20 July 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Online higher education is now a global market
Back when colleges first started experimenting with teaching online, pundits mused that competition for college students would one day be global. A student would be able to sit down at a computer and take a course literally from anywhere. It seemed like possibly a crazy thing to predict, considering that these early internet courses involved reading lectures that were typed out, doing some online discussion, and sending in assignments via email.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Americaís leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

But the day of global competition for higher education is actually here, and interestingly, some of the worldís most famous universities were the last to get into the act.

Thatís what struck me this summer when I met Simon Nelson, head of a company called FutureLearn. Itís a spinoff of the British Open University designed to deliver MOOCs, those free massive online courses. More than 60 universities across the UK and Europe have partnered with FutureLearn to deliver their courses, mirroring trends of the growth of these online classes in the US. For better or worse, colleges now have to realise that they face competition from everywhere.

Nelson isnít an academic. He spent most of his career as a media executive leading digital experiments at the BBC. And that background shapes his thinking about how colleges can adapt to changing technologies.

This is an edited and adapted transcript of the interview.

Q. Itís a really different world for colleges these days, and it all changed in a pretty rapid time. How much of the challenge now is going to be using Ė whether itís MOOCs or online education, whatever version, whether itís free or partially free or along the spectrum of being a fully traditionally paid but online course Ė how much do you think that itís going to be this global competition now? What does that mean for places like the Open University, but even more so, maybe for old brick-and-mortar universities?

A. First, I completely agree with you that MOOCs and the online-learning world in general have now converged effectively. We definitely see ourselves as a partner to our universities and embracing a whole range of digital opportunities and not just a MOOC platform for them.

In terms of that global aspect of competition, I think that many of the top institutions can still do perfectly well just focusing on their core business, and thatís going to sustain them for a long time. Those early predictions of the death of universities, the whole swathes of universities going out of business in a few short years, not only were they wrong, they were pretty unhelpful because theyíre so far-fetched.

Q. Thereís not that fear factor as much for traditional universities?

A. I think it depends at what level in the sector they are. The top ones, I think they know that they have brands and certain protections in markets that are going to survive and thrive. But I think there are lower or middle-level tiers who are much more nervous. The key to my mind is Ė and whenever Iím talking to them, Iím not going to come in here and try to threaten you and try to tell you of all the doom that lies ahead. Youíve got plenty of other digital gurus who will come in and tell you that, but my God, youíre missing opportunities.

This market that is opening up before you, this global market, this ability to think beyond your traditional age group. Many of them are still obsessed by purely 18- to 25-year-olds. Hold on a minute, guys, since when did learning need to stop at 25, and who has the worldís greatest educators often within physical walls to yourselves?

If you can just actually get a digital mind-set into the organisation and say, 'Listen, we understand that currently this is a tiny percentage of what youíre going to achieve in analog, but look at other industries where people were faced with that same dilemma'.

You know what? The incumbents who really thrived in those industries, including the BBC by the way, are the ones who said, 'Even though itís disproportionately small, weíre going to put this to the centre'.

Because this is where itís going, and you know what? Things may just start happening faster than you imagined because there could be all sorts of disruption around the corner. Itís opportunities in front of people that I prefer to put, and is there going to be an impact from global? Yeah, definitely.

Is it going to be of the type that was predicted at the beginning? No. I remember someone telling me, he was working in the publishing industry, print publishing, and his business effectively was destroyed over a few years.

He said to me, "When digital disruption comes, people imagine itís like an iceberg. Thereís sort of steady erosion, and suddenly youíre shrinking, shrinking." He said, "Itís not like that." He said, "You wake up one morning and your north half is just falling into the sea and you didnít see it coming at all and youíre like, how the hell did that happen?"

I donít know what those things might be, but I quite like to help prepare my partners for those eventualities and say, ĎYou know what? Thereíll be opportunities that come from ití.

Q. I guess one of the things that Iím curious about: Are MOOCs done? Obviously youíre still doing MOOCs, but are they going to end up being more important as a catalyst for other things, and that universities will use this as more of a steppingstone to getting into online?

A. I think universities are using MOOCs in a whole range of much more strategic ways. To teach their own students, to create pathways into their core programmes, to work in different ways with employers and transform the way they offer training and development services to them, etcetera. I donít see any of that narrowing the supply of free open courses to the world.

Actually, I think itís going to significantly expand it because in a digital world, being able to sort of navigate that boundary between free open content that attracts mass audiences but then play with the moments at which you try to defer people into premium products or introduce paywalls, etcetera.

Thatís a key skill that people need to develop, so I think weíre going to pull off both tricks.

I think we are deepening our relationship with universities. Theyíre using our platform and the MOOCs they can develop with us in whole new different ways that are core to their business, but as a result, if you look at how many courses weíre delivering, last year it was less than two hundred. This year it will be nearly six hundred. And next year weíve already got hundreds and hundreds in, and weíre like months and months before.

I think MOOCs are only going to grow, but whatís going to happen is their credibility and their value are going to significantly increase. Weíve just launched FutureLearn programmes which enable people for the first time on FutureLearn to do a sequence of courses that build to more valuable qualifications, and some of those qualifications are going to be professionally accredited.

Before, I think some of the value of MOOCs has been slightly less clear. But actually, youíre going to see so much more in terms of valuable qualifications associated with these things over the next few years.

Q. So maybe some of the biggest hype is over, but youíre arguing that theyíre not over by any means?

A. Not by any means, and they really shouldnít have believed that hype at the beginning, I would say. When I was at the BBC, I was in charge of all digital activities, firstly for radio but then I moved over to TV. As the TV industry started to get digital and the fact that it was arriving, and by the way, it was massively overhyped there as well.

Senior execs were running around going, 'Oh my God, we wonít have TV channels in three yearsí time'. But what people got really excited about is, ĎHey, we can put video on the internetí. And for a while, that was exciting, and a new way of distribution.

But that isnít the real power of a connected medium for transforming the way you tell stories. I think even in TV now, as that industry matures, weíre still just at the beginning of whatís going to be possible with new forms of entertainment and storytelling, and some of the new entrants are really starting to stretch that.

In education, my word, we are absolutely in the prehistoric ages of what is going to be possible.

Q. What else would you say youíve learned from your background in media at the BBC that you now bring to the academic delivery of courses or leading that?

A. Gosh. When I was in BBC Radio, I had to work across initially five national radio stations, and then we launched a whole load of new ones, and they werenít used to working together because in an analog world, they just kinda didnít have to.

It was the same when I moved over to BBC Television and then you also had all these different sort of areas of output. You had the drama department, you had the comedy department, you had the factual department, you had the childrenís department, and my belief has always been the web rewards joined-up solutions that break down some of those traditional silos between areas.

One of the things as I go into this wonderful opportunity Iíve been given, Iím working with 60 universities. Each of which has I donít know how many faculties, how many academics, and trying to explain to them and encourage them all to think in a more joined-up way that they donít each individually have to design a new user experience specifically for their course or their subject area. That they can learn from each other. That a joined-up approach and actually working together to make an impact globally is better than each individual university trying to come up with its own approach.

I guess thatís one of many parallels I see from those 15 hard but amazing years at the BBC and the three-and-a-bit hard but even more amazing years in higher education.

Jeffrey R Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.

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