Andy Hancock

PCR’s August Life in the Channel with FutureLearn’s Andy Hancock

Andy Hancock the new CEO of online learning platform, FutureLearn offers his insight on tech innovation in the education sector – using data, AI and automated models and how education has turned into a marketplace.

This is what Andy Hancock had to say.

So Andy tell us about FutureLearn?
FutureLearn’s purpose has always been to ‘transform access to education’. It is a global online learning platform that has amassed over 18 million registered learners and over 40 million course enrolments. As a learning marketplace learners can access high quality education anytime, anywhere at an affordable price, and where educational partners can put their courses on a ready made, engaging platform that reaches millions of learners. Today, we have over 250 partners, a quarter of those being the top universities in the world. This vibrant network also includes a range of Industry, Not-for-Profit and Government organisations, like the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the Australian Government. One of FutureLearn’s key differentiators is our social pedagogical focus which we believe delivers better learning outcomes. Since starting out, courses on FutureLearn incorporate a social experience that encourages greater engagement with the educational content and our learner completion rate and NPS scores are attaining a good level.

What is your new role at the company?
My new role as Chief Executive Officer at FutureLearn looks to build on the current success of the company in edtech and then propel it into its next phase of growth.

The MOOCs, marketplaces and other online courses market is a £4.3bn industry and in double-digit growth (14% CAGR). There is a massive opportunity to transform how learners and educators alike experience education digitally, and to support this ever-increasing trend and demand for life-long, just in time or re-skilling learning. Having had lots of experience building up customer focused marketplace brands in the past, I’m excited about the opportunity to drive transformation in this sector, through new technologies and data. My main objective over the immediate term is thinking about how FutureLearn can develop educational services for our partners that offer more choice and flexibility for our customers to deliver affordable lifelong career based learning and skills.

What is your background within the tech channel?
I’ve got a strong background in growing content rich digital companies, especially ones that are purpose driven. I’ve also had experience working to help bring the financial sector into the digital age and making it easier for the customer to navigate, which is exactly what I’m aiming to do within the education sector – just like fintech, education is now evolving into more of a marketplace and it’s all about how you make it the most beneficial and seamless experience possible for learners and partners.

How do you plan to drive business forward in your new role?
In fintech, customers know what they are searching for, but a lot of edtech learners browse and don’t necessarily know what they want. This is where online platforms need to guide their customers more, helping them understand where they might want to start and go on to in their lifelong learning journeys. From our recently launched report on the Future of Learning, we know that online learning is not going anywhere, with 33% of Brits stating it’s their preferred way to learn a new skill. Therefore, making sure learners can get what they want from platforms like ours is an even bigger priority.

To do this effectively, FutureLearn is going to be ever more focused on improving the learning experience by creating learning pathways and enhancing the social learning experience, which has already set us apart from competitors. The use of data and AI will help us to build this offering substantially. Another major focus is on giving partners the tools and services to achieve their goals as easily and seamlessly as possible. This means making it even easier for partners and educators to use digital tools and improve their online offerings.

What areas within the tech education sector are you focused on?
FutureLearn has always had a clear focus on making sure the online learning experience is as seamless and engaging as possible for learners, educators and partners. As hybrid working and hybrid learning have fast become the norm, more people have realised this is more than just about bringing offline, traditional content online. We focus on how to deliver quality learning experiences that drive absorption of the learnings, increase course completion, and hopefully result in successful, practical application in the workplace or daily life.

Pedagogically, we believe in the merit of social learning – FutureLearn’s platform was built on this, combined with 50 plus years of remote and distance learning experience from The Open University. We’ve tailored social learning at scale to ensure all courses maximise the power of global peer social interaction and bring content to life. There is a big opportunity to do so much more here as it’s an area that we excel in.

