Matt Walton, Chief Product Officer and Kathryn Skelton, Head of Strategy, FutureLearn

As technology evolves and digital natives make up more and more of the population, it is becoming the norm to expect access to high quality content and experiences from any device, at any time and from any location. These changing expectations are finding their way into higher education and whilst there will always be a place for campus-based degrees, learners are seeking more and more flexibility, convenience and an on-demand provision from education, as they do in other aspects of their lives.

During 2016, The Open University and FutureLearn worked with Parthenon EY, a renowned strategy consultancy in the higher education sector to understand the changing landscape of flexible informal and formal learning and the impact that this is having on higher education. To do this, Parthenon conducted primary research with 510 employers and 485 potential learners, alongside additional desk research.

Short online courses are becoming mainstream

Despite the over-hype about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) when they were first launched, there is no doubt that they were one of the first indicators of the dramatic potential the internet could have on higher education. A significant cross-section of the worldwide population now takes short courses, with 58 million people having signed up for a MOOC by the end of 2016, up from approximately 35 million in 2015 according to Class Central.

Looking at the UK, our research shows that short online courses are now moving from an early adopter activity for technology and education specialists, to a mainstream activity for the consumer, with 15% of UK adults reporting either having done a short online course already or intending to do one in future.

For the majority, short online courses are a means to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive job market with over 75% of learners in the study stating that they are taking courses for career progression reasons.

Short online courses are used by employers to differentiate between candidates

Our research found that around a third of employers commented that it is more difficult to differentiate between degree applicants than three years ago as the number of degree graduates continues to rise.

In response to this, about half of the employers spoken to are already using short online courses as a differentiator when hiring and another third expect to do so in future as they see a distinct rise in job applications from candidates presenting with relevant short course qualifications.

Disruption to the taught postgraduate education market

There is growing evidence that the postgraduate taught market is starting to undergo significant disruption.

For learners, flexibility, convenience and the ability to learn on demand is viewed as extremely important. Around half of the learners surveyed said they would have preferred to take their degree as a series of online modules.

In fast-moving sectors that require fast changing skills and knowledge such as cyber security, genomics, or artificial intelligence, short courses can also be designed and delivered far quicker than a traditional postgraduate qualifications, leading to a growing appetite for new, ‘job ready’ micro credentials.

For the employer, they are seeking evidence of an applicant’s skills and interest in areas relevant to the job, but ranked the ability for a candidate to be useful on day one most highly. Unsurprisingly therefore, they ascribe high value to courses developed by well-known and credible businesses. What is interesting about this is that it is likely to bring new organisations into the higher education market, impacting institutions that don’t move rapidly to embrace the new modes of delivery.


Against this backdrop of growing popularity with learners, and growing recognition by employers, MOOC platforms themselves are evolving and a much more sophisticated landscape of short online courses is emerging.

The original MOOC format has expanded, with providers now creating sequences of courses which form deeper learning experiences, and support new micro credentials and even online degrees. This is accompanied by a number of new business models, covering a range of ‘freemium’ models where the course content and associated products and services are ‘open’ and ‘massive’ to greater or lesser extents, as well as more traditional paid upfront models where courses are delivered online to a smaller, paying cohort.

The learning experience is also advancing, keeping pace with the expectations of digitally native learners, and in a bid to ensure that learning is welcoming, engaging and rewarding. FutureLearn, for example, prides itself on a high quality user experience and embracing the power of thousands of people through social learning.

As short online courses become commonplace, learning will become easier to fit alongside everyday life, thus opening opportunities to those who had previously struggled to overcome the barriers, and providing a tangible means by which learning can be scaled to reach everyone who needs it.

As we look toward the future, we ask how the education market will continue to adapt, anticipating how fluidity between different forms of education - as a route to career advancement, to upskilling the workforce, or even simply to satisfy our innate curiosity about the world - will continue to grow.

Matt Walton, Chief Product Officer and Kathryn Skelton, Head of Strategy, FutureLearn

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