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Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn, UK

With a career at the BBC strategising the change to digital systems under his belt, Simon Nelson felt the need for a new challenge. In 2012, he took the reins at the Open University’s new project, which soon became FutureLearn. Sitting down for a coffee with The PIE News, he discussed the firm’s first half-decade, it’s innate Britishness and its future plans.


"We’re your MOOC platform, but more importantly, one of your key partners in driving digital transformation"


The PIE News: How did this role at FutureLearn come about?

Simon Nelson: My big break was the BBC. Initially in strategy, and then as head of strategy at BBC Radio at the end of the 1990’s. The key strategic question was what we were going to do about digital.

The moment came to people’s attention was when we launched the [online] radio player in 2002. We offered all of Beethoven’s symphonies as free downloads and scared the living daylights out of the music industry, as it was downloaded over a million times.

At the end of 2010, I decided it was time to go. I was about to start a small project for the Open University, advising its commercial arm on digital strategy. As part of that, I was introduced to the vice-chancellor, Martin Bean [now vice-chancellor at RMIT].

I was asked if I’d heard of MOOCs, which I hadn’t, and he asked if I’d like to set this up – codename Project Kylo. At the start, it was a flurry of getting partners, but once we got over that initial period, we named the company, got to Christmas, I got the chance to stand back and ask ‘what on earth are we going to do?’.

“I have a slightly masochistic passion for wanting to take prestigious institutions into a digital world”

Martin backed me on the big decisions. One of them was that even though we’d be owned by the Open University, we’d be able to act independently, and try and operate like a startup, so we could move at pace.

And the other one was that once we’d evaluated the competition and platform options. I told him that we’d have to build our own platform, and it was going to be much more of an investment than what they’d initially given us.

The PIE: How did that go down?

SN: He actually called me and my freelancers in, we all had to go to Milton Keynes [Open University HQ]. He grilled my team for a whole hour, and they left, and I thought ‘bloody hell, that didn’t go well’, and he said ‘right you’ve convinced me – we’ll go and get the money’.

It was that sort of rapid decision making that enabled us to get moving.

The PIE: Why the split between OU and FL? Why not just a new division?

SN: I think there were a number of factors. First, you have to understand, if you’re sitting in that leadership team at the Open University, seeing MOOCs happen… seeing Stanford, MIT, Penn State, launching online courses and moving into distance learning, forming startups, and moving onto what the OU might have traditionally seen as its territory.

The OU was going, ‘hang on a minute, there’s all this fuss and hype, but actually, some of this stuff is nowhere near as good as it could be’. It’s looking at its own strengths, and saying, ‘well actually we can bring something fresh to this market’.

So why not do it themselves? There are three main reasons.

Firstly, they wanted to create an entity in which the top UK universities all felt they were genuinely partners, rather than just suppliers to the OU.

“Suddenly MOOCs had given it this digital shot in the arm and were blasting it open to a mass audience”

Secondly, the leadership of the OU understood that what was happening was evolving from the previous movement, but suddenly MOOCs had given it this digital shot in the arm and were blasting it open to a mass audience of the type that hadn’t been successful before.

So there was a feeling of ‘let’s create a new British brand in this market’ and actually try and capture some of that excitement, audience attention, in a new way that if we’d come out as OU, we might not be able to do.

Finally, I think there was a recognition that we were over a year behind Coursera, and 9 months [behind] EdEx. I think the feeling was it would be faster, simpler, and potentially it would bring fresh ideas if it were run as a startup.

The PIE: Theme of British-ness – how does that identity inform FutureLearn’s strategy?

SN: When we began we were a British phenomenon, but one of the slides Martin convinced me [with] was about quickly expanding beyond the UK. Yes in terms of partnerships, but also the opportunities to target audiences.

If you want to succeed, you can’t expect to have segmented UK offers, international offers; the most powerful propositions are the ones that can really use the network potential of the internet on a global scale.

But what we wanted to make sure is that we had a solid core of the UK, frankly, that we locked up the UK in terms of MOOCs. And we did.

The minute we announced there was a British solution coming, only one Uni in the next two or three years signed up with Coursera or EdEx.

So we wanted to build out of that strong foundation – but it was always anticipated that we’d go international, and by the summer of that first year, I was in conversation with Monash, and Trinity College Dublin. And now we see ourselves as a global company but with a really solid British base.

The PIE: Are there expansion plans in terms of offices?

“In terms of where this is migrating towards degrees… my belief is this market is rapidly going digital”

SN: Quite possibly. If you look now, we have a dozen partners in Australia and in some ways its remarkable how strong the relationship with Deakin is, considering the time barriers.

The PIE: Is there a geographic area you’re looking at building partnerships in now?

SN: There are lots. One of the constraints we put on ourselves is because we’re so fixated on delivering a great user experience, we haven’t been as quick to go multi-language as some of the other players in this market.

We don’t want multiple languages, so as a result, we’ve clustered around predominantly English speaking countries. However, I don’t think any of the platforms that are trying to penetrate India, China, or the African continent, really stand up to the quality of what we can offer.

The PIE: Are MOOCs still predicted to explode, or is the FutureLearn approach of looking towards online degrees the future?

SN: All MOOC platforms are evolving rapidly, lets not kid ourselves that this was a planned and structured strategy set up five years ago. To some degree, if we go back to ‘why a startup’, it’s to be agile enough to fail fast and pursue new opportunities, and have a variety of options open.

What we’ve found is that as central funding runs out for [MOOCs], and the university’s core business has been asked to take on funding for these things, hardly anyone is backing out.

Universities, partners and platforms are finding that the range of strategic rationales to continue to develop online courses in this way, some stay true to MOOC philosophy, but that’s been manifested in many different ways.

In terms of where this is migrating towards degrees… my belief is this market is rapidly going digital.

If I translate that back to my time at the BBC, it is very hard to transform a prestigious, ancient institution in order to exploit the opportunities that a more digital market is going to offer. We’re your MOOC platform, but more importantly, one of your key partners in driving digital transformation – and that’s why we’re being pulled into degrees.

There is no way degrees are going to crowd-out MOOCs, short courses, etc. They’re going to operate on a continuum.

The PIE: FutureLearn and this model is clearly disruptive to an established HE system – how do you convince lecturers to go along with it?

SN: It’s one of the things that attracted me to the job… I have a slightly masochistic passion for wanting to take prestigious institutions into a digital world.

If you try to get under the skin of what the fears of these people might be, try to inspire them with opportunities rather than threats, then actually you can move a long way.

The PIE: The sector globally seems unsure about what the future holds. Are you nervous about future?

SN: We see ourselves as umbilically connected to the sector, but, part of a new vibrant approach to it. Part of a European and global edtech sector, and that feels enormously positive.

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One Response to Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn, UK

  1. The strength of FutureLearn is in its diversity of disciplines and the fact that its content comes from a huge base of well-established universities. The potential students I meet in Africa often seek online courses and the quality of FutureLearn means I can recommend my own institution’s offer with pride and confidence as an introduction to what we do. I am also currently in the middle of a FutureLearn course so know whereof I speak!

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