Nowadays, there are numerous places where you can learn new skills online – often for free, or for very little money. The FutureLearn review looks at a site that offers loads of university-standard courses for free, with some options for paid upgrades. These can get you official certificates, and even credit towards degrees and other formal qualifications.
I’ve done plenty of online training (often in the form of “MOOCs” – Massive Open Online Courses). FutureLearn is one of a handful of companies that delivers these courses in association with well-known colleges and universities. (Other options include eDx and Coursera).
Let’s kick off the review with some basics:
What is FutureLearn?
FutureLearn is an online training provider offering a wide selection of courses, often delivered in association with big-name colleges. FutureLearn was established in 2012, and is owned by the UK’s Open University – a long established and renowned educational institution.
The Open University has offered formal degrees and other qualifications to distance-learning students since 1971. Over two million students across the world have studied with the OU (including me!)
Is FutureLearn Accredited?
Unlike some online training providers, FutureLearn DOES offer accredited courses. Courses are delivered in association with colleges such as The University of Edinburgh and University College London.
There are also courses from global institutions, such as the Shanghai International Studies University and the European University Institute. Finally, FutureLearn also offers training developed by well-known names in the tech and business worlds, such as Accenture and the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
How Does FutureLearn Work?
FutureLearn offers a range of short courses, “in depth programs” and online degrees. It’s possible to study many of the short courses for free, but you then need to “upgrade” the course if you decide to complete final assessments and acquire an official certificate.
This is a similar model to other online training providers such as eDx and Coursera. It provides a good way to learn for free and “test the water,” with no obligation to hand over any money until you’re happy a course is suited to you, and that you want to gain the official certification.
Broadly speaking, the learning options are as follows:
These take anything from two to seven weeks, with a typical time commitment of a few hours per week. There’s nothing to stop you biting off more than one short FutureLearn course at once, should you have enough time available.
These are composed of several short courses, all aimed at helping you towards a specific goal. They are the equivalent of the “specializations” offered by Coursera. These vary considerably in time commitment and length, ranging from short programs comprising three to five courses and taking a few months in total, to year-long programs with around eight courses stacked up.
In some cases, these in-depth programs can lead to formally recognised qualifications, or credits towards degrees.
These include fully-online MBAs and varied post-graduate certifications. While the FutureLearn website does mention undergraduate degrees, the vast majority of these courses seem to be aimed at those who already have a basic degree.
As with other reviews of online training providers, explaining pricing in this FutureLearn review is slightly tricky. It helps to understand the model that these companies typically use.
In most cases you can study the materials for FutureLearn courses completely free. You can do so without risk, because there’s no requirement to hand over any credit card details.
If you decide you’d like to have a certificate to show off, you can pay for a course “upgrade.” This gives you access to the course tests, so you can prove your knowledge, and a formal certificate. It also allows you continued long-term access to the course materials. (For people studying for free, this is withdrawn shortly after the end of each course).
These upgrades vary in cost, depending on the length of the course, but typical prices seem to range from $39-87.
If you think you’re likely to study lots of FutureLearn courses, there’s an “Unlimited” option which gives you a course upgrade on as many courses as you wish to take in one year. At the time of this review of FutureLearn, this was on offer at $199, but the full price quoted was $269. This may sound slightly cynical, but in my experience offers like these tend to come back around frequently.
If you wish to turn a FutureLearn course into a formal qualification, there can be an additional cost. For example, there is an In-depth program on Business and Finance Fundamentals. It takes just over one year, and is delivered by the Open University.
On a course like this, you have three options:
- Study all of the modules for free, but without tests, certificates or formal credentials.
- Study all of the modules and earn FutureLearn certificates by “upgrading” the courses.
- Have work officially assessed by the Open University, and gain credits towards a formal BA in Business Management.
As such, you can study for free, pay $199 for an “unlimited” subscription to upgrade all the courses, or opt to pay substantially more for a formal assessment.
There are two ways to look at this pricing: Some will probably complain that it’s over-complicated and lacks transparency. The other school of thought is that you can actually access the same training for absolutely nothing – so it’s not really something to complain about! There are essentially two different (optional) levels of payment: one for if you’re working towards an academic qualification, and a cheaper one if the degree credits don’t matter to you.
It’s worth noting that full degree courses are priced individually and cost substantially more – though often less than it would cost to gain such qualifications at a “bricks and mortar” university. These tend to have strict entry requirements too.
FutureLearn Review: The Learning Experience
A cynic might say that once you’ve seen one online course you’ve seen them all.
The basic components are all present and correct. There’s room for text-based materials and graphics, a player for videos, and a comments “forum” section, at the end of each course module. You’re very much encouraged to use these interactive areas, and they’re well populated with comments and discussions.
