Through the learning glass: New schemes such as FutureLearn are allowing prospective students to take free courses online

Students can schedule the lessons around jobs, children and other responsibilities

My heart is knocking loudly against my chest, and silence rings in my ears. It's always the same. Exams bring me a dry mouth, the shakes and vomit-inducing nerves. This one is no different. I swallow and have a sudden memory of my young self on the terrifying day of my English A-level, desperately trying to collect my thoughts in a stuffy, overheated sports hall while my coughing, fidgeting peers were scribbling away around me. Has anyone else started writing? I look around and – I'm sitting in bed, looking at my laptop. The only invigilator is my cat. I gaze regretfully at my lacklustre notes, cross my fingers and press "enter".

The success of online learning lies, supposedly, in its accessibility. It can be done anywhere; hurriedly on the bus to work, leisurely in a café at lunchtime or at home when the kids have gone to bed. Whether you're in the middle of your career, bringing up a young family, or just passing the time between jobs, digital courses, in theory, provide busy people with an opportunity to learn on their own terms.

This autumn, FutureLearn was launched by the Open University, an initiative that will see free online courses (MOOCS, which stands for massive open online courses) made available to thousands of people around the world. Working with leading universities such as King's College London, the University of Leeds and Trinity College in Dublin, the scheme has so far attracted more than 200,000 students from 190 different countries.

The unique selling point? As well as traditional learning materials such as videos, readings and thought experiments, FutureLearn also offers user-led forums where learners are invited to set up their own profiles, follow their course mates and contribute to the class discussion online. Think Twitter crossed with the Open University.

Intrigued, I signed up to one of FutureLearn's first courses, "When World's Collide: Fairness and Nature in Society". Run by Leeds University, the course description promises that I will learn about making "difficult decisions on the management of natural resources". Requirements for study? Simply that I have a concern "about the world's environmental problems and the policies used to tackle them".

I cheerfully tap my details into the online form. "I'll do it after work," I think, pressing "enter" with the smug conviction that so often precedes a fall. Each course starts with a brief introduction to online learning for those who are making their first visit to cyber-school. A subtitled video outlines the different ways in which the course material can be consumed (video, audio, or text) before recommending that study should take place in a quiet environment, away from distractions and with a pen and paper nearby.

The "educator" (that's their term) who talks us through the course via a series of short videos, is the gloriously geeky Jon Lovett, a geography professor at the University of Leeds. Clearly besotted with his subject, Lovett's pieces to camera have a charming, low-budget feel : filmed in his office, they are pre-recorded and he stumbles occasionally over his script.

Yet despite delivering his lectures via a screen, Lovett doesn't feel remote: throughout the course he interacts with his students through the user forums, answering questions, replying to our comments and suggesting further reading. "The Mooc is rather addictive," he writes to me. It's day two of the course and his email is infused with a sense of excitement. "I had my 'real life' students patiently waiting at my office door yesterday for a tutorial whilst I was online with the Mooc students. Eventually they knocked and asked politely to come in!"

Of course, the most challenging part of online learning is fitting it around real life. After a long day at work, crashing out in front of Come Dine With Me is infinitely more appealing than logging on to study. With no fees to pay, no homework to hand in and no life-changing exam at the end, free online learning requires a combination of self-discipline, hard work and an all-consuming thirst for knowledge.

While it seems too good to be true that the courses are free, Mark Lester, Head of Academic partnerships for FutureLearn explains in terms of the long view for academic institutions – they were going to have to invest in digital learning anyway. "Developing MOOCs will also help the courses for the on campus students," he says, firm about the online versions being accessible to anyone: "Our intention is that the courses will remain free."

It certainly helps that FutureLearn's bite-size portions of learning are served one step at a time, enabling students to fit the course around a busy schedule. Martin Owen, a freelance chartered accountant who studies between contracts, has found sticking to the suggested timetable is a motivator. "The course encourages you to do the different sections on a tight range of days, which helps because one might never get around to it otherwise," he says.

If you fall out of the schedule, though, there's a danger of lagging behind your fellow online students and missing the buzz of debate. "The negative is that the online discussion does tend to happen around those days and if you miss it, everyone else has moved on," Owen says.

He's not wrong. Four days in and I'm already flagging. A mid-week wine-tasting evening with my sister means I find myself a couple of steps behind and struggling to catch up. I dutifully watch the videos and comment in the forums below, but it's clear the rest of my online cohorts are on the next topic. Keeping up with the schedule is quite a crucial element to remember, as the FutureLearn platform is partially based on what they call the "conversational framework", a theory for formal learning developed by Professor Diana Laurillard.

A professor of Learning with Digital Technologies at the Institute of Education, University of London, Laurillard believes that education should be a wide-reaching social experience, with lots of opportunities to discuss . "My students are all over the world," she tells me. "The simple truth is that with these kind of technologies, we can reach far more students than you can normally."

Professor Karen O'Brien, vice-principal of Education at King's College London, agrees. King's College is a participant in FutureLearn, and O'Brien describes it to me on email as a "unique opportunity" to give individuals across the world access to free courses.

However, by the end of my first week as a student, it feels that some aspects of FutureLearn need fine-tuning. The attempt to mimic Twitter doesn't take off and as I browse the site I don't find many students with more than five followers. One of my course mates, Debra Morris, who is an academic librarian at the University of Southampton, puts this down to the fact that our course is only two weeks long. "I haven't really paid attention to using mechanisms such as "following" people," she says, in reply to a comment I leave on the forum.

"But I might consider using strategies like that to form a better appreciation for a course that runs over a longer period." I can't help but wonder whether the use of "social media" is a ploy to tempt the young, tech-savvy generation to take part. The course forums, on the other hand, are fantastic. Packed with lively and well-informed discussion, they provide shy learners with an opportunity to contribute.

And so – the end of the course brings with it the "understanding test". There are 15 multiple-choice questions. By this stage I'm quite behind and have, I'm ashamed to say, skipped a few of the videos. Miraculously, I score 15/15. It seems that the success of FutureLearn lies not in assessment, but in its ability to stimulate debate in students who want to learn. As university fees reach figures of up to £9,000, an organisation committed to providing free education is to be celebrated.

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