FutureLearn was launched in 2012 by former Open University vice chancellor Martin Bean.
The announcement came at a time of what can only be described as massive open online course (MOOC) hysteria – early experiments in distributed connected learning by Canadian pioneers (George Siemens, David Cormier, Rita Kop, and Stephen Downes) had been overshadowed by the launch of Sebastian Thrun’s Coursera. The latter prompted any number of “is this the end of higher education as we know it?” think pieces in the popular press – and it was this interest (that piqued the curiosity of one David Willetts) that saw the OU develop and launch the service.
The idea was that learners would sign up to free short non-credit-bearing courses provided by universities (FutureLearn launched with 12 UK universities as course providing partners), and that some may take things further by signing up to a full course. If you’re not seeing a business model for the platform there you are right to wonder – some charged universities to use the platform (per course, or as a general fee), while others chose to offer students other services (certificates, fuller assessments…).
Over the decade that the Open University has supported FutureLearn it has spent tens of millions of pounds – UK eUniversity levels of capital. A further £50m investment by SEEK uk announced in 2019 yielded the latter a 50 per cent share in the company.
Though FutureLearn has 17m registered users, and offers a range of course that now includes a credit-bearing paid-for offer, it has clearly not yet reached profitability. The latest published accounts see the board admitting that it “does not currently have sufficient funding” for the following year and that – despite a new £15m cash injection from current share holders “there remains a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt on the group’s ability to continue as a going concern”.
A FutureLearn spokesperson told me:
the current external environment has become extremely challenging and FutureLearn is not immune to these pressures. As a result, the board in conjunction with the shareholders are assessing the strategic options for the company. The board has appointed advisers to explore the option of finding a new owner.
In an email sent to all staff on Monday, the Open University made it clear that it would be divesting from FutureLearn, seeking alternative investment or a buyer for the 50 per cent share it currently owns.
The Open University’s Chief Financial Officer, Paul Traynor said
The Open University has been proud to have invested in FutureLearn since 2012. We regularly review our funding position and investment portfolio and are now seeking to sell our stake in the business. FutureLearn has made a fantastic contribution to providing accessible online short courses to millions of learners worldwide, so we hope a buyer can be found soon.
It’s not hard to see parallels elsewhere. July saw the value of Coursera stock drop by 30 per cent following an earnings announcement (the link is to an excellent piece by MOOC analyst Michael Feldstein, who argues that the free MOOCs have basically become “infomercials” for paid services). Coursera competitor MITx, which reports 39m registered learners around the world, was bought for $800m by education technology firm 2U.
There is clearly still some money to be made from open online learning initiatives, but clearly not enough to tempt the OU to continue funding the FutureLearn experiments.