MOOCs such as edX, Coursera, and Udacity have obviously caught the attention of the higher education world, In large part, the excitement has been generated by the participation in these ventures of many of the 800 pound gorillas of US research universities (e.g.Harvard, MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley). Suddenly, the highest elites of the US university world are plunging into online learning!
Consequently, one might be excused for looking askance at the recent headline in the Times Higher Education:
Open university launches British Mooc platform to rival US providers
Given that this MOOC (Futurelearn) does not include the 800 pound gorillas of the UK research university world such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College, how could Futurelearn have the weight to rival "our" MOOCs? **
I think there are two answers to that question: one is trivial, but the second is potentially very important. Starting with the trivial: all of "our" MOOCs include a number of excellent universities (and colleges) in addition to the the 800 pound gorillas. The Futurelearn institutions match up very well with this group, so the overall weights are not so different.
The second, and very important answer to the question is that Futurelearn has its own, very different 800 pound gorilla - The Open University (OU). As many of you know, I have put the Open University on my blogroll of potential disruptors because it pioneered a business model that is very different from that usually found in higher education. The OU, which always focused on "distance education", moved into online education aggressively with the advent of the internet. Over time, it has created a very effective educational model in which online education plays a central role. Part of that model involves close attention to the marriage between content and pedagogy required to produce effective learning. One of the measures of success of this approach is that the OU was the highest ranked university in the UK in student satisfaction in the 2012 National Student Survey (edging out Cambridge and Oxford!).
According to Times Higher Education, the platform for Futurelearn will be owned by an independent company that is majority owned by the OU. The centrality of the OU and its approach to education for this joint enterprise is spelled out on the Futurelearn website:
The Company will be able to draw on The Open University’s unparalleled expertise in delivering distance learning and in pioneering open education resources.
Thus, one can expect that Futurelearn will have an emphasis on effective online teaching. Unfortunately, this emphasis so far has not been greatly in evidence in the existing MOOCs. As a result, the "rivalry" that the Times promised in its headline is likely to be real and revolve around learning rather than just student head count. If that is the case, this rivalry will be greatly beneficial to the evolution of the MOOCs as an important innovation in higher education.
** Kris Olds has an excellent post in GlobalHigherEd which discusses, in part, whether the existing MOOCs really are "ours", i.e. US, and reflects on the territorial dimensions of the MOOCs.