The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Online learning transforms education

FutureLearn CEO seeks to make Internet learning enjoyable as Facebook

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Sept. 4, 2014 - 20:43

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Korea has often been lauded for having an education system that is near the top of most global education rankings and has been declared a model by many foreign leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama.

But with more Koreans viewing learning as labor rather than a chance to improve oneself, the country is seeking to implement a culture of lifelong learning and is trying to nurture students by unleashing their potential and dreams.

This goal is coherent with that of Simon Nelson, the chief executive officer of FutureLearn, a massive open online course learning platform based in the United Kingdom, who said he aims to extend the opportunity for education to the wider public.

“Learning is no longer going to be perceived for undergraduates, post-graduates and occasional training courses at work. I think we all have to face a world where we need to retrain several times in our lives, and move into new areas,” he said.

With the learning environment transforming at an alarming rate, he advised the educational organizations to “position themselves for the future” by targeting a whole range of people that they have never reached before.

“Everyone is saying MOOC is the thing, but actually that’s only the start. Because the potential changes and opportunities are much bigger,” Nelson said.
FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson. (The British Council in Korea) FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson. (The British Council in Korea)

Unlike many other company heads in the realm of online education ― namely Udacity, Coursera ― Nelson does not boast an academic background. His previous job at BBC involved heading digital activities for BBC TV services and overseeing channel websites.

“It was quite intimidating to stand on a platform with professors from Harvard and Stanford,” he said. Rather than to focus on his shortcomings, Nelson said he focused on the aspects that helped maximize his strength, which was to build and manage digital products that meets the demand of consumers.

“Back in my BBC days, we would monitor TV channels to create schedules that covered different subjects,” he said. Nelson added that they sought to make sure that they had “something for everyone,” which they took to make it work in an on-demand environment.

Despite his resume lacking academic credentials, Nelson emphasized that the Open University ― a distance learning and research university founded in 1969 ― has several decades of experience in the related to field for him to fall back on.

Still, finding out what the general public wants remains a tall order in the relatively young and rapidly changing field of online education.

“Conventional education is going to be utterly transformed over the next 20 years, with the students expecting greater balance of online and campus-based delivery,” he said.

Some of the changes are already being reflected in the demographics of FutureLearn. Its learners are evenly distributed across all groups from 18 to 80 and some 60 percent of them are women, he said.

The tactics he used to grasp the interest of learners was by making their time spent at FutureLearn enjoyable.

Nelson’s demonstration of the website showed thousands of people interacting with each other via comments, peer evaluation and sometimes criticism. These remarks were not merely random Internet replies; the photo profiles and in-depth conversations appeared to be an interaction on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Which is precisely what the FutureLearn is aiming for. Its operators are seeking to make spending time on the website as enjoyable as on SNS.

Does that mean FutureLean may replace Facebook one day?

“That’s a bit bolder than I’d probably say it,” Nelson said with a laugh. “But I would say we are competing with Facebook in some ways.

“Facebook takes up a huge proportion of people’s online time and media time. And we want to make learning as social and enjoyable as staying on Facebook.”

With tide of change upon the education circles, Nelson advised universities as well as corporations to take advantage of the upcoming opportunities, and extend their hands to the wider range of learners.

FutureLearn is currently extending partnership across the world, recently inking deals with Sungkyunkwan University and Yonsei University.

The partnerships, as of now, do not involve giving actual college credits, but some of its courses are recognized by the government agencies in U.K, like the British National Health Service and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

However, universities are only part of the picture as FutureLearn aims to extend partnership to offer education to a wide range of people.

“(Not just 20s and 30s) but 40s, 50s, 80s and even 90s. Why not? I think it can be really good for the society,” he said.

By Yoon Min-sik (