An education sector with a reputation for slow adoption of technology was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century by COVID-19.

Teachers, lecturers and students alike were forced to build digital skills as part of their learning journey. The pandemic also provided fuel for a breed of EdTech companies – such as FutureLearn – seeking to deliver training and education remotely and integrated into people’s daily lives.

The pandemic has driven customer adoption of online learning,” Andy Hancock, CEO of FutureLearn, tells TechBlast. “As a sector, we have a responsibility to develop services, products and services for the learner – and for the educator – that retain the customers within the digital environment. 

“We’ve had the push of adoption as a result of the pandemic, but people will only stay if the experience they get is either equal or superior to a more traditional learning environment. 

“I think the role of hybrid is inevitably, like so many other parts of our life, going to be relevant moving forward.”

Changing model

Even those of us who grew up with the established pathway of school-college-university-career – where you specialised in a subject then worked your way up in an industry – are likely aware that there was a shift towards a marketplace model prior to COVID.

“Even for us, the older generation, the days of getting a job and doing it for the next 20 years just don’t exist anymore,” says Hancock. 

FutureLean, which is jointly owned by The Open University and SEEK, offers access to online courses and degrees from leading universities and organisations. The UK market leader, it has 18 million learners on its platform and works with around 260 partners in its home market. It is also strong in Australia.

“We’ve seen a massive uptake in Gen Z and millennials on the platform. The reality is that the students expect more career-relevant education,” explains Hancock. 

“It’s going to become more and more pertinent: what is the outcome for a learner? Do you get paid more? Do you get a better job? Does it enable you to move into a different sector?”

Described by Hancock as a “digital destination where we can help higher education and industry partners develop their courses online”, FutureLearn uses social learning and other engagement tools to encourage as many learners as possible to complete their course.

Primarily focused on post-graduates, its courses range from two-week tasters to expert tracks of 12 weeks; micro-credentials counting towards a degree; and full degrees.

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Lifelong learning platform

There is more opportunity for us to engage those learners in the ecosystem for a longer period of time and not just complete one course,” acknowledges Hancock. “It’s about how we offer recommendations and education pathways to become a lifelong learning platform.

“One of the biggest reasons why people choose our platform is because they can learn at their own pace. We need to offer more flexibility in the future because one size doesn’t fit all. 

“That’s where the online environment gives so much more flexibility than an in-person environment where you have to be somewhere on a Wednesday night every week in term time.”

Hancock joined FutureLearn from financial comparison giant MoneySuperMarket Group PLC, where he latterly served as chief operating officer. His expertise is in leveraging data to grow across new sectors, markets and audiences. 

“MoneySuperMarket is a very purpose-led organisation focused on helping people save money: the great aspect of the business model is it only makes money when customers save money,” he says. “One of the compelling reasons for me to come to FutureLearn is that it’s also a purpose-led organisation: it’s only monetising something when it’s doing good, which is really important to me.

“It’s a great platform for me to bring my background around using more open-source technology and engagement tools to move that customer from enrolling into a course to engaging and completing.”

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He also worked with Martin Lewis at MoneySavingExpert prior to its acquisition by MoneySuperMarket Group.

“He is exactly as you see him on TV!” says Hancock. “He’s full of energy; he’s very focused on saving people money; and he’s very purpose-driven. A very, very nice guy – and a genius. 

“He is highly intelligent, but has got very rich emotional intelligence, which enables him to articulate complex things in really simple ways.”