Spotlight On: FutureLearn CPO Justin Cooke

As Part Of: Digital Education Awards 2020 Winners Interview Series

Written by Louise Gookey | Published: 8th April 2021


Photo Credit: The Drum

FutureLearn’s purpose is to transform access to education. They have partnered with over a quarter of the world’s top universities to support over 15 million learners across the globe to develop skills and achieve their personal and professional goals. In 2020, it won Best Online Skills Course of the Year at the inaugural Digital Education Awards.


Justin Cooke is Chief Content & Partnerships Officer at FutureLearn. Prior to taking up this role, Justin was a non-executive Director of FutureLearn for over 5 years and was Deputy Chair of the FutureLearn Board prior to the SEEK investment in April 2019. In this role, Justin leads all content and partnership activity, building a content-led operation which grows and deepens FutureLearn’s global partnerships to provide a world-class portfolio of content targeted at in-demand jobs and global skills gaps. Our journalist Louise Gookey sat down with Justin on Zoom to talk all about FutureLearn, the pandemic, and trends in digital education.

Can you tell us about FutureLearn?

FutureLearn is one of the world's leading social learning platforms. It was founded by the Open University, and we partner with more than a quarter of the world's top universities and leading brands to create the learning we need to retrain, reskill, progress or start our careers.

We have thousands of courses on the platform starting in the form of short courses that allow you to enjoy and move through your lifelong learning journey, as well as professional certificates and academic credits you need for your current or future employment.

We also have a product called ‘The Expert Track’ which is subscription-based. You can study micro-credentials which carry academic credit, all the way up to degrees. We have courses with hundreds of thousands of people attending to smaller cohorts of perhaps 50 people doing degrees online.

We fundamentally believe the best way of learning is to be taught by experts and equally to make that process inherently social.


Has lockdown affected the amount of people you have using FutureLearn and do you think it has affected education as a whole?


I think the pandemic has compounded growth in digital education, and we saw more than a decade’s progression in a week.

In terms of specifics, traffic has increased threefold to FutureLearn. The number of enrolments has increased by 400% and we have seen a 200% rise in business and management courses as people look to reskill.

We’ve just published an amazing report called ‘The Future Of Learning’ which is full of really valuable insight. It is a combination of 50 CEO interviews, a survey of over a thousand HR professionals, a ‘YouGov' survey in the UK, US and Australia and our own platform data. It is full of really interesting, current data on where we are today, versus where we were.

Something that has been a particular highlight is the fact that we have an incredibly diverse audience. We try to be as inclusive as we can, in terms of material we have on the site and the educators who front them. We have seen a 250% increase in female involvement across our courses. If you compare those that identify as female going to university to study computer science, the figures sit at 16% or so, if you ask the same question to FutureLearn’s online computer courses, it’s 46%. So we see how online education can have a huge impact on access for people from diverse backgrounds, in fact 60% of our learners are female.

The number of courses available has also increased. There was a huge demand from people who were looking to reskill and upskill. As a result we have worked with our industry partners, such as Amazon and Salesforce, to make sure the supply is there as the demand has increased.

We also have got fantastic access to data, one of our investors is the ‘Open University’ who come with the heritage of being the original university of the air, so they’ve got the distance learning pedagogy heritage and excellence there. Another investor is a company called ‘Seek Group’ which is one of the world's largest job boards.

As a result we are able to access jobs board data from around the world and we can marry that up with social and research data to get a really strong insight as to how many jobs are currently available and how long they take to fill. If a job is not being filled quickly then clearly something is wrong, so we can learn from this and see where there is a skills gap shortage. We can then bring the right courses onto the platform and deliver that in a social and engaging way.

I think the biggest change is that ultimately online education has become very much front and centre of everyone’s lives. People's perception of online education has also changed in terms of how valuable it is and employees have changed their perception of someone having an online certificate versus a ‘real’ certificate.

The last thing is probably around the whole concept of education being almost part of the way we spend our lives. It has moved from just being at school or once in a while when your employer asks you to do a course. It’s become almost part of the consumer mix and something we choose to spend our time and money on. So it is true, I might be blitzing box sets, but I equally might subscribe and do online courses.


“We fundamentally believe the best way of learning is to be taught by experts and equally to make that process inherently social.”


What are your business growth plans at FutureLearn for 2021 and beyond?


The big focus for us is to make sure we are working with the best partners in the world to create the most engaging learning that the world needs. What do we need to learn today to set us up for success tomorrow?


We want to be working with the leaders, both in terms of industry and academia. We recognise that we need to be working with industry partners as well as higher education institutions.


