This guidance is intended for project leads, or whoever is responsible for organising the person(s) who might be monitoring and/or interacting with learners on a course. From here on, these people will be referred to as the Course Support Team.
Why interact with learners?
Social learning is core to FutureLearn's offering. However direct learner interaction with educators is not essential to the principles of social learning.
As a starting point, you should normally be careful not to design courses that are dependant on educator interaction in order to be delivered, and instead aim to create a sustainable, repeatable design. With the right learning design, you may choose to run courses with minimal educator presence.
However, if you have the capacity, there are several good reasons for your team to interact with learners, including:
- To enhance the learning experience of learners, and help meet their needs (see below)
- To build rapport with your learning community and demonstrate your expertise – especially significant if your aim is to recruit potential paying students
- Training and experience for your team to develop distance learning delivery and online community skills
- It can be rewarding and fun!
Duties of facilitation
These are the general duties that a Course Support Team might try to cover:
- Monitoring conversations, and taking note of themes and noteworthy comments/discussions for use in feedback to learners
- Encouraging learners to help each other and become involved in fruitful conversations
- Answering educational questions where applicable (e.g. where another learner hasn’t been able to do so satisfactorily)
- Answering general functional or technical queries where possible
- Moving conversations back ‘on track’ and intervening where arguments break out
- Offering encouragement, such as ‘liking’ comments, of learners who need it
- Sharing links to additional resources where relevant
Some may also:
- Take a more personal role in learning development via the comments
- Gather feedback for presenting in weekly emails, round-up videos or video chats
- Appear in course videos, round-up videos, or video chats
- Gather and curate materials posted by learners to external sites (e.g. photos, position on a map)
Fulfilling learners' needs
Overall, the Course Support Team are aiming to fulfil particular needs for learners. Be conscious that distance learners may feel isolated in their learning journeys, and require strong self-motivation to see a course (or indeed a program) through without positive reinforcement. Others may be new to online learning, to online interaction, or even learning itself.
They will benefit from:
- A sense that their contributions are being heard and are making an impact
- Answers to their questions when they feel stuck, and other learners have not offered a satisfactory answer
- A sense that an authority is there to sort out issues – especially if there are some troublesome participants
You may also have your own objectives. It’s worth bearing in mind that these needs will not always be met directly by your course support team. FutureLearn’s social features and your own course design should encourage behaviour that will help to meet them.
Team size and frequency of posting
Designing sustainable courses
When planning how to support your course, before considering facilitation, think about other ways for learners to get help or to deliver the information that learners need. This will help to make any efforts more efficient and put less demand on your team.
- Iterate steps: if the same questions keep coming up from lots of learners on the course, consider adding this information – or at least point them in the right direction or signal that it will be answered later – directly in the step content.
- For complex subjects, create a ‘living’ FAQ document that can be added to independently (e.g. an external web page like a wiki). This information can then be integrated into steps in future runs.
- Point learners to an external specialist community. This is especially useful for technical help where there is often a dedicated support forum.
- Make full use of weekly emails to respond to general themes, or even highlight individual comments, rather than replying directly.
- Build in focussed ‘let’s help each other’ discussion steps so that questions can be concentrated on particular steps throughout the course, and you foster a culture of learners helping each other rather than expecting the course team to provide all the answers.
- Bring in Guest Educators who can be available for specific periods (e.g. one week) on specific step(s).
There is no easy ‘one size fits all’ solution to team size as it will depend to some extent on your available resources as well as the nature of the course itself, and the type of experience you wish to offer learners.
For example on a course that requires a practical activity, such as installation of third-party software, learners are likely to be frustrated if they have difficulties and cannot progress as a result. One approach could be to increase the amount of resource dedicated to answering individual learners’ problems in the comments. But an alternative could be to send learners to a dedicated support resource such as a help forum for that software’s manufacturer (see above).
So, bearing in mind that you should be aiming to design courses that are not dependent on any facilitation, the smallest team size could be one person! However if you have the capacity, it may be desirable to share the work between more.
While courses may not be dependent on facilitation to deliver a satisfying experience, we would recommend that some courses are at least actively monitored for learner safety:
- courses about particularly sensitive subjects (for example, health)
- where learners may feel compelled to reflect on and share sensitive personal experiences (for example, care)
- courses that are aimed at vulnerable people
- courses that knowingly cover divisive issues where serious arguments could develop
Remember that it is not the duty of the Course Support Team to answer every question by every learner, or participate in every conversation. On most courses it won’t be practical to even read every comment.
