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Is it time to take a fresh look at MOOCs?

12 May 2021

3 minutes to read

Is it time to take a fresh look at MOOCs?

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a sharp focus on online learning, so where do Massive Open Online Courses – MOOCs – fit into the picture?

Lisa Harris and Steph Comley take a look…

Now that an increasing number of educators and learners are discovering the benefits of inclusive and accessible online learning, it’s time to look again at MOOCs.

The University of Exeter has been working with social learning platform FutureLearn since 2013. We were one of the initial 10 partners, launching Climate Change: Challenges and Solutions with 16,221 learner registrations in 2014. Since then we have launched 22 FutureLearn courses which have attracted more than 117,000 active learners.

Our MOOCs are fully online, available to a global audience, free to join and cover a wide range of subjects. Design and development of Exeter MOOCs is supported by the Technology Enhanced Learning Team. Most of our MOOCs are available on demand, as and when students need them.

Recently the FutureLearn course model allowed us to make a quick response to help fill the knowledge gap relating to COVID-19 in Nursing practices. After a successful bid for funding to the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) by Exeter’s Academy of Nursing, we designed a course to support nurses implement a clinical guideline for patients with COVID-19 – optimising patient care and enhancing their wellbeing.

Some courses have been developed in partnership with external partners such as the Met Office, Eden Project, ACCA and Fashion Revolution. These partnerships have been very successful, bringing in external expertise and enabling us to reach many more learners than we might have otherwise.

Apart from emergency response, there are a number of possible reasons for creating a MOOC:

  • Offering introductory or taster courses to prospective students
  • Incorporating high quality, accessible online materials into modules
  • Providing students with opportunities to experience multicultural perspectives by interacting with a global network of learners
  • Encouraging both staff and students to develop their digital literacies
  • Building up a series of credit bearing short courses for CPD, or even whole degree programmes
  • Engaging with interested local or global communities by sharing research project findings
  • Developing quality resources for student induction or staff training

Sharing Resources through FutureLearn Campus

The new FutureLearn Campus service allows us, as a participating partner organisation, to open up any short courses we have already created on the FutureLearn platform for free to current students and staff. Not only can we make use of our own courses as and when we wish, we can also include those created by other institutions who have joined the scheme.

Sharing resources in this way is a fantastic opportunity to ‘piggy back’ specialist courses for the benefit of more learners, and also to reduce the duplication of standard courses that all institutions offer in some shape or form. Using FutureLearn Campus also means we can monitor students’ progression and experience on our own courses using the Learner Manager tool.

Case Study: Digital Technologies and the Future of Work #BEM2034/#BEP2120

This undergraduate module (#BEM2034/#BEP2120), run by Lisa Harris, Alison Truelove and Stephen Hickman, was specifically designed for collaborative online study in 2018. It aimed to allow students to directly experience the ways in which professional communications and business practices were becoming increasingly embedded within digital infrastructures. The asynchronous model offers flexibility of participation, study time and tutor involvement without the usual timetable constraints of running face to face sessions with large class sizes.

Students have network building opportunities with peers from across the university, and with a global cohort studying the free FutureLearn MOOC Building your Career in Tomorrow’s Workplace. The MOOC constitutes weeks two and three of the module after a general introduction in the first week, and includes contributions from a number of Exeter staff, alumni, business partners and Digital Learning Assistants. It encourages learners to think beyond ‘standard’ (ie 20th Century!) career pathways and consider the much wider range of options that are opening up in the digital economy. It was recently included in FutureLearn’s Top Five Business MOOCs.

The 2020 pandemic has massively speeded up the process of change. Our challenge as educators is to ensure that students are equipped with the critical thinking skills and digital literacies necessary to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in a world of work which rewards flexibility, adaptability and commitment to lifelong learning.

Taking discussions beyond the module to the MOOC exposes students to many different perspectives. They also experience at first hand the reality of the contemporary web as a mixture of open and closed environments, and the implications this has for learning, community building, ethics and career development.

Inspired by the educational research of Diana Laurillard, Gilly Salmon, Mike Sharples and Alejandro Armellini

A full list of the courses we have on the FutureLearn platform

FutureLearn Promotional video


For more information please contact:

Steph Comley

Lisa Harris

University of Exeter staff can find more detail about Exeter MOOCs on the Technology Enhanced Learning site.

Useful Resources

How to Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students – created in April 2020, this prize winning course has contributions by digital educators from all over the world acting as mentors. Nearly 90,000 learners have taken the course so far.

FutureLearn Academic Network meetings (FLAN) take place 4 times per year. It is a network of academics and research students based at FutureLearn partner institutions. The aim is to share research and explore shared research opportunities.

Harris, L. and Comley, S. (2020) Integrating MOOCs within modules, Staff Development Webinar

Ferguson, R, Scanlon, E and Harris, L (2017) Developing a Strategic Approach to MOOCs. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2016(1): 21, pp. 1–9

Harris, L and Molesworth, M (2016) Engaging MOOC learners through social media, Social Media for Learning in Higher Education Conference, Sheffield Hallam University DOI:

Harris, L and Leon, M (2015) Far From Bust: 5 ways MOOCs are helping people get on in life, The Conversation

Photo Credit

Header Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Professor Lisa HarrisSteph Comley
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