- Work with the FutureLearn platform
- Know your learners
- Start from a learning objective or big question
- Every step should contribute to learning
- Every step should be essential
- Design a balanced mix of learning activities
- Design for storytelling
- Design for conversation
- Design for developing skills
- Design to celebrate progress
This page offers guidelines for the learning design of FutureLearn courses, covering the top-level structure of steps and other elements. It gives some basic principles of learning design with some examples from FutureLearn courses, then outlines templates for typical course structure.
What is learning design?
The basic aim of learning design is to take a systematic approach to designing and planning good courses, based on successful learning theory and practice, along with evidence gathered from previous courses.
As can be seen above, there are many intersecting influences on learner experience, including: pedagogy, resources, technologies, social and cultural context, management, costs-benefits, learning outcomes. All these need to be optimised for a successful course. Online courses are complex systems that have to be managed by focusing on the most important elements, then setting appropriate guidelines, structures and constraints. A central issue to consider is 'what will success look like?' – for learners, educators, the institution, and possibly funders and associated bodies. The course should be designed to meet your specific criteria for success.
Work with the FutureLearn platform
No educational technology is 'pedagogy neutral' – they all have built-in educational structures. The FutureLearn platform, course creator and partner website have been designed to make the pedagogy explicit, based on an approach of 'social learning'. This is expressed in the FutureLearn product vision: "Inspire the best learning experiences by telling stories, provoking conversations and celebrating progress."
FutureLearn courses are structured into steps, activities and weeks (not content, units and modules). We have educators, not instructors; and Learners, not students. The platform supports comment and discussion, not forums. This structure matches the FutureLearn pedagogy. Steps enable learners to hold conversations in the context of educational content. Activities are ways of organising steps to support active learning. Weeks suggest a progression of activities and building of ideas over time. The aim is for Educators to support the building of knowledge, rather than to instruct. We want to distinguish FutureLearn Learners from students taking university degree courses. And Comments and Discussions suggest a more immediate and informal conversation than a separated forum.
We recommend that learners should engage with the course for about 3–6 hours per week, which includes watching and reading course materials, taking part in discussions, writing and reviewing assignments, and engaging in reflective study and additional research. The course should be designed to retain the interest of busy learners and integrate the study into their daily lives. The course should be designed so that learners can pause after any step and then quickly continue with the content and the conversation where they left off.
The basic course element is a step. Step types are: Article, Discussion, Peer Review, Quiz, Test, Video/audio, Exercise. (Note: Peer Review is a composite step, consisting of Assignment, Review, and Reflect steps). For information on how to design individual steps, see step types with examples.
Each step should be designed with content and structure appropriate to the course, and a sequence of steps is grouped together into an activity, with a title that describes the educational theme or objective of the activity. For example, a 'What is climate change?' activity to introduce the topic might consist of a Video, Article, Discussion, Quiz, Article sequence of steps, where the final article is a synthesis of the material. Thus, there is flexibility in the design of each step, and these can be ordered to create good learning activities using FutureLearn elements.
Know your learners
The early FutureLearn courses were taken mainly by leisure learners and former Open University students. Now, the general profile has widened considerably, with two thirds of learners from outside the UK, and roughly equal numbers of learners in each age range from 26–65. Courses vary in their demographics, and you can use the Demographics Dashboard to show how your course measures up. Setting up an early ‘Who are you and why are you here?’ discussion step can give you more insight into learner background and motivation. A good ploy when planning a course is to write some short ‘pen portraits’ of expected learners, and bear these in mind when you are designing the course.
You can find guiding questions to help identify personae in the Course Outline Resource.
Start from a learning objective or big question
Designing a course around one or more learning objectives or big questions gives a focus to the course. It also offers a learner-centred way to assess the effectiveness of the course, by asking learners at the end to give their answers to the question. And it provides an effective way to market the course and entice people to join. Some example questions from FutureLearn courses are:
"Should we geo-engineer our climate?" (Climate Change)
"Why is the sun burning so slowly?" (Higgs Boson)
"Is your brain just like your desktop computer?" (Good Brain, Bad Brain)
A good approach would be to display the objectives or question in the course description page, and in the first course email. This might be combined with an initial course discussion where learners suggest their own learning objectives, or questions they would like answered. At the end of the course, the questions can be re-visited in a course summary followed by a reflective discussion with the learners saying whether their personal goals have been met.
You can find guidance in the Idea Generation tab of the Course Outline Resource.
Every step should contribute to learning
All steps in your course should be a part of the learning experience, and not something learners can consider to be optional, disconnected, or worse, not a part of the core learning experience. This is very different to ‘Is this on the Test?’ instead, it’s a way of saying everything presented to the learner is valuable and contributes to their learning. It is good practice, for example, to start a course by introducing the educators and allowing learners to introduce themselves, but this should be a valuable experience and not just for the sake of administration.
The introduction could be placed after a first step with a snappy title, that poses the big course question, to provoke curiosity or wonder. Or you could use a Discussion step to introduce the educator and facilitators. A good example (from the Ageing Well course) The lead educator a) asks learners to give a structured introduction to why they are taking the course, and b) introduces himself through a model response. This is described in more detail in What is a good FutureLearn opening week?
