Who are our Learners? Part 1: What we did and why

Who are our Learners? Part 1: What we did and why

A research-based insight into FutureLearners.

Part 1: What we did and why.

By Tracey Walker, User Experience Researcher at FutureLearn

After 4 years, thousands of courses, and millions of learners, it seemed a good time to investigate who our learners really are and get to know them better.  

At the beginning, we assumed that our learners might follow the Open University demographic; mostly retired people looking for a new lease of life through study and learning. This proved to be correct but as with the world itself, FutureLearn evolved and by the time I joined in 2016, our learners were much more diverse. Thus, with a determination to shake up our comfortable understanding of learner demographics, the research and data team set about doing some foundational research which we hoped would permeate the strategy and design of FutureLearn and help us to understand how far we had come and the types of people we were now attracting.

The research question

We wanted to understand who our learners are. Specifically, we wanted to:

  • Explore their motivations
  • Understand their personalities and characteristics
  • Find out where they are from, and other demographics
  • Identify their key learning needs

The research process

To understand who learns with FutureLearn, the first thing we needed to do was understand the ‘why’; what were their motivations for coming to the platform?  

This was a broad question but it fitted with our focus on framing this research as a discovery piece, a sort of naive wonderment at who our learners might be, how they might feel and what they might need. This was to be a piece of research looking at the long term and the big picture rather than something that focused more on our targets and metrics.

Thinking about our output of the research, we discussed producing personas from the sample, but concluded that personas could be rather static and we wanted an output that allowed for change and flux – just like the real world.

We decided instead to try to understand learners in terms of behavioural archetypes which we felt would be a much more useful way to engage product teams and help them to understand how best to tailor business goals so that they serve learners needs, because while we wanted to look at the big picture, ultimately we needed to produce insights that would be useful to the various work streams within FutureLearn.

Why behavioral archetypes and why are they useful?

So, what is an archetype and how does it help product teams to understand our learners in this way?  Generally, an archetype is “a pattern of behaviour that others are likely to follow.” Archetypes reflect human behaviour at the cognitive level, they represent typical attitudes, motivations and goals and so help us to understand what learners do, how they do it, and most importantly, why.

Ultimately, by defining the different types of learners using our platform in the form of archetypes, we were able to act more strategically. Specifically, we were able to:

  • Inform FutureLearn’s strategy for 2017-2018
  • Focus on learners who are likely to bring in more revenue
  • Build a portfolio of courses that targets specific learner needs.

The research method

We designed a survey asking learners to tell us about their motivations for learning with FutureLearn, their preferences and behaviours across the platform and their personal lifestyle choices. This was sent to existing learners from our global database and resulted in nearly 7,000 responses.

Research Results

The results were collated and studied, resulting in us grouping our learners into 7 different types of people, or archetypes. We had some fun brainstorming names for these groups and came up with the following:  Advancers, Explorers, Preparers, Fixers, Flourishers, Hobbyists, Vitalisers.  In addition, each of the 7 archetypes fit into one of three different areas:

Work and Study

  • Learners who use FutureLearn primarily to enhance career prospects

Personal Life

  • Learners who use FutureLearn primarily to positively affect a problem in their personal life


  • Learners who learn for ‘the love of learning’ or to satisfy their curiosity/interest in a hobby or community activity

In part 2 of this series, we’ll look in more detail at the Work and Study group of archetypes.

Read more in part 3: Who are our learners: The ‘Personal Life’ archetypes and part 4: Who are our Learners?: The ‘Leisure’ archetypes.

Research insights