What are activities?
FutureLearn course weeks are made up of FutureLearn activities - blocks of learning made up of two or more steps. FutureLearn activities should be clearly linked to both the course week they’re situated within, and the overarching defined objectives of the entire course.
Let’s start by looking at an example of an activity “Do you speak code?”, and the four steps that it’s made up of.
This activity appears in a course co-created by the University of Leeds and FutureLearn as part of the Institute of Coding Digital Skills Collection. Let’s break it down:
This is the third activity in the first week (18 steps) of a two-week introductory level course. We refer to it as a Teaching and Learning activity (TeAL for short). But what does that actually mean?
In FutureLearn courses, activities fall into two broad categories:
Teaching and Learning (TeAL) activities: these activities are where course content is driven and core teaching and learning takes place. Learners explore course concepts and ideas and engage with course topics through discussion with their peers.
In addition to presenting information, activities may offer skill development, the chance to try out and practice, and often include scaffolding towards productive tasks. TeAL activities should clearly correlate to a defined learning outcome (a learner-facing statement which explains what a learner should be better able to do after engaging with part of a course).
Thinking of our example ‘Do you speak code?’ we know that it is a TeAL activity because it’s focusing on delivering course content and getting the learners to engage with these ideas.
Functional activities: these activities fulfill a particular role such as introducing the course, starting a course week, bridging one course week to the next, setting up assessment, or perhaps rounding off the end of a course.
Functional activities may be designed to ‘hook’ learners in or kick off the course topic, but tend not to include in-depth teaching and learning of the course topic.
Think again of our example ‘Do you speak code?’. It’s situated in a course week with kicks off with a Functional ‘Welcome’ activity.
Before going too far into designing FutureLearn activities, let’s take a minute to explore the connection between activities and learning outcomes. We’ll also come back to our example activity shortly.
When working on Activities we take care to consider Learning Types throughout. Conceptualised by Diana Laurillard, Learning Types focus us as course creators on what it is the learners are doing rather than what it is we are presenting, and lead to learner-centred course design decisions.
The connection between activities and learning outcomes
Every TeAL activity and step in a FutureLearn course should have a clear role and reason for being there - contributing directly to the overall course objectives. But these objectives are for the entire course, so to break it down we write learner-facing learning outcomes for each week of a course.
Our learning outcomes are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956) and generally, each learning outcome correlates to a TeAL activity. We refer to this cascading connection from overall course down to week down to activity as constructive alignment. It’s a way of making sure everything in a course joins up and the course does what it has set out to do.
Learning outcomes have multiple uses, but in this page we’re focusing on how they express what it is a learner should be better able to do after completing each course activity. This means that learning becomes visible as learners are able to see clearly what the focus of each activity is which means learners will be able to demonstrate, evidence or assess how they’re doing as they move through the course.
This practice is relevant to every educational context but is particularly important when designing for the asynchronous and self-paced learning environment where learners need a really clear map for where they’re going and where they’ve been in a course.
What about Learning Types?
Conceptualised by Diana Laurillard, Learning Types focus us as course creators on what it is the learners are doing as they move through a course rather than what it is we are presenting, and lead to learner-centred course design decisions.
You can read more here, but in brief, Laurillard proposes six core Learning Types:
- Read Watch Listen
OK - let’s pause for a moment and recap. We have our overall course objectives. We then figured out our weekly activities by deciding on topics and creating learning outcomes related to those topics, thereby making learning visible and allowing learners to both see what’s coming up and assess their progress against where they’ve been.
We’ve also seen how Laurillard’s Learning Types put learners at the centre of our course decisions. But how do we actually go about inforporating them into our learning design?
Using Learning Types
Learning Types can be considered at two levels: individual step, and entire activity.
At step level: Learning Types help us as course creators identify both what it is learners are doing as they engage with each step of the course.
At activity level: the Learning Type helps to pinpoint how learners will demonstrate, evidence or assess their progress towards meeting the stated learning outcome that the entire activity leads to.
We’ve explored how each learning activity should be clearly connected to a learning outcome, with the learning outcome capturing what a learner should be better able to do after they have completed an activity.
To make sure we are considering where and how learners will evidence, demonstrate or assess their progress against the stated learning outcome we can match the learning outcome verb to the Laurillard’s six learning types categories.
Hence the learning type becomes the site of evidencing of the learning outcome; and this can happen in a course in what we call a ‘hero step’.
What is a hero step?
An activity (which is made of several steps) will build towards a “hero” step: the apex of the learning for that activity, the step that truly embodies the activity-level learning outcome and is the place where learners can assess, evidence or demonstrate that they’ve met that stated learning outcome under the relevant associated learning type.
As always, abstract concepts often become clearer with some examples.
Here, the learning outcome verb define falls into the read-watch-listen learning type category. The ability to define in this activity is based on retention and comprehension of what has been read and watched in previous steps.
You will notice that as well as identification of learning type at activity level, we can also consider learning type at the level of the smallest unit of learning (step level).
Of course this is just one way of structuring an Activity, and it may be expanded or reduced as per the course requirements. It’s important to note that some learning outcome verbs could sit under more than one learning type category. In our example, define is a way of evidencing what has been taken in through read-watch-listen, a relatively low-level of cognitive complexity. It could become a significantly more creative or complex learning outcome by sitting under the ‘produce’ learning type, wherein the expectation would be that a learner is producing their own original definition.
To support the build of courses we have created an activity bank which contains activity templates connected to learning outcomes which can be copied and built upon for your courses. You can see several examples of these below. The aim is for these templates to be used to increase the speed of design, and quality of courses, on the platform.