by Dean Gurden

MOOCs and disruption – An interview with the FutureLearn CEO

Apr 11, 20146 mins
IT LeadershipMedia and Entertainment Industry

It wasn’t the most orthodox of starts – when Simon Nelson, now chief executive of one of the UK’s premier supplier of MOOCs (massive open online courses), graduated from Cambridge having read classics, his first job was managing a wholesaler of wigs and toupees in Manchester called Dimples. As Nelson explains, his employer said he could to turn him into a manager but couldn’t pay him very much. “He was right on both counts,” Nelson says.

At the same time as supplying the follicly challenged, Nelson studied part-time for an MBA and then headed south to London where he landed a brand and strategy job on The Independent newspaper. He then joined the BBC in 1997 and, by the time he left in 2010, was heading all digital activities for the Corporation’s television divisions and was instrumental in the launch of the BBC iPlayer.

As the incumbent chief executive of FutureLearn, we decided to catch up with Nelson to discuss all-things digital and find out what drives him forward in his current quest to democratise education.

What was your intention when establishing FutureLearn? MOOCs were clearly starting to capture the imagination of the media, administrators, governments and the learning fraternity. And the Open University had for many years been a pioneer in distance and online learning. We wanted to bring that expertise, with its focus on high-quality learning outcomes and course design, and bring that into the emerging MOOC marketplace.

How do you see learning and education changing in the next five years? I’m not a great one for future gazing, but I do think that the internet is going to do for education what it’s done for other industries. It’s going to remove many of the barriers for mass audiences to learn. It will open the doors of institutions that previously could only deliver learning for their own students, but that are suddenly are able to deliver to hundreds of thousands of learners from all around the world, regardless of academic background and financial resources.

The tools and technologies that are available to deliver learning online are still in their infancy and are only going to get more sophisticated as the power of the social web brings even more collaborative learning opportunities.

I think there’s scope for a whole new range of partnerships with new organisations to unlock the educational value from, for example, broadcasters, cultural and media organisations, big corporates and manufacturers – the web could be a bridge for all sorts of different institutions to come together with universities to improve learning.

Would you class yourself as a digital disrupter? I could understand why somebody might describe me as such, but I’ve always gone out of my way to work with the incumbents in the industry rather than try to disrupt them. In a way, I hope to help them disrupt themselves and their businesses, and thereby find their role in the future. Sometimes it’s the harder path, but it can be more rewarding because then you get brands to work with that people recognise and you get high-quality content. It gives you all sorts of advantages if you seek to educate, help and train incumbents in a sector who might be intimidated or fearful of what digital might bring. Often they might have had their backs put up by digital gurus coming in and telling them about the ‘digital future’ and how they don’t have a part of it. I would rather see the key players, the universities, embrace the change and adapt to it and find their new role in the future, than just see them swept away.

MOOCs seem to divide opinion? They’ve been massively overhyped by the evangelists and completely dismissed by the sceptics. In my opinion, MOOCs are part of a broader internet disruption hitting higher education that is now inevitable and gaining pace. They won’t on their own replace universities as some have claimed, but they are an important development. My philosophy has always been that the incumbents need to embrace digital change at a pace that will probably make them uncomfortable, and they need to start experimenting yesterday because a big part of the learning curve is not in the products that they build, but in the cultural implications for their organisation in moving to a fully digital operation. Everyone, from HR, financing, marketing, as well as core business production, will be impacted and they need to go through it together.

What kind of people do you surround yourself with? Many of the team I’ve got around me now worked with me back in BBC radio and TV. I like to have people who are sensitive to stakeholders; people who understand content in an online world and how difficult it is to make great content; people who are prepared to lead and pull the industry forward. Therefore, they need to be robust on occasions, because sometimes it can be quite a challenge to work with people who are still learning what digital means to their own jobs and industry.

What’s the best aspect of your job? I have been very fortunate in radio, TV and now education to stand on the shoulders of brilliant product developers, and I still pinch myself that these guys are happy to work with me and for me. As a result, I get to enjoy the high-quality products that we develop – the radio players, the iPlayers and now FutureLearn.

Are you targeting any particular countries? One of the exciting things about MOOCs is that when you go on to one of the courses and look in the comments, you see a very international, multicultural and passionate audience working together. Clearly India and China are critical markets and represent huge potential opportunities for a service like ours, but it’s equally rewarding to see the effect of some of our smaller courses. Take dental photography – one of the quotes on the course was from a dental practice in Paraguay about how a particular aspect of their discipline had never been taught in their country and how several practices were pulling together to learn together. The thought that we might be having an impact on dentistry in Paraguay is one of hundreds of thousands of stories that make the job so thrilling.

What motivates you? For me, it’s about delivering great products, but also ones that have market appeal. At the BBC, sometimes we were criticised for delivering products that weren’t ground-breaking or innovative enough – in areas like online drama, for example – whereas products that might get a few hundred people visiting them but were heralded by the industry as truly innovative were often celebrated above things that would attract millions of people. For me, it’s about breaking new ground, but having a wider impact.

How do you relax outside of the job? I play football very badly several times a week, I play with my three kids and I’m looking forward at some point in the future to settling down with a game on the PlayStation with my son.