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FutureLearn, the Open University-based educational technology business, is to enable students for the first time to earn credits towards a degree with a top UK university from their smartphone or tablet device.

The London-based start-up currently allows its 3.6 million registered users free access to tuition through massive open online courses (Moocs), produced by 87 partner higher education institutions and training bodies.

About a dozen of these Moocs will now be offered as paid-for programmes, enabling students to earn credits by passing an additional online assessment set by recognised qualification awarding bodies.

Simon Nelson, FutureLearn’s chief executive, described the move as an important step in the “unbundling” of higher education giving more control to those seeking to learn.

The hope is that charging for study will both help build a viable freemium business model for FutureLearn and solve the problem of high drop-out rates from online courses.

Among the higher education institutions taking part is the University of Leeds, making it the first of the Russell Group of top UK higher education institutions to offer credits towards a bachelors degree from online study.

Students can still complete the university’s five-part Environmental Challenges course currently offered on the FutureLearn platform for free. But those that pass the paid-for final assessment will receive 10 of the 360 credits for a bachelors degree in geography.

Sir Alan Langlands, vice-chancellor at Leeds, said the university’s goal was to reach potential students beyond the traditional demographic of school leavers.

“It signifies our on-going commitment to widen access to higher education,” he said, noting that 40 per cent of people that use Moocs are aged between 26 and 45.

Despite the enthusiasm for Moocs among education providers, many of whom have recorded downloadable versions of thousands of hours of their classroom teaching, online education has suffered from a credibility problem.

A major challenge has been getting the millions of people watching online teaching material to finish the courses and pass exams. Completion rates for some Moocs has been as low as 4 per cent.

EdTech start-ups, like FutureLearn and US-based Coursera, Udacity and edX, have experimented with paid-for certificates for registered users that pass a test at the end of the online courses on their platforms.

Some higher education institututions have also created purely online courses, such as the masters of computer science and data science degree announced by the University of Illinois in March. However, FutureLearn is the first to offer online exams that count towards existing undergraduate degree and MBA courses.

Peter Horrocks, vice-chancellor of the Open University, claimed FutureLearn’s paid-for programmes were a modern take on his institution’s historic mission to extend quality education to the greatest number of people.

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