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UK universities to offer free online courses

More than 20 leading universities to offer 'massive open online courses'

Top UK universities are to begin offering free online courses open to anyone around the world from today.

More than 20 leading institutions, including Southampton, Warwick and Reading have signed up to provide short courses in subject areas such as science, maths and technology.

The degree-level courses will be accessed through an online hub called FutureLearn, a private firm owned by the Open University.

It says its aim is to "increase access to higher education for people worldwide by offering a diverse range of high-quality courses and content from great universities, educators and institutions".

Students in any country will be able to sign up for a course through the FutureLearn site and study for free.

It is understood to be the first time that a UK-based organisation has been set up to offer what are known as "massive open online courses" (MOOCs).

MOOCs are already popular in the United States where there are a number of established hubs, including Coursera, which carries classes from top Ivy League universities such as Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Brown, as well institutions in other countries, like the University of Amsterdam and Peking University.

Reading University's course is expected to be based around programming.

Vice-chancellor David Bell said it would teach key concepts and skills, such as using logic and writing algorithms, and will be of interest to school students, undergraduates and adults looking to try something new.

"Offering free taster courses online is a no-brainer. Universities shouldn't be afraid to open up teaching and research, either in the UK or beyond. Learning never stops and as the economy's demand for higher-skills rises, universities should be in the vanguard when it comes to providing new opportunities.

"Making courses accessible online, on mobiles and tablets means that people can fit their studying around their lives, rather than their lives around study."

Southampton University's course is understood to be in the area of computer science.

The university's vice-chancellor, Professor Don Nutbeam said: "This represents an exciting opportunity for the university to be at the forefront of educational innovation in the UK and engage a wide community of learners.

"I have been deeply impressed by the enthusiasm that has been observable within the university community for MOOCs, much of it inspired by a commitment to improve access to world-class learning opportunities to millions around the world who otherwise would have little or no access."

FutureLearn has won support from the Government, with Universities Minister David Willetts saying it was an "exciting development for UK learning".

"I encourage all our institutions to explore the opportunities offered by new modes of technology, such as MOOCs. This will keep the UK ahead in the global race to deliver education in worldwide markets," he said.

Warwick Business School at Warwick University will be running a course called "The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology".

Professor Nick Chater, head of Warwick Business School's Behavioural Science group, said: "Our course is a taster for what we have on offer at Warwick Business School - exciting, cutting-edge perspectives on human behaviour, organisations, business and society.

"FutureLearn is a platform that we can use to share that with more people and hopefully encourage people to come to Warwick and find out more about it.

"People will be able to find out about the latest developments in many subjects through MOOCs. I would still expect, though, that there will be a continuing strong demand for the personal interactions with academics and fellow students which is an integral part of an undergraduate degree, Masters or MBA."