Instead it is reasonable for each member to post as much as they feel necessary in the time available to them. Learners will not expect a certain level of participation from the Course Team unless you set it – see ‘How to organise your team’s attention’ below.
FutureLearn employs a moderation agency that works on a shift basis, around the clock, every day of the year to review comments that have been reported using the flag button.
The first thing you should do if you see any comments that concern you is to report them using the flag button. If the comments are found to break the learner Code of Conduct they will be removed in the next shift, and the learner will receive an automated email to say that the comment has been removed. Unless their comment is removed, they will not have any idea that it was reported.
If you would like to learn more about our moderation service, out-of-hours support or moderation emergencies, please visit this page.
Team roles and labelling
With a diverse range of international partners, each having an individual approach to internal team structure, roles and online facilitation, we ask that you use our labelling convention for your Course Support Team to provide a consistency of experience for learners across the many different courses they may take.
This will help to reduce the possibility of confusion over who is connected to your institution and what their responsibilities are. For example, FutureLearn works with a team of ‘moderators’ to review and remove reported comments – these should not be confused by learners with the people interacting directly with them during the course.
As described on educator roles and profiles pages, the standard support roles on a FutureLearn course are:
Lead Educators and Educators
* Guest Educators are Educators who are not available for the whole duration of a course, but may reply to comments on certain steps according to their specialism.
Your team could be made up of any combination of these roles, though there must always be a Lead Educator.
In terms of course support, there tends to be a spectrum of responsibility between Lead Educators who take on all responsibility for interacting with learners, and those who are supported mainly by Hosts and/or Mentors and don’t interact much directly, delivering most of the feedback via weekly emails and/or video updates.
Mentors can have differing levels of responsibility depending on the shape of the team. Some will be heavily involved with teaching and course creation, even appearing in videos or writing weekly emails. Others will be strictly in a support role, responding to comments where they can and escalating to the Lead Educator(s) and Educators for their response when they can’t.
Hosts are a source of support for learners in their learning journeys. Hosts are there to make the online learning experience as enjoyable and welcoming as possible. They’re often an educational technologist, project leader, or other person involved in the creation and running of the course. They might even be the non-academic ‘guide’ throughout the course as the person introducing the video materials.
How to organise your team's attention
Your team’s activity in the course should roughly match the progress of the majority of your learners: focus first on the current week of the course, where most new conversations will be happening, followed by previous weeks as some learners catch up or long conversations continue. Monitoring future weeks should not be a priority as you will eventually cover these when the main cohort moves on to them.
You are likely to find that the comments are most active on Mondays, when learners receive the weekly email and are driven back to the course. However it is up to you whether you wish to dedicate more resource at the start of the week, and you should be careful not to set learners expectations too high if you do.
Create a schedule and stick to it: if your team are quick to respond to comments at the start of the course, but then take longer as the weeks continue, those learners may feel neglected and frustrated later – whereas if the team maintain a consistent pace throughout, the learners will know what to expect. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the volume of comments, especially to begin with. You can avoid this by structuring and scheduling this time strictly – even if there’s only a few of you. Fit the work to your team’s own capacity.
A note about timezones: FutureLearn courses are taken by learners all over the world – and FutureLearn Partners are also based all over the world. If you happen to have team members based in different timezones, this is worth taking advantage of. However, don’t feel obliged to stay up all night trying cover your course comments 24 hours a day if you don’t have this luxury!
Extended availability: Courses are available to learners to join beyond the original window of the run. However there is no expectation that a course team will be active during this time.
Communication and documentation
If there are several members of a team working together to support your course, as well as keeping a shared timetable, it’s recommended that you choose an efficient way to share information amongst the team.
You may wish to share information such as:
- Questions/comments that need following up by another team member
- A log of good comments for referring to in feedback (e.g. weekly emails), or internal reference
- Details of learner behaviour that it would be useful for the rest of the team to know
You may also wish to keep a log of information for auditing purposes, such as:
- How many comments each team member has responded to in a shift
- Time spent
- Useful resources shared by learners in the course
To do this you should ideally choose a tool that is already familiar to your team for group working. It could be a shared document, a mailing list, an internal forum or communications tool, or you could even create an online form for reporting (see the Partners Forum presentation by the University of Southampton’s Manuel Leon for an example).
To find out how to share ‘permalinks’ directly to specific comments, see An introduction to FutureLearn comments.
Webinar: Course Support (facilitation) recorded June 2015. This video presentation covers much of the guide above.
If you have any research, examples, questions or other feedback for this guide, please leave it as a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.