The layout is simple but effective. The Open University has been in the distance learning game for a long time, so presumably it knows what works. The video player has all the normal stuff, such as the ability to speed up playback, and view transcripts and close captions.
Beyond this, the interface is very uncluttered, almost to the point of sparse. I don’t actually think that’s a bad thing. After all, this environment should be about learning, not trying to choose between a dozen different things to click on.
One slight disappointment is that there isn’t a FutureLearn app. Most training providers have this option, so it’s a shame not to have it here for study on the go. That said, the site is properly mobile-friendly, so there’s always the option of logging on from a mobile browser.
When it comes to course content, this obviously depends on the course itself. From what i saw during my FutureLearn review, however, the production values are strong throughout. This is a benefit to choosing properly-created, funded and accredited courses, rather that those that may have been thrown together in a course-creator’s bedroom!
In some courses, there is more of an emphasis on articles and text than on videos. How you respond to this will depend on your learning style. I personally like the variety, and feel that reading feels more like legitimate “study” than watching endless videos. Your mileage will vary, as will the balance of different types of media in different FutureLearn courses.
Example FutureLearn Courses
As with most online training providers, FutureLearn offers a wide range of courses across a vast range of topics.
Traditional academic subjects are well-covered here, with broad in-depth offerings covering things like business management and psychology. Things like software and internet marketing are present too, but not with the variety I’ve seen on other platforms such as SkillShare.
Here are a few courses that particularly caught my eye, based on the kind of things I know HomeWorkingClub readers often want to learn about:
Teaching English Online, from Cambridge Assessment is a five-week short course on using teaching skills in an online environment. (You will also find some opportunities for this here).
Programming 101, from the Raspberry Pi Foundation is an introductory course in programming in Python. (I was quite tempted by this one even though I have no practical use for it right now – I just love learning!)
Social Media, from Accenture is a really short and sweet course, covering how to manage social media, target the right people, and track the performance of campaigns. (This one had a free upgrade at the time of my review).
Don’t forget it’s possible to try out all of these courses without handing over any money or credit card details!
FutureLearn vs. eDx and Coursera
In reality, there’s not an enormous amount to choose between all of these platforms. Much of the time its going to come down to which service is offering the course you’re most interested in. Furthermore, they all operate similar models where you can study for free, but then optionally pay for formal accreditation.
Personally, I prefer FutureLearn’s user interface, even though it’s more basic than both of the others. It makes it easier to focus on learning. The way course information is laid out also makes it easier to drill down to what the course upgrades cost. The FutureLearn Unlimited option may also be appealing to those who want to do lots of studying.
On the more negative side, there’s not app for studying on the go with FutureLearn. Also, for those who would prefer to study with US-based institutions, Coursera and eDx have more course options. While FutureLearn works with big-name colleges, many are in the UK, rather than the US.
Ultimately, I’d suggest making any decision between these platforms on the courses themselves, rather than choose one service over another for any other reason.
The key thing to understand here is that Udemy and SkillShare offer courses that anyone can create. They are not courses accredited by institutions like the ones on FutureLearn. On the flip-side, learning on Udemy and SkillShare can work out cheaper. Courses on specific software packages and internet marketing topics are also easier to find.
One specific comparison to note is between FutureLearn and SkillShare, because they both offer a subscription-based “unlimited” package. At $99 per year, SkillShare is notably cheaper, but doesn’t come with certificates you can show off on your resumé or LinkedIn.
If you scroll to the end of the article, you’ll find detailed reviews of some of the other options, so you can make an informed decision based on what’s important to you.
FutureLearn is far from unique. It offers a similar proposition and pricing model to eDx and Coursera. However, that’s no bad thing.
This is a well-put-together training platform with lots of enticing courses. It’s possible to take most of them for free, and thanks to a sign-up that doesn’t involve credit card details, it feels reassuringly risk-free. When I take these courses personally, I always pay for the official certificate, but there’s nothing to say you have to.
While the pricing models are quite involved, it IS all rather rather better-explained here than on Coursera.
I shall conclude this FutureLearn review by saying that if there’s a course here that catches your eye, there’s absolutely no reason not to sign up and get started. You don’t even need to decide whether to fully commit until you’ve confirmed that you enjoy it – and that’s pretty cool.
FutureLearn Pros and Cons
- Try out courses for free with no payment.
- Good quality courses from prestigious institutions.
- Clean and fuss-free website.
- The chance to gain credit towards formal qualifications.
- No mobile app.
- Not much from US colleges.
- Weak on software and online marketing courses.
FutureLearn Alternatives: Further Reading
I’ve written various articles about online training. Here are some more you may find useful:
- A detailed review of Coursera, one of FutureLearn’s closest competitors.
- A review of SkillShare, which I describe as the “Netflix of Learning!”
- My feature on Wealthy Affiliate – something you may wish to consider if you want to train in online marketing.
- Ease of Use