Moocs could threaten agents, says UK Minister

September 19, 2013

Free online course provision could pose a threat to agency business while providing a " powerful recruitment tool" for universities looking to grow international student numbers on campus, said David Willetts, UK Minister of State for Universities and Science.

Panellists taking questions from the audience at the FutureLearn launch

Addressing an audience at the launch of the UK’s first massive open online course (Mooc) platform provided by FutureLearn, owned by Open University , yesterday, he commented that while agents might have a continuing role in supplying overseas students, universities now have other recruitment avenues to explore. He added that Moocs can increase access to higher education and meet demand that is possibly unmet by “bricks and mortar” education.

Willetts’ comment follows his controversial statement last month that he believes Moocs can help cut out the agency “middle men”, as reported by Times Higher Education. Claire Davenport, Commercial Director of FutureLearn, on the other hand, said, “We’d hope that FutureLearn could act as a useful tool for international agents, whereby they could point to content on FutureLearn to help illustrate a university’s offering as part of the recruitment process.” Universities using the platform were also largely insistent that their online offerings – if usage becomes widespread – are bound to bolster business for agents with their university brands gaining greater appeal overseas.

“Agents can even take a Mooc course themselves to give them an enhanced knowledge of the degree programmes they are selling,” said Sam Ling from the University of Southampton. “Moocs provide a new way for agents to learn about the products that wasn’t possible before.” Meanwhile, Andy Beggan from the University of Nottingham was in agreement, and acknowledged that Moocs can even inadvertently help non-English speakers enhance their ESL skills, with programme content including videos delivered in English with foreign subtitles.

Sean Mackney from the University of Exeter explained that the web analytics aspect of FutureLearn Moocs can help to shape programmes, with institutions using the tool to find out which segments students learned from, enjoyed and interacted with the most. “Web analytics can even be used to improve class-based degree programmes – an advantage for both universities and agents,” he added. The institution wants to use Moocs to get on the radar of prospective undergraduates from Europe and the Far East interested in taking degrees in mathematics, biological sciences and physics.

In total, 21 UK universities and two institutions outside the country are registered with FutureLearn to provide Moocs, of six-to-eight weeks in duration, starting between October and December this year. The organisation has been criticised for joining US competitors Coursera and edX late on the Mooc scene, but Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, said that its focus on promoting discussion and debate will help it stand out from the crowd. With taught elements including videos lectures, audio, articles and quizzes, students will have their own profile and are able to “follow” other users. He is “very pleased” with the launch version although comments that it is still in beta version and will be available until early 2014.

The range of courses available on the platform includes England in the Time of King Richard III from Leicester University, Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide from Leeds University and The Secret Power of Brands from the University of East Anglia. “We are delighted to be working with such a high quality institutions and educators,” said Claire Davenport, Commercial Director. “It has been inspiring to see the thought gone into designing the courses so that the learners really meet their objectives and benefit from studying with a large global group from different backgrounds.”

The launch of Moocs has been met with criticism, with sceptics believing that issues such as high dropout rates will limit success. Many university representatives, however, commented that they would rather invest in the online platform than miss an exciting opportunity to internationalise further. “Access to higher education should grow and expand,” added Willetts. “We have not hit the limits.”

We report on the rapid development of Moocs in the November issue of Study Travel Magazine. 

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