The facilitators can then add their interests to the discussion.
Every step should be essential
Unlike other learning platforms, FutureLearn has an explicit ‘Mark as complete’ button. This provides the designer with valuable information about which steps the learner has completed, in which order. We can use this insight in designing a course. For example, analysis of courses has shown that if a Peer Review step is followed by a Discussion step, for the learners to reflect on the peer review process, then about 20% of the learners look at this Discussion step before doing the Peer Review. That’s good learning design – it gives learners the option of learning from the reflective comments of others.
Note that the learner decides when a step is ‘complete’. So learners have choice over what order to visit the steps, and whether to mark a step as complete. To gain a Statement of Participation, a learner has to mark as complete at least 50% of the course steps and to attempt every test question. Adding optional steps would disrupt this process. When designing a course, it’s better to indicate the purpose of each step and let the learner choose whether or not to complete it. You can read more about why FutureLearn discourages optional steps in Mike Sharple’s blog post Optional steps and adaptive teaching.
Design a balanced mix of learning activities
Varying the types of learning activity will engage learners with differing approaches to learning and provide variety. The exact mix will depend on the course topic and pedagogy. A typical course may have four or five types of activity in each week. Note that conversational, networked and browsing learning activities are all ‘baked into’ the FutureLearn platform, but they need to be supported by appropriate educator comments and course emails.
A learning activity may embrace more than one type of learning (for example, the ‘Moon rocks under the microscope’ activity on the Moons course involved reflective, delivered, case-based, inquiry-driven and conversational learning).
Note that some learning activities may take learners away from the FutureLearn platform. These could include running live online meetings with educators using Google Hangouts, or sharing learner-created images, sounds and videos through Flickr, Twitter, Padlet or YouTube.
|Delivered||are presented with information||Video step|
|Reflective||reflect on activities||Discussion to review previous steps|
|Collaborative||construct shared understanding||Discussion step to explore learners’ perspectives and experiences|
|Conversational||converse with others||Comments linked with each step|
|Networked||interact with networks of peers||‘Like’ comments and ‘follow’ other learners|
|Browsing||seek and collate information||Use 'To do' to browse steps|
|Assessing||learn by receiving constructive feedback||Peer review step|
|Inquiry-driven||investigate authentic situations||Hadrian’s Wall course: Exercise step to investigate terrain of Hadrian’s Wall with an overlay on Google Maps|
|Problem-solving||try to solve problems or answer big questions||Ebola: Symptoms, History and Origins course: What can be done to stop the spread of the virus?|
|Case-based||investigate individual cases||Introduction to Forensic Science course: murder case presented by series of videos|
|Simulation||interact with a simulated world||Moons course: Exercise step with a ‘virtual microscope’|
|Construction||design and make artefacts||Creative Coding course: learners construct computer programs and share results|
|Cross-context||learn across physical or social settings||Ecosystems course: learners use iSpot software to photograph and identify wildlife|
|Game-based||engage with game environments||Moons course: Moon Trumps game|
|Performative||present for an audience||Start Writing Fiction course: learners create short stories for an audience of other learners|
Design for storytelling
The FutureLearn platform is built to support narrative. The course steps are 'building blocks' that can be put together in different combinations to create flows of activity that drive the learning forwards. The learning content for each step can be designed to assist these flows.
As an example, Week 1 of the Secret Power of Brands course starts with a video of people from around the world talking about the brands they love, to raise interest and show the scope of the course. Then learners are asked in a Discussion step what they want to get from the course. That is followed by a big question –"What is a brand?" – to motivate a sequence of videos to address the question from practitioners and academics. This leads on to a Discussion among the learners about how brands impact their world, and ends with a Test for learners to review their new knowledge, followed by short structured Articles on “Five ways to learn more” and “Our top 20 books to read on brand”. The whole week is a narrative structure that motivates, questions, explains, discusses, reflects, and extends.
On a larger scale, the Forensic Science course is presented week by week through an unfolding story, based on a real murder that took place in 2013. Each week, the learners are challenged to interpret the scene and work out who committed the murder, using the forensic techniques (e.g. fingerprint analysis and blood pattern analysis) introduced that week. The final week encourages learners to offer their views based on the evidence and to cast their vote as members of the ‘jury’. The course is rounded off with the result of the poll of learners and the jury result in the actual case. Thus, a typical 'soap opera' story narrative, with tensions, cliffhangers, and reveals was adapted very effectively to the subject of the course.
Not every course can, nor should, fit into an overarching narrative. But FutureLearn supports storytelling as a way of creating coherence and drive for online courses where the learners must motivate themselves and push forward without the benefit of scheduled seminars and lectures.
You can find space to capture narrative ideas in the Idea Generation tab of the Course Outline Resource
Design for conversation
The learning theory that underlies the FutureLearn platform is 'learning as conversation' (see here for a brief overview). It sees learning as a continuing conversation, with oneself (as we try to interpret and reconcile pieces of knowledge), with teachers, and with peers.
