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, America’s 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 world’s most famous universities were the last to get into the act.

That’s what struck me this summer when I met Simon Nelson, head of a company called FutureLearn. It’s 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 isn’t 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. It’s 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 – whether it’s MOOCs or online education, whatever version, whether it’s free or partially free or along the spectrum of being a fully traditionally paid but online course – how much do you think that it’s 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 that’s 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 they’re so far-fetched.

Q. There’s 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 – and whenever I’m talking to them, I’m not going to come in here and try to threaten you and try to tell you of all the doom that lies ahead. You’ve got plenty of other digital gurus who will come in and tell you that, but my God, you’re 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 world’s 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 you’re 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 it’s disproportionately small, we’re going to put this to the centre'.

Because this is where it’s 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. It’s 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 it’s like an iceberg. There’s sort of steady erosion, and suddenly you’re shrinking, shrinking." He said, "It’s not like that." He said, "You wake up one morning and your north half is just falling into the sea and you didn’t see it coming at all and you’re like, how the hell did that happen?"

I don’t know what those things might be, but I quite like to help prepare my partners for those eventualities and say, ‘You know what? There’ll be opportunities that come from it’.

Q. I guess one of the things that I’m curious about: Are MOOCs done? Obviously you’re 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 don’t see any of that narrowing the supply of free open courses to the world.

Actually, I think it’s 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.

That’s a key skill that people need to develop, so I think we’re going to pull off both tricks.

I think we are deepening our relationship with universities. They’re 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 we’re delivering, last year it was less than two hundred. This year it will be nearly six hundred. And next year we’ve already got hundreds and hundreds in, and we’re like months and months before.

I think MOOCs are only going to grow, but what’s going to happen is their credibility and their value are going to significantly increase. We’ve 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, you’re 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 you’re arguing that they’re not over by any means?

A. Not by any means, and they really shouldn’t 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 won’t have TV channels in three years’ time'. But what people got really excited about is, ‘Hey, we can put video on the internet’. And for a while, that was exciting, and a new way of distribution.

But that isn’t the real power of a connected medium for transforming the way you tell stories. I think even in TV now, as that industry matures, we’re still just at the beginning of what’s 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 you’ve 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 weren’t used to working together because in an analog world, they just kinda didn’t 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 children’s 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 I’ve been given, I’m working with 60 universities. Each of which has I don’t 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 don’t 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 that’s 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,; or try him by email at