Online learning beyond the pandemic

03 December 2021

Former Chief Business Officer of FutureLearn and expert on university online strategies Neil Blakeman sets out what higher education organisations must consider when going digital. 


Many universities have been grappling with online delivery under the impact of Covid, sometimes having to cope with short-term solutions, but often with a level of commitment and ingenuity from staff that has opened our eyes to future opportunities.

So, if we step back and look across the board:

  • many less experienced universities have been considering or developing their strategies for online delivery
  • several more experienced players (some who have become market leaders) are also reviewing strategies, for a more competitive world.

Broad considerations which often arise:

  • How to ensure the online learning strategy fits within the University’s wider digital transformation (and with other key strategies, such as learning, marketing and international)
  • How to bring together plans for hybrid / blended, as well as fully online, for both PG and UG
  • What strategies to adopt for both online degree and short courses
  • Where does the University have expertise (pedagogy, technology, resourcing and financing) and where might it want assistance (eg. commercial aspects).

All of this is happening at a time when the pace of change is accelerating, skills gaps are widening, learners’ needs are changing and the type and number of competitors is increasing.

  • Commercial questions universities ask themselves:
  • What is the size of the online opportunities?
  • How best to build a viable business case?
  • What can we learn from competitors and other key players?
  • What are the latest potential business models & partners?
  • What are the market trends and possible gaps?
  • What is the possible revenue, margin, financial return in 3 - 5 - 10 years?
  • What are the critical success factors?

Do we go it alone, or partner with one, or a combination of: a MOOC platform, an Online Program Manager or similar (‘OPX’), channel / content / functional specialists.

Throughout all of this, the highest quality learning and student experience remain crucial, together with successful adoption and implementation by leadership teams, faculty and staff.

What is the wider context?

There is growing coverage of micro- and alternative credentials; even if the interest in degrees remains strong, the thinking behind more flexible, ‘stackable’ learning / qualification pathways, earned from a range of providers, is compelling and exciting. Some of the emerging ‘edtech’ platforms are linked to this trend.

For full degrees, shorter courses, and options in between, clear commercially viable strategies are needed to maintain and enhance the provision from universities.

How has the landscape evolved?

Consideration of whether and how to work with an external partner(s) remains topical. Partnerships vary from broad, long-term and full-service, to more specific, shorter fee-for-service arrangements.

From our research we estimate that over a third of UK Universities have announced partnerships with ‘OPX’ (service providers supporting delivery of online programmes in higher education), with around half of those in the last few years. The type of potential partners, business models, pros and cons has evolved over recent years.

Rather than generalise about types of partner, it’s helpful for the university’s strategy, objectives, approach and roadmap to be clear and well-suited to their chosen partner.

New models have been developing recently; the structure of degrees / courses, TNE relationships, mode of delivery, course selection / content, pricing etc.

The landscape will no doubt continue to evolve...


Neil Blakeman was Chief Business Officer for FutureLearn 2015-17 and has worked closely with universities on online strategy/delivery, business development, operations and growth. He is a senior management consultant with 30 years of international commercial experience in business and digital education, working in the UK, China, Asia, Central Europe and other international markets.

Photo by Julia Cameron from Pexels. 

Subscribe to our newsletter