Education: ‘More turning’ to online learning

Almost a million people have signed up to take free online courses offered by leading UK universities, figures show.


Business, health and language are among the most popular subject areas for “massive open online courses” - known as MOOCs - offered through a UK-based “hub” and women are more likely to join than men.

The statistics come from FutureLearn, the first UK-based site to offer free classes provided by top universities across the country including Warwick, King’s College London, Sheffield and the Open University as well as Trinity College Dublin and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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In total, there are almost 800,000 learners on the site, the data shows.

Around 58% are women, and over 70% of students signing up already have a degree or higher.

There is also a wide age range, with the largest group (23%) aged between 26 and 35. Around one in eight (13%) are over the age of 55.

Kathryn Skelton from FutureLearn said that the statistics indicate that many people are signing up for a course to further their careers or to get a new perspective on their job, while others are just interested in learning about a particular subject.

Over half (58%) of people using the site are employed, with the most common occupations - accounting for nearly half of students - being teaching and education, healthcare and information technology (IT).

FutureLearn said its most popular course categories are business and management, followed by health and psychology and then languages and culture.

The most popular course so far has been the British Council’s Explore English: Language and Culture MOOC which more than 122,000 people signed up for.

Ms Skelton said: “The demands on people’s time are great, but that doesn’t lessen the need or desire to keep learning. It’s no surprise that more and more people are turning to online learning to help improve their lives, whether for work or for personal interest.

“We know from previous research that learning makes people feel good, but time and money are barriers to learning. Courses on FutureLearn are free and flexible. Learners can take them at their own pace, and they are accessing them anywhere with an internet connection, be it on their commute, at work or on the sofa in the evening.”

She added: “The majority of our learners are employed, and they are looking to further their careers and get a fresh perspective on their jobs. At the same time, we’re seeing a lot of people take courses simply because they’re interested in learning more about a particular subject, and they find it a rewarding way to spend their spare time.

“But we’ve noticed a stark contrast to other providers of online learning in that FutureLearn has more women than men on the platform. We offer a lot of healthcare courses and our some of our most popular courses have been in language education - both of these professions, healthcare and teaching, tend to have more women than men. Working women still do most of the housework and childcare, meaning their time is squeezed. Online learning gives them the choice and flexibility to take control of their personal and professional development.”

MOOCS, which are often short, degree-level courses lasting a few weeks, have been popular in the United States for some time, with a number of established “hubs” carrying classes from top Ivy League universities such as Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Brown as well as institutions in other countries.

FutureLearn launched just over a year ago with MOOCS from 20 leading institutions, ranging in topics from dental photography to human psychology. Students in any country are able to sign up through the site.