Lancaster collaborate on new free online higher education courses

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The Open University has launched a new company, Futurelearn, to deliver free online higher education courses. The company will work with 11 major UK universities, including Lancaster, King’s College London, Warwick, Leeds and St Andrews, to give students better access to higher education through a shared online platform, both in the UK and worldwide.

Futurelearn, an independent company that is majority-owned by the Open University, will give the public access to courses from computer, smartphone or tablet. The courses will cover a wide range of subjects and will include videos and interactive activities, as well as social-networking communities for students. Courses are to be available from this year, and there are to be no formal entry requirements. The individual universities will decide on the content and quality of the courses, in addition to how the students will be examined and awarded their qualifications.

The Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, Professor Mark E. Smith, has welcomed the company, saying: “I believe that Massive Open Online Courses have the potential to make a transformational impact on global higher education and Lancaster University has been following their rapid development by leading US universities with interest. We welcome this initiative spearheaded by the Open University, and we look forward to examining in detail what role Lancaster might play in the coming months.”

The UK’s university admissions service, UCAS, recently announced a drop of 54,000 in the number of students who took up higher education courses in 2012 compared to 2011, coinciding with the raising of tuition fees to £9000. The increased accessibility of higher education courses at far lower costs enabled by Futurelearn has received a largely positive reaction, despite online higher education being a relatively new concept.

The move has also been supported by the Government. The Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said that Futurelearn could “revolutionise conventional models of formal education.” He pushed the idea of the UK looking to place itself at the forefront of new developments in the delivery of higher education. The UK has so far been out-played by the US, which dominates the online higher education market. However, the launching of Futurelearn is a big step towards boosting the UK’s involvement, and it is hoped that it will provide entrepreneurs with innovative opportunities to change the way in which higher education is accessed by the general public.

The details of the courses themselves are soon to be announced. The Chief Executive of Futurelearn, Simon Nelson, made clear when questioned by the BBC that the courses offered by Futurelearn will not constitute full degrees. He emphasised the quality of learning that students would receive, saying that the courses “will be very high quality student experiences that will combine the best teaching from those universities with the benefits of the Internet.” The exact kind of accreditation that students would receive from these courses, however, remains unclear. When questioned, Nelson failed to specify the exact qualification that would be offered, instead choosing to focus on the benefits that Futurelearn will hopefully bring to higher education.