced on Wednesday, just eight will be available to start this year, and none of the beta sessions will include an end-of-course exam or completion certificate, which are under development.
Although the courses themselves will remain free, it is this accreditation aspect which FutureLearn will rely on as a potential revenue scheme. Each Mooc course will last six to 10 weeks, and is aimed at undergraduate level.
Simon Nelson, the programme’s chief executive, said that in the 24 hours since the site had been opened there had been 20,000 registered users from 158 countries.
However, Britain’s entry still has some way to go if it is to match its rivals across the Atlantic. Coursera, set up last year by two academics at Stanford, boasts more than 4.7m subscribers and 444 courses from 87 universities across the world.
Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology run another Mooc called edX which has more than 1m subscribers and partners from Europe to Japan.
From mobile games to shallow psychology
Would-be students logging on to the FutureLearn website can choose from courses bridging the worlds of technology, science, humanities and dentistry, writes Helen Warrell.
Reading University is offering a “build your first mobile game” course, while academics at Warwick will guide users through the “shocking shallowness of human psychology”.
Leicester University, whose archeological dig recently uncovered the remains of Richard III under a local car park, will offer a course on England under the hunchbacked monarch’s reign.
The courses have a defined start and end point, and students will be told in advance how much time per week they need to devote to their studies. Lessons will be transmitted using a mixture of video, reading material and online group discussion moderated by academics.
Making content accessible will be emphasised, with the Open University’s “introduction to ecosystems” course deploying Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist and broadcaster, to explain photosynthesis.
However, Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, which leads the FutureLearn consortium,said the spectrum of courses will need to be broadened, after the beta phase has finished. In particular, he said language courses would be popular and offer a potentially lucrative follow-on for universities, as students tested their skills and progressed to undergraduate or other paid-for study.
Source: Education News