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The Future of Universities: Growth Through Technology

Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn

Published in June 2013

What's next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it's become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here, Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, shares his thoughts.

A painting of an old man with a laptop

A transformation is under way. Across the world, evidence grows of the power of technology to help bring education to the previously unreachable, the unconfident and the socially and economically excluded. The advent of MOOCs, especially since 2012, has brought the university experience into the homes of thousands of new students worldwide. Their ability to create whole new communities of educators and learners, on a scale incomparable with the physical university environment, marks this as more than just the gradual next stage of the digital evolution. In less than a year, edX alone has attracted 800,000 students from 192 countries. And here in the UK, we expect that FutureLearn, which has more than twenty of the UK’s top universities on board, will soon be attracting tens of thousands of students.

Yet it would be wrong to define this growth simply in technological terms. Rather, it is engineers’ appetites to work with visionary academics that ensures this technology delivers the thing great educators have always known to be important – captivating the audience.

But as this transformation takes its grip, challenges are emerging which anyone working in this space needs to consider. Amongst these is the role of the traditional university experience; is that in jeopardy as more and more people use technology to access education anywhere and at anytime? If, as I believe, this change serves to complement rather than replace the conventional, physical, and selective teaching experience by enthusing the next generation of university undergraduates, does it have the necessary staying power to achieve this? The wider digital landscape is blighted with examples of new ventures whose light shone all too briefly. In our world, providers have a lot to deliver if they are to avoid the same fate. Reproducing “lectures online” is unlikely to be enough for increasingly sophisticated online learners.


In light of these challenges, two things must be considered. Firstly, perhaps it is time to change our view of what does, and does not, pass muster in online learning. High quality online environments offer the opportunity for students to accumulate learning that potentially starts them on the road to the achievement of higher qualifications. In my view, this means creating courses and modules that are not only pedagogically sound but engaging and fun. With FutureLearn, learning will come in bite-sized chunks, where every step completed becomes a milestone to be celebrated. It will also be a truly social experience, where learners can gather in small, intimate groups to discuss their studies and find mutual interests and support.

Secondly, in order to make this happen, free online education needs to be something that brings learning in to peoples’ lives, not demands that they step out of their lives to take part. Study must be relevant as well as informative. Only then, will people feel inspired to come back again and again.

These are two of the ideas which are informing our development of FutureLearn and helping us to see the challenges facing our world differently.

The transformative power of technology when applied to education can be in no doubt. It is something that non-academic professions have been harnessing for years. In business, e-learning tools are now commonplace in staff training and assessment programmes. Advances in video production and broadcast software are allowing more organisations to use that format to share knowledge via live and on-demand webinars. And the exponential growth of social media platforms and digital communication vehicles continue to impact on our ability, and willingness, to search for and share knowledge.

Growth is here to stay; the next battle is to ensure that quantity comes with quality.

For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.

Image: Photoillustration based on Albert Anker's 1894 oil on canvas Der Dorfschneider (The Village Tailor). The original is currently displayed at the Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Switzerland. Source: Flickr.

Simon NelsonSimon Nelson was an early pioneer in taking media brands and content online. Joining the BBC in 1997, he became Head of Strategy for BBC Radio in 1998. He went on to set up and manage all digital activities for BBC Radio & Music, where he launched its world-leading podcast service in 2005 as well as the Radio Player. He then moved to head up all digital activities for the BBC’s television divisions where he helped launch the iPlayer and built an award winning portfolio of online and cross platform services.

Since leaving the BBC, he has led a number of projects in TV, radio and publishing sectors for companies including Random House, UKTV, Specific Media and New York Public Radio. He currently oversees digital activities for Phaidon Press, a role he will retain whilst joining Futurelearn Ltd as CEO.