FutureLearn: Get free university courses online

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If you're unsure about university because of the cost, a new initiative called FutureLearn can give you a taster of what it's all about for free.

FutureLearn is a new platform where universities offer a diverse range of fee-free courses online, in a bid to showcase their academic stripes to potential students in the UK and around the world.


So far 23 leading UK institutions including the University of Warwick, Lancaster University and King's College London have signed up, as well Trinity College Dublin in Ireland and Monash University in Australia, allowing people to experience what they have to offer without putting up the cost.
UK's first

FutureLearn marks the UK's first steps into the world of "Massive Open Online Courses" or MOOCs.
MOOCs have been around for a while now and involve making high-quality education available to the masses online, usually for free, or at least at a lower cost than a non-online equivalent would offer.

The US is already a key player in this market. It has leading platforms including Coursera, edX and Udacity, which serve millions of learners worldwide with courses from numerous elite institutions such as Harvard and Stanford.

Now with the Open University - an experienced online and distance educator - behind it, FutureLearn is set to finally take off in the UK.

The courses
There are 20 courses to choose from on the FutureLearn website at the moment. However, only six courses start this year, between October and December.

The 2013 modules include:
  • England in the time of King Richard III, from Leicester University
  • Fairness and nature: When worlds collide, from Leeds University
  • Improving your image: Dental photography in practice, from Birmingham University
  • Introduction to ecosystems, from The Open University
  • The secret power of brands, from University of East Anglia
  • Web science: How the web is changing the world, from Southampton University

2014 sessions, which you can sign up for now, include learning how to build a mobile game with the University of Reading as well as learning the listening skills required for studio production with Queens' University Belfast.

More programmes, from a greater range of institutions, will be announced later this year.

Who can apply?
Anyone can sign up for a course as you don't need any formal qualifications in order to study.

However, some modules may require some level of understanding or experience. Cancer in the 21st century - the genomic revolution, for example, requires a background in biology.

There's no limit to the number of modules you can sign up to, but FutureLearn recommends you try one first to see how you get on.

Currently FutureLearn is in beta mode, so the courses running this year are all pilots. This will allow the scheme to shape and refine how it all works, using feedback and ideas from the initial batch of learners.

FutureLearn expects to be out of the beta testing stages of the website by early 2014.

Online learning
The courses on FutureLearn are easily accessible via a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer.

Students learn by watching online videos, listening to audio and reading articles as well as interacting with others on the same module via discussions.

FutureLearn is aiming to offer a less isolating experience for students studying online at home, with interactive and social features designed to get them talking to each other about ideas and problems, as well as the tutor running the course.

Typically you will need to devote two to six hours a week to each module. This will include time to join in conversations and further study.

Longer courses can last six to ten weeks, but shorter ones only take two to three weeks to complete and each contains activities that you can do at a time and pace that suits you.

Making money
With sky-high fees putting many off going to university and completing traditional degree programmes, universities are having to find new ways to make money.

FutureLearn says it expects the courses universities offer via its platform to remain free.

But the accreditation aspect could be a cost in the future, with the issuing of statements of achievement and real world exams at local test centres.

Value of free education
Some are critical of MOOCs for the standard of education they can deliver, but Future Learn says it is committed to crafting a high-quality product that will be unique because of the social online learning experience.

And there is clearly an appetitie for free online learning.

FutureLearn reported that it signed up 20,000 students from 158 countries in the first 24 hours of launching last week. However, FutureLearn has a long way to go to rival its US counterparts.

Coursera has more than 4.7 million subscribers and 444 courses from 87 universities across the world.
Would you sign up to an online course like this? Let us know your thoughts in the comment box below.