FutureLearn launch presents crucial opportunities for adult learners

18 September 2013

The launch of FutureLearn today is a crucial innovation in online learning which will have great impact, but one that also highlights the dangers of the digital divide including putting online courses beyond the reach of many adult learners, says NIACE.

According to figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, UK education exports were around £17.5 billion in 2011, making education the fifth largest services export sector in the UK, ahead of both insurance services and computer and information services. FutureLearn will support the UK to remain at the forefront of developments. It is working with over 20 universities to offer free courses, with additional materials being made available by The British Library, British Museum and British Council – all of which learners can access and follow on mobile phones, as well as computers.

Paul Stanistreet, NIACE’s lead on Higher Education policy, said:

“FutureLearn represents a far-sighted and important innovation, with huge potential to support and further the interests and ambitions of adult learners both at home and abroad, particularly those who prefer to study flexibly at their own pace. It represents a great opportunity for adults of all ages to continue learning for whatever reasons motivate them and because it is free there are fewer constraints on who can engage with it.

“FutureLearn can help universities open up their teaching and research to the public and it is clear that the demand is there. However, the poor retention rates associated with online higher education courses also point up the limitations of distance learning, and the need, in the case of second-chance learners especially, for support for learners. It is positive and unsurprising, given the Open University is driving it, to see FutureLearn recognising this and promising a ‘very strong social architecture’ underpinning a supportive online community.

“Nevertheless, the huge potential of online learning will be constrained while the digital divide puts online courses beyond the reach of many who could benefit. As more and more of our educational offer moves online, and more opportunities open up, those on the wrong side of the divide will find their exclusion compounded, unless a large-scale and concerted effort is made to close the gap between the technological haves and have-nots.”

Rajay Naik, Director of Government and External Affairs at the Open University, will be delivering a presentation on FutureLearn at NIACE’s annual Digital Learning Conference on 11 December. This will be followed by a debate on the potential of MOOCs for the further education and skills sector, which will be informed by BIS’s recently published paper – The maturing of the MOOC – summarising knowledge and opinion about MOOCs, how they are evolving and potential issues.