Two major universities are set to allow students to earn course credits which will go towards their final degree through massive open online courses (Moocs) for the very first time in the UK.
The move, announced by online learning platform FutureLearn, will see the Open University (OU) and the University of Leeds allow students the opportunity to study for part of a degree or MBA course before progressing further.
Learners will be able to take part in ‘programs’ for free, trying out the course experience and checking its suitability for them before making the decision to pay for a certificate of achievement and final assessment.
Those who then decide to progress further to a full course may have the opportunity to bypass most of, or all of, their first year.
One of the main benefits of FutureLearn’s Moocs programs is that they allow anyone with Internet access to take part in and try courses for free, before parting with any money.
Though, to take a program, learners will need to complete a set of specially-designed short courses and purchase a certificate of achievement for each, generally costing between £39 and £59.
FutureLearn’s higher education partners will then award a maximum of 30 credits against grades achieved, and those will count towards specific degree courses, with programs, alone, costing around £117.
To complete programs that are recognised for academic credit, learners will be required to pay for, and pass, the aforementioned final assessment - where relevant - which, altogether, can cost between £500 to £750, though this is on a case-by-case basis.
Leeds University is offering five short courses for its environmental challenges program which looks the relationships between people and nature, and the challenging and difficult decisions faced when managing natural resources.
The OU, meanwhile, if offering programs on the digital economy, business and finance, and management and leadership.
With university tuition fees across England and Wales soaring - potentially above the current maximum of £9,000 a year - the programs will enable learners to ‘try before they buy’, giving them a chance to see if a course feels right before fully committing.
FutureLearn described its announcement as “a very progressive step” for the UK higher education system, particularly in light of the request for greater flexibility and better use of digital technology made by the Government in its White Paper published last week.
Moocs have risen in popularity having already been introduced in the US in order to widen access to higher education as much as possible.
But, with massive enrolment emerging as one benefit, completion of the online courses is a completely different topic; market research in 2014 suggested less than ten per cent of students signing up for Coursera - the American equivalent of FutureLearn - finished their Mooc.
However, Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, described the move as an important step in the “unbundling” of higher education and giving more control to the learner. He said: “Allowing people to take part of a degree course with the flexibility offered by our platform means they can achieve meaningful qualifications while still being able to work and manage the other important parts of their lives.”
University of Leeds’ vice-chancellor, Alan Langlands, said the move signifies the Russell Group institution’s ongoing commitment to widen access to higher education. Professor Neil Morris, director of digital learning, added: “We are making extensive use of the platform to offer higher education to anyone with access to the Internet, and to extend the learning opportunities for our campus-based students.”
The Open University’s vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, said Moocs have the “disruptive potential” to offer more efficient, competitive, and learner-focused study options. He added: “It is a modern illustration of the OU’s historic mission to extend quality education to the greatest number of people possible.”
Founded by OU in 2012, FutureLearn says it offers over 3.6 million learners free online courses from world-leading UK and international universities, centres of research excellence, and specialist education providers.