According to Times Higher Education, GUS will buy the shares of both Open University and Seek Group, who each own 50% of FutureLearn. Jo Johnson (Lord Johnson of Marylebone) will be the new chairman of the board. He’s also the younger brother of Boris Johnson, ex-Prime Minister of the UK.
According to the press release sent by FutureLearn:
“GUS will provide FutureLearn with access to its proprietary AI-powered career management solution, therefore widening FutureLearn’s offering to provide fully-fledged career advancement, linking learners with content, accreditation, mentorship and career opportunities.”
Last year, when 2U acquired edX, I wrote a 4,500 word analysis. This time, I don’t have much to add. It’s the first time I’ve heard of GUS, and since both are private companies, there isn’t much public information to dig through.
But the narrative they’re trying to promote is similar to what we heard when 2U acquired edX. Here’s FutureLearn CEO’s statement on LinkedIn:
“Really looking forward to this next phase of FutureLearn’s journey and the capabilities and benefits it will bring to our platform accelerating the products and services we can deliver to learners and partners.”
2U had money and expertise that was supposed to help edX compete with Coursera. I haven’t seen any evidence of this happening. 2U has been more focused on consolidating its activities under the edX brand. Former edX CEO Anant Agarwal, who became Chief Open Education Officer following the 2U acquisition, switched his role to Chief Platform Officer nine months later.
I suspect FutureLearn’s role under GUS will be similar to edX’s role under 2U: feeding FutureLearn learners into different entities owned by GUS, thereby reducing acquisition costs.
The last time FutureLearn raised money was when SEEK group invested £50M in 2019. Unfortunately, FutureLearn burned through the money in three years, with little to show for it.
Between 2019 and 2021, FutureLearn losses grew by 145% while revenues grew by a modest ~45%.
FutureLearn: By the Numbers
Earlier this year, FutureLearn reported that they needed an additional £15 million to survive. So change was expected. Shareholders agreed to provide the funding in three tranches of £5 million, the last one being scheduled for January 2023. The acquisition by GUS suggests that this last-ditch attempt to keep the company afloat might not have sufficed.
An Early Disadvantage
There are likely many reasons for FutureLearn’s downfall, but I think one of the biggest ones is that they were never backed by a global university brand. Coursera was started by Stanford professors, and edX was backed by Harvard and MIT. These universities put a lot of resources into creating courses almost exclusively for their respective platforms. This gave these platforms a certain cachet that allowed Coursera and edX to attract learners and conclude partnerships with other universities.
UK-Based FutureLearn started out a year later than Coursera and edX and was backed by The Open University. As the de facto European counterpart to Coursera and edX, one might have expected European universities to flock to the platform. But most major universities in the UK didn’t launch MOOCs and MOOC-based degrees. As for the few that did, FutureLearn wasn’t their preferred partner.
But this might change a bit, given the political power of FutureLearn’s new leadership.
As a platform, FutureLearn made an early decision to commit to social learning. It differentiated itself from other platforms by having the comments right underneath each video rather than in a separate discussion forum. I was personally a big fan of FutureLearn’s product and design, and I even received some mentorship/advice from FutureLearn’s first product manager last year, after he left the organization.
But as other platforms realized that the path to monetization was tied to skill-based learning, FutureLearn couldn’t adapt fast enough and might have lacked the right partners. The platform’s approach might not be as suitable for learning, say, programming and data science. It’s current homepage does try to emphasize its focus on skill-based learning:
A recent comment left by a learner on our article about the FutureLearn Layoffs captures the importance of learning beyond just career impact:
This is true for me as well as many members of the Class Central team. It might have helped our careers, but learning for the sake of learning has improved our quality of life. Lifelong learning has been a victim of MOOCs’ failure to create a sustainable business model beyond skill-based courses.
Dhawal is the CEO of Class Central, the most popular search engine and review site for online courses and MOOCs. He has completed over a dozen MOOCs and has written over 200 articles about the MOOC space, including contributions to TechCrunch, EdSurge, Quartz, and VentureBeat.