The PIE: What are your first impressions of FutureLearn and the sector?
Andy Hancock: Clearly the pandemic has had an impact on external demand and the role of digital learning. Online learning is becoming more and more important and more and more relevant. And I think as a sector, we need to almost play catch up and develop more engaging learning experiences online to keep up with that demand. I think there is really an appetite for more.
“Investing further in our social learning experiences is definitely one area that we want to focus on”
What was potentially viewed as an addition or a ‘nice to have’ is very much coming into the core of educators’ offerings around a hybrid offering, with both online and offline being part of it. We have a huge opportunity as a platform to move our customer experience, our learning experience and our platform experience forward to enable synchronous and asynchronous learning in a digital environment.
The PIE: Can you expand on how you’re going to move the platform forward?
AH: FutureLearn is known for the social learning aspect, and I think we’ve got an opportunity to do a lot more around creating and investing within that social learning environment so that learners have peer, expert and facilitated support. So I think actually investing further in our social learning experiences is definitely one area that we want to focus on.
The second is just making our platform easier for partners to use, to get content onto the platform and make it more accessible. Having come from a sector where the use of APIs and data is quite standard, I think there’s an opportunity to make our platform easier for both higher education partners and industry partners to create courses.
The PIE: The peer support is an interesting point. Before the pandemic there was a feeling around some that the completion rate of online courses was not high enough. How does that look now?
AH: Well, a learner that engages with social learning is six times more likely to complete the course, and fundamentally, our purpose being to transform access to education is not around enrolments, it’s around people completing and finishing the course. Any way that we can help learners maintain that level of engagement to complete the course, the better. I’m very focused on using data to ascertain how people behave on our platform and social learning clearly results in higher completion rates, as does expert facilitation.
So I think there’s this balance between on-demand and having courses available whenever, compared to the more ‘cohort-based learning’ where the MOOC sector originated from. And I think that’s just a hybrid between two. But fundamentally, I want as many people who start a course as possible to finish a course. And then I would like as many people as possible to have really relevant AI-led or educator-led [experiences] to develop that lifelong path.
The PIE: Obviously, institutions have been looking at OPM’s and of switching over to online during Covid-19. Has this really been a boom time for you?
AH: We are certainly the established leader in the UK and Australia from both the higher ed and industry partner perspective, and we are continuing to see that demand grow. As I’ve said, I would like to do some more work on the platform to make it easier for partners and to accelerate the time that we get onto the platform. You know, clearly it’s a science and there is a level of work that needs to be done to create a new course onto the platform. But I think we could automate some of that more effectively, more efficiently.
We’re still very focused from very short courses all the way through to what we call expert tracks, which is a combination of educator-led learning pathway through to micro-credentials and to degrees. Micro-credentials have been very successful since their launch around enabling people to start getting a level of accreditation. But I think there’s a lot more that we can do.
“Ultimately we need to have a breadth of offering that enables learners to do from early stage all the way through to degree”
The term that the team has been using is ‘from free to degree’, and I think ultimately we need to have a breadth of offering that enables learners to do from early stage all the way through to degree, but we also need to enable other learning pathways as well, particularly associated to career development.
Our careers are very different to our parents and the days of getting a job for life [are over]. We have a role to enable people to develop new skills and develop their careers through lifelong learning.
The PIE: How does FutureLearn look at careers and practical education?
AH: I think education is changing, which means it’s an exciting time to be here and e-learning is growing. If you look at the number of young people and Gen Z that are engaging with the platform, that’s gone up significantly over the past couple of years. Our insights are that young people value online learning just as much as traditional education. And obviously, Covid-19 has made the plurality of younger age groups more interested in taking an online course. They’re comfortable learning within that kind of environment.
And I don’t need to tell you about the great resignation. I think a number of people have, during the pandemic, taken stock and thought ‘actually is the career that I am in, the career that I want to be in and if not, what skills do I need to to develop?’ There’s a big uptake in our younger audience and learners where it’s quite normal to do everything online, you know? The sector is going to continue to be really dynamic, and I think it’s going to have to change and evolve based on consumer and learner demand. Careers are going to be evolving and developing and having a way of accessing skills online wherever you are, is going to become more and more relevant.
It’s super exciting. I wanted to go into a different sector, and I think the opportunity for us to leverage new technologies, leverage data to create those engaging learner experiences and more connected experiences is fundamental. There’s so much change going on within the sector. It’s a huge, huge market. It’s not restricted to one geography, it’s an international sector, and quite frankly, it’s moving at real pace, and I think we have a really strong position to continue to grow and maintain our leadership in the geographies that we operate and move in to others.
- Read more about Online Program Management operators in the recent edition of The PIE Review.