To make the most of learning opportunities, every step should provoke and model conversation. To this end, each Article, Text, Video/audio, and Exercise step is linked with a free-flowing discussion. These are not Moodle forums! They are more like chats around a water-cooler, designed to be informal, easy to enter, and with a simple choice to read, reply, or contribute to the flow. We may hope a learner will, for a step, read the first few comments and replies, scroll down to see some more, click 'most liked' or 'following' to see the most interesting or relevant contributions, and then perhaps add a reply. Typically, learners will not know how to do this, so the course design can model and prompt discussions, for example by asking learners to summarise the key points from a video, or to offer their own perspective on an issue.
We encourage you to think of these call to actions or guided comment and record them in the Course Outline Here tab of the Course Outline Resource
The Discussion step is intended for more focused discussion. David Major from FutureLearn has suggested three types of Discussion:
- water-coolers are the free-flowing conversations where the learner replies to an immediate comment or adds to the flow
- mountains build knowledge by learners contributing their experiences, their perspectives on a question or issue
- capstones round off a topic by encouraging learners to extract key points or synthesise their understanding. A valuable and popular type of capstone discussion is where learners suggest and prioritise (by liking) the questions to be answered by staff in a Google hangout or course email.
Peer Review steps provide more directed assignment-review-reflect conversations. It is a good idea to follow a Peer Review with a Discussion step where learners can reflect on their assignment and review what they have learned from the process.
A Quiz step is a structured conversation with the educator, where each response to a correct or incorrect answer offers feedback and/or a link back to a previous step to recap knowledge.
Design for developing skills
Courses that help learners to develop their skills will have a broad appeal and application in learner’s employment, industry, their life or further studies. The design of your course should be designed around the notion of a journey for learners where they will be able to practice, perhaps from observing experts and peers, and be receiving feedback along the way; either as self reflection, externally, from their peers or depending on the size of the cohort – from the course team.
Activities for learning are a good way to help with this – for example:
- Demonstration videos – can help show the best approach
- Walk-throughs and tutorials – lead learners step-by-step
- Simulators – practice, perhaps with constraints in a safe space
- Logbooks and noting progress – helps show development over time
- Examples – can provide stimulus (perhaps from past learners or previous course runs)
- Quizzes with feedback – can check understanding and application
- Animations and graphics – showing a process or technique
The activity examples above could be performed on FutureLearn steps, or in the Exercise Step and a third party platform. All of them would benefit from learners reflecting or seeking feedback by interacting with others – likely via the comments. This helps support a learner practice over time, improving on each attempt.
You may also want to be explicit about how the learning outcomes for a Week or Activity involve the practice or demonstration of newly acquired or enhanced skills. These may lead to a higher course-level learning objective, or just a part of the flow / structure of the course.
Design to celebrate progress
Your course description should include four or five learning outcomes as well as the ‘big question’ or issue that the course will be addressing. It is best to use action verbs like 'solve', 'evaluate', 'analyse' so that learners can see easily what they have achieved. Examples from FutureLearn courses include: "deepen your understanding of the film making process"; "learn how to define your own personal brand"; "create alternative responses to important health challenges".
During the course, the learner has a simple dashboard with four tabs – To do, Activity, Replies, and Progress – that show personal progress through the course. A good learning design can help to make that progress clearer and more immediate.
The 'To do' page lists each step within the course in a week-by-week format. Steps are grouped into activities. When well designed, the list of step titles can read like a story in outline. Here’s an example from Week 2 of the Secret Power of Brands course:
Week 2: How Brands are Managed
|2.1||Introduction to week 2||Video|
|2.2||Inside the branding industry||Video|
|2.3||Meet Virgin’s brand director||Video|
|2.4||The four hats of the Chief Brand Officer||Article|
|2.5||A day in the life of a brand strategist||Video|
|2.6||Introducing brand management||Video|
|2.7||Measuring and valuing brands||Video|
|2.8||Can you measure brands?||Article|
|2.9||How Orange manages its brand||Video|
|2.10||Pick a brand you know, and analyse how it’s managed||Discussion|
|2.11||Hold tight or let go?||Peer Review|
|2.12||Hold tight or let go?||Discussion|
|2.13||Managing multiple brands||Video|
|2.14||Luxury meets high street||Video|
|2.15||End of week assessment||Test|
Some points to note about this 'To do' page are:
- The titles tell a story. You can get an understanding of what the week is about and how it progresses just from reading the list of contents.
- It starts concrete and personal (Meet Virgin’s brand director), gets more abstract (Measuring and valuing brands) and ends by extending the knowledge (Managing multiple brands).
- There’s a good mix of step types, with the week starting with a sequence of videos and articles to introduce the topic, then a ‘mountain’ discussion for the learners to offer their perspectives, then a peer review assignment followed by a capstone discussion, then two videos to extend and round off the topic, ending with a test of knowledge.
- Questions are inserted into the flow to provoke curiosity and prompt reflection.
The Activity tab displays social activity on the course (note that this is a different use of the word 'activity' to the 'step, activity, week' hierarchