- What do we mean by sensitive content?
- What do we tell our learners about sensitive content?
- Our recommendations for managing sensitive content
FutureLearn learners come to the platform from around the world and from a variety of educational, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. They may be unfamiliar with the language and methods specific to some fields of study, or they may be used to different approaches. All this can make presenting sensitive content difficult.
What do we mean by sensitive content?
Conversational learning is at the core of FutureLearn’s belief about how people come together and learn. When developing a course on a sensitive or disputed topic, partners should be mindful of this both in the course design (in the choice of wording and media) and in guiding conversation that is respectful. Sensitive content may fall into the following categories:
- Political or religious content;
- Culturally sensitive content;
- Graphic content such as violence, nudity or offensive language;
- Contentious or disputed content or terminology;
- Courses or topics where learners may reflect on and share sensitive personal experiences (for example, care, mental health.)
What do we tell our learners about sensitive content?
The FutureLearn Terms and Conditions (section 2.6) say that we try to avoid instances where learners are exposed to content that:
…is factually inaccurate, offensive if taken out of context, indecent to certain people, or otherwise objectionable to you [the learner.]
However, we understand that this doesn’t cover all sensitive content, and sometimes sensitive content is necessary for the learning process.
Our recommendations for managing sensitive content
The following guidance is for course teams. It should help ensure respectful discussion among learners and help them understand the choice to include sensitive material.
Always frame the material
The background of a discipline may be assumed knowledge in a university, but global learners on an online course may lack this fundamental understanding.
You may find it useful to provide an early step in Week 1, or a section of a step, that briefly outlines the standards of your field, the approach that you take in the course, and how this will frame learners’ exploration of the subject.
If there are different methodologies or approaches in your field, or disagreements about the direction of research, it’s useful to acknowledge these upfront while explaining why the course adopts its particular approach.
For example, the University of Warwick’s Shakespeare and his World course includes a step where the course team discuss the hotly debated subject of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. The University of Northumbria’s course on The American South includes an early step on the diversity of this region and the benefits and blind spots of insider/outsider perspectives, in part to address learners who felt the course did not represent ‘their’ South.
These strategies have proved effective in containing the methodological discussion to one step, rather than the debate distracting from other areas of the course.
While it is always good practice to provide references for course material, this can be especially important when a step requires prior knowledge or when it mentions theories or ideas that are rooted in larger debates.
References should always be provided for material that is directly quoted. It can also be helpful to provide context for what you’re quoting, to help learners understand why the material is being brought into the course and how it relates to the questions the course is addressing.
The choice of referencing style (APA, Harvard, Chicago, etc.) is up to the course team. You may wish to add references in the relevant step, or create a dedicated references step at the end of each week. For example, University of Cardiff’s Muslims in Britain course uses an early step to explain the approach and methodology of the Islam-UK Centre, and provides an in-step list of references.
Remember to use appropriate language for a global audience
One of the challenges in presenting an online course is making sure that the language is as accessible as possible to learners around the world without being too simple. See our tone guide for tips on writing in this style.
If English is not the first language of the course authors, you may want to consider hiring a copy editor. This can help ensure that the ideas are presented as clearly as possible and that the language is appropriate to the audience and course level. If you would like FutureLearn to help you in finding a trusted copy editor, please contact FutureLearn Studio.
Language can be really important when dealing with sensitive content. You may need to provide more context for cultural and political terms than you would in a standard university course. This is especially the case where these terms may have a debated history, or different connotations in different languages.
As a general rule, when referring to a group of people, it is best to use the term preferred by that group. Where the preferred term is not clear or is debated, it can be helpful to explain this background to learners. For example, see this step in the University of Bath’s SMART-ASD course, which outlines the history of terms referring to autism and explains the choices made in that course.
Encourage respectful conversation
The FutureLearn code of conduct for learners states, in part:
This includes, but is not limited to, language, names or content that is sexist, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, sexually explicit, abusive, contains swearing or is otherwise likely to cause offence.
Course teams should lead by example, by making sure all the language used in the course, and responses to comments, are suitably respectful. FutureLearn provides detailed guidance on the duties of a course support team on the Partners Site. You may also consider choosing course team members who aim to be impartial to the subject matter, especially in cases where the course addresses a sensitive topic.
FutureLearn does not expect course teams or learners to agree on every instance of content that might be deemed offensive. However, where it is possible that material may cause offence, you may want to consider explaining why it is used, or even invite learners to analyse the material from this perspective. For example, this step in the University of Birmingham and the RSC’s course on Othello provides background on Renaissance expectations of women, which learners can then use to inform their discussions of gender in the play.
Use disclaimers if needed
For some courses, e.g. those in healthcare or legal studies, a disclaimer may be included to help learners understand the limitations of the course.
For example, here is a disclaimer used in a healthcare course, which may be adapted for similar courses:
Course note: Individuals and pathologies vary greatly. None of the opinions discussed as part of this course are designed, nor intended to be an offer to treat, prescribe or give advice to individuals with cancer or any other pathologies. The research, opinions and content presented throughout the course should in no circumstance be solely relied upon by any learner. If a learner is suffering from a particular health condition being discussed during the course, they should always seek medical advice from a qualified practitioner.
If a course includes violent or other potentially disturbing content, you may want to warn learners before they reach the content and in the step where it occurs, as in the Explore Filmmaking course from the National Film and Television School (here and here).
Courses belonging to the healthcare and medicine category may need to include photographs and videos that demonstrate real-life medical procedures as well as other content which may be graphic and potentially disturbing for some learners. In this case, partners are advised to warn learners and explain that this content is provided as a helpful resource to aid the learning process and not for its shock value.
For example, Durham University advises learners of the Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology course to be careful when accessing external materials as some may find the images disturbing, and also highlights that analysis of human bones is essential to teaching this subject. The University of Sheffield includes a similar word of warning in this step of the Forensic Facial Reconstruction: Finding Mr X course. Lastly, the University of Groningen includes a viewer discretion is advised warning prior to a video step containing footage from real-life open brain surgery.
It may also be useful to remind learners of the FutureLearn code of conduct, which says that learners will not share their own personal contact information, and to mention where relevant professional standards of conduct such as not revealing information that may identify a learner’s patients or students.
The FutureLearn QA process mainly looks at the pedagogical, technical, and commercial aspects of a course using the Course Criteria. It is not intended to provide subject-related advice. You may therefore find it helpful to ask for feedback from an external content expert before your course starts.
If you would like to give an external reviewer access to your course, you can do so using the Reviewer permission in Course Creator. Your partnership manager may be able to help connect you with others in the field who have experience in your area and with FutureLearn.
If you would like to volunteer to review other partners’ courses, we would be happy to help facilitate this.