UK 'biggest online university course'

By Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

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Image caption,
There are students in 153 countries following the online course

A UK online university service is claiming to have a course with a record number of students.

FutureLearn says it has 370,000 students enrolled for a British Council course preparing for an English language test.

This so-called Mooc - a "massive open online course" - has its biggest audience in the Middle East.

Simon Nelson, FutureLearn's chief executive said it showed the demand for English and scale of online learning.

There is an "enormous market" for learning English, said Mr Nelson, who predicted there would be even bigger numbers for such online courses.

Global appeal

FutureLearn's course, aimed at students preparing for the English language proficiency test IELTS, has more students than a course previously claimed as the biggest, a social psychology course from Wesleyan University in the US, which had 260,000 students

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Image caption,
University College London is the latest partner for FutureLearn

Mr Nelson said that online learning was not only about a "volume game", but the figures showed what was possible when courses were available "unimpeded by geography".

The six-week course, Understanding IELTS: Techniques for English Language Tests, has students from 153 countries, with the biggest number from the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

The most typical profile for a student was a young woman in full-time work.

Mr Nelson says the expansion of such Mooc courses also raises questions about what students want from the social networking side of such online learning.

"They're able to come together as a community, but we still need to find out what that will mean," said Mr Nelson.

The course is free, but students can pay £29 for a "statement of participation", showing that they have followed the course.

It prepares students for the IELTS exam, taken 2.2 million times last year, which is used by employers and professional bodies to measure English language skills.

The fee is part of FutureLearn's plan to be a "sustainable business", said Mr Nelson.

Futurelearn is the UK's platform for online courses, with more than 50 partner universities and institutions such as the British Museum.

It has announced another big name joining, with University College London set to launch courses with FutureLearn.

This will arguably be FutureLearn's most prestigious university so far, with two online courses expected to be delivered.

It is competing against major US rivals, such as Coursera, which was founded by academics from Stanford University, and edX, created by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.