FutureLearn believes that the best courses for our learners are narrative-led, being linear sequences of opportunities, experiences, and content that guide them through evaluation of existing knowledge, acknowledgement, exploration and examination of conflicting views and onwards towards the resolution of engaging questions through conversational learning.
An important lens through which to view our approach to implementation of pedagogy is our approaches to learning; the four guiding principles which determine the development of all courses and the FutureLearn platform. While many diverse approaches to learning and course design are possible, it is important to consider the pedagogy-informed 'grain' of the platform and that it is inherently 'opinionated' as to what it encourages.
There are four main ideas behind our approach:
"…a certain very specific syntactic shape (beginning-middle-end or situation-transformation-situation) and with a subject matter which allows for or encourages the projection of human values upon this material"
Scholes, 1981. p. 205
Storytelling provides a unifying framework around which we build and think about courses. It invites thought such as “what is the story here?” and “how does this one artefact further the story?”.
"Stories become a way, in other words, of capturing the complexity, specificity, and interconnectedness of the phenomenon with which we deal and, thus, redressed the deficiencies of the traditional atomistic and positivistic approaches in which teaching was decomposed into discrete variables and indicators of effectiveness."
Carter, 1993, p.6
This neatly unpacks some of the practical, design implications of storytelling on FutureLearn. Every step in a course should be linked with those previous and subsequent through and by a progressive and engaging thread. Every step should be there solely for that purpose. Accordingly, the relationship between knowledge and ideas communicated in steps should be one of interconnection rather than dependency – learners should be able to dip-in to a course at various stages and be more aware of the main thread than the prerequisites they may have skipped.
"…opportunities, experiences, and content…" is an exacting description of how steps should be conceptualised. Raw, "atomistic" content artefacts should always sit within a broader experience, and delivering content should never be the primary focus. This cohesion should also apply to the progression between weeks. While the creation of self-contained "modules" is a common pattern in online learning, we believe it is important for weeks to "setup" those following; they may provoke a learner to consider ideas not yet fully delivered—creating a "felt need" or "time for telling".
Conversational learning is at the core of FutureLearn’s belief about how people come together and learn. As such, it is vitally important that it is orchestrated and modelled through the course. All step types in a course lead to conversation through comments, and accordingly, each step should demonstrate and guide the learner towards the type of contribution the educator expects. This should generally be focused completely on the ideas and content presented within it.
Additionally, dedicated 'Discussion' steps are available for more conceptual and holistic conversation. These can be used to challenge learners to combine and apply knowledge gained, reflect on their learning and experiences, or simply to share with the wider cohort.
"the questions posed to us required reflection and helped consolidate my learning – especially by using the comments sections."
A FutureLearn post-course survey comment, 2019
While large proportions of our users join conversations, others choose not to. We want the discussion they can see to still contribute to their learning, through connecting them with other interpretations and ideas. We need to provoke meaningful conversation—not just yes and no responses—from social learners, to benefit others.
Courses need to be meaningful and valuable for learners. By building practice, development, demonstration and showcasing of skills into courses you are providing learners the chance to take the new things they are learning and give them space to explore and apply themselves, before being tested in the workplace, industry and further study.
With enough practice one can lead to demonstrable improve skills. If your course is explicitly, or implicitly, teaching learners new skills you’ll want to consider how they will be given opportunities to practice while they learn.
You’ll also want to create dedicated opportunities for learners to prove their development and showcase their new skills by asking learners to reflect on learning activities, to create something and then share it with the wider cohort, or on some courses, to contribute to their portfolio or group tasks.
"I am delighted to have the opportunity to develop myself professionally through your platform. I am a teacher and mother of a one-year-old boy. Thus, I feel very grateful to you for enabling us to learn new skills and enhance our current practices in spite of having little time available to do that. Thank you so much for your wonderful learning system!"
A FutureLearn post-course survey comment, 2018
Opportunity for demonstrating and celebrating progress is key to good course design on FutureLearn and accordingly is central to our platform’s design.
Our desire to foster conversation around each element of the course has led us to introduce the concept of 'step completion'. This is an action the learner takes to mark that they have both reviewed the content, and engaged with the discussion to their comfort-level. We see this is a small-scale celebration of progress which can aggregate into a larger celebration through the course progress page. We are careful not to suggest what 'completion' is, leaving it as a motivational and reflective moment for learners. For course creators, it is important to bear this in mind, and not 'dilute' the notion of a step through extraneous admin, notice or introductory content – each step should progress a learner towards their own goal.
Learners should have the opportunity to check their understanding of every concept and idea they learn through quizzes and tests. These must provide them with meaningful, formative feedback – guiding them either towards support they need, or opportunities for further growth. The very best questioning creates a safe environment where all responses can be celebrated. Feedback is positioned as coming from the educator rather than the system, and such should be considered and situated as 'part of the story'. Discussions provide means for learners to reflect on what they have learnt, be encouraged by others and demonstrate mastery of complex ideas through conversation with a body of viewpoints presented by massive cohorts.