Please could you tell us how online learning platforms have evolved and how they enhance the learning experience?
Online learning has grown far beyond its debut over a decade ago as the ‘MOOC’ or Massive Open Online Course. Where platforms once looked to service large cohorts of learners via synchronous courses, the industry has naturally progressed towards an asynchronous, personalised experience that’s more tailored to the individual.

Learners are also looking for greater affordability as well as the flexibility to learn any time, anywhere and in bite-sized modes. These changes have only accelerated over the pandemic, and we can see the move to this ‘on-demand’ style of digital learning is here to stay.

We’ve also seen accelerated adoption amongst Gen Zs in recent years. These digital natives have certain expectations around their online experiences and online learning is no exception. In our report, we found that nearly one in five people in the UK changed careers as a result of the pandemic, and over 80% of them did so with the help of online courses. With trends like the ‘Great Resignation’ and the general move away from a ‘job for life’, being driven by younger generations, as well as wider economic trends like the ‘great resignation’, online learning is fast becoming an invaluable tool for when learners are reassessing their career opportunities and skills portfolios. The sector will have to continue evolving quickly in order to support people on their lifelong learning journeys as they look to access new skills across multiple stages of their lives.

Please could you tell us more about tech innovation in the education sector and the use of data, AI and automated models?
One major innovation that the education sector can really utilise is data, AI and machine learning to help refine the online learning experience, especially as education shifts to an ever more hybrid blend of digital and in-person. AI can be used to sift through the wealth of learner data platforms like ours have, in order to deliver a more tailored learning pathway for each individual. These pathways could either be explicitly curated – much like our ExpertTracks, which are a combination of short courses designed to take you deeper into a particular subject area – or they can be implicit recommendations as learners browse through the platform, all informed by their previous choices, likes, dislikes and general learning behaviours. We’re constantly looking to gain more insight into what our learners want on an individual level, and implementing automation and AI will be a key part of this process.

How has education turned into a marketplace and what role does tech plays in this?
At FutureLearn we’ve certainly seen a global trend of learners seeking out more flexible, affordable and bitsized means of learning from some of the biggest higher education and industry providers to whom they may not ordinarily have access. Likewise, our partners are always looking to reach this more global audience and expand their portfolio of high quality online learning offerings. This has essentially formed the basis of the modern educational marketplace, and this model isn’t going anywhere. Customer expectations have changed rapidly as people can do almost everything, from getting a mortgage to buying a car, online and on demand – using technology and data to better understand the type of content and products that learners want from providers will form a fundamental part of the online learning experience moving forward.

Where do you see the future of education headed, through technology?
The importance of tech in education is already showing its influence today. We are no longer bound by our geographical location and instead have the choice through platforms like FutureLearn to gain a quality education from some of the most renowned higher education institutions and global brands in the world, at any time and with any mobile connected device. However, this does not spell the end of ‘traditional’ bricks-and-mortar education like some might fear. If anything, we’re seeing a more hybrid mode of digital and analogue learning emerging that’s bringing the two platforms closer together and hugely benefiting both learners and educators in the process. This ‘new learning’ is a blend of both online and in-person, so learners can upskill where they want to and often at their own pace.

How can partners look to improve upon their existing offerings to appeal to the education market?
Current trends have already shown that learners, as with any other type of consumer, are going to continue looking for choice, flexibility and accessibility. The current economic climate, coupled with long-foreseen trends around career-changers, has meant that learners are also constantly looking for new ways to upskill and reskill. This has prompted partners to take an even more learner-centric view of the ways that they deliver their learning resources and the types of learning content they produce.

The education sector has moved forward significantly in terms of understanding how digital can be part of the fabric of everyday learning, but now is the time for higher education institutes, businesses and employers alike to really harness the opportunity that platforms like FutureLearn provide, and deliver career-relevant education in a more digitally-led, accessible way. With the depth of insight that marketplace platforms like ours – which has over 18 million learners in every country in the world – can bring in terms of evolving student needs and behaviour, you can imagine the rich data we can provide to our partners in terms of staying relevant and engaging for the current and future learner.

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