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Leading British Universities Join New MOOC Venture

Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open U., says the new venture will have a “distinctly British” twist.

Earlier this month, one of Britain’s top newspapers noticed a glaring absence on the British education scene: MOOC’s. “U.K. universities are wary of getting on board the MOOC train,” read The Guardian’s headline. Two institutions, the Universities of Edinburgh and London, have recently signed on to offer massive open online courses via the American company Coursera. Yet in Britain, said the newspaper, “there is scarcely a whiff of the evangelism and excitement bubbling away in America, where venture capitalists and leading universities are ploughing millions” into MOOC’s.

That’s changing. Some leading British universities on Friday announced plans to offer free online courses through a new company being created by the Open University, a longstanding distance-education provider. The company, FutureLearn, will offer courses from the Universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St. Andrews, and Warwick, as well as King’s College London. Many of those institutions belong to the Russell Group, an association of Britain’s top research-intensive universities.

The courses will offer some of the same basic features as top American MOOC providers like Coursera, edX, and Udacity, said Martin Bean, who is vice chancellor of the Open University. Yet Mr. Bean also promised a “distinctly British” twist on that model. For example, FutureLearn expects to tap into online educational content from iconic institutions like the British Library, the British Museum, and the BBC, Mr. Bean said.

Yet Britain’s most iconic institutions of higher learning, the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, have no plans to join FutureLearn at this point, Mr. Bean said.

FutureLearn expects to start delivering its first courses in the second half of 2013. It has not yet determined which courses those will be. Students won’t be able to earn academic credit from FutureLearn itself, and it’s unclear at this point what other paths might be available for students to get credentials for completing courses.

Heading the new company will be Simon Nelson, a BBC veteran who once led digital activities for the broadcaster’s television divisions.

The Open University comes to the new project with extensive experience in both for-credit and informal modes of online learning. It’s an open-access institution that serves more than 250,000 students, many of them older learners who study part time while they hold down jobs. Those tuition-paying students typically work through online materials, as well as print and video content, and they get feedback on their efforts from the university’s tutors. The institution also offers much free educational content via platforms like iTunes U and YouTube, as well as its own OpenLearn repository.

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