We want to enable people to learn from practitioners and people who are locationally deeply immersed in these particular subjects but also lean in to the best academics who recognise that it’s not just about simply being trained in something. Training is different to learning, learning opens up debate, discussion and challenge. Therefore, we want to marry up the thousands of years of brilliant academic pedagogical rigour that has gone into thinking about how to enable someone to learn with the practitioning of real-world skill-focused education.


We demonstrated that in January when we launched ‘The Expert Track’ which totally fits in with your life and is something you can subscribe to. You can take as long or as little time as you need to complete a course.


What we have in front of us are partners that have real expertise in certain areas and we want to give them the chance to bottle that knowledge and share it to the world. It is very exciting for us.


You mentioned subscription-based services being a trend in education, are there any other technology trends that are having a great impact on Digital Education at the moment?


A big trend that we are seeing is a great unbundling of degrees online. The idea of doing a degree used to mean a major financial and time commitment, the idea of unbundling is taking that degree and breaking it down to fit into people's lives.


We’ve undertaken that by creating, with a number of other bodies around the world, a new standard, a new format, which applies the existing qualification criteria in the form of what we call ‘micro-credentials’. This is basically bite-size modules that enable you to stack modules over time towards a full-blown degree.


People can learn modules that benefit them right now in terms of their careers and then pick up additional modules later. People are getting the immediate requirement at a price that is much more accessible and affordable and then over time stacked towards a full blown degree.

So I guess there’s two trends there, the providers of learning to ‘unbundle’ and then the consumers to stack.

Another trend is the need for greater industry and academic collaboration to serve the need for workplace development. This could include learning being vocational and practitioner based and embedded inside a personal development plan.

In terms of specific use of technology, there is an ongoing rise in the demand for a personalised learning journey that can be delivered and made available at a pace that helps the learner to navigate that pathway.

The need to provide evidence of the skills you’ve attained is greater now than ever, we have seen a big rise in the need of digital credentials that can be effectively warranted and trusted.

In the terms of media there’s been a huge rise in the use of video for learning and that combined with well thought through uses of social learning. For example, the idea of taking platforms like TikTok to create learning and then bring that learning back onto our platform. The rise of TikTok as a learning platform is a really great example of how expansive learning has become and how integral it is to our daily lives.

The other big trend we’ve seen is education within marketing. For example, we’ve just launched a campaign with Tommy Hilfiger, who are a very forward thinking company. They have been really thinking about how to connect with their audience, and they have decided to create courses. So you can go onto FutureLearn and you can do a course with Tommy Hilfiger with a whole variety of different celebrities and authorities. These courses include ‘Exploring Body Neutrality and Image with Jameela Jamil’, to ‘Exploring Mentorship and Community Change with the Compton Cowboys’ - and that’s part of an ad campaign!

So learning has progressed beyond being an internal talent retention function, it has expanded massively over this timeframe and I think it will continue to do so.


“The rise of TikTok as a learning platform is a really great example of how expansive learning has become and how integral it is to our daily lives.”


Does your organisation have any purpose projects that are helping disadvantaged people to access education?


Our purpose is to transform access to education so there is an element of breaking down barriers baked into our DNA.

A specific example is during the start of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement here in the UK we created a fund to invest in education. We wanted to create learning that deals with the issues the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is trying to overcome. For example, we invested in creating a course with the ‘UK Black Curriculum’ who are an amazing organisation campaigning to have black history added to the national curriculum. We could have provided a course on black history, but if we teach someone to teach that’s even more powerful. So we created a course on how to teach black history. We have 4 million educators on our platform so we are educating educators to take that message and execute and implement it.

We always look for a scale effect on things that we do. We are very proud of the work we do with UK Aid, Unicef and UNESCO, we’ve got an incredible project that we’ve been running which is all about reaching refugees. We’ve got courses on basic English that we’ve created to meet the needs of those refugees who are on the move. It can help them learn the basic life skills that they need to get out of poverty and get a job and that course has had 453,000 enrolments. That course is a really good example of direct impact in terms of reach and access.

Here in the UK we have partnered with Accenture to create a range of courses that focus on digital skills for those that are not in educational, employment or training and we have had more than 1 million enrolments to those courses.

Going forward those things will continue more and more, we are working with City and Guilds on a program called ‘Skills Bridges’ to help those who have been really affected by the pandemic. We want to help these people reskill, adapt and apply themselves to where there is job demand.

We are very conscious and aware of the need to provide education to the world. It is the most powerful tool we have to change the world.


For more information about FutureLearn, visit their website. The 2021 Digital Education Awards are now open for entry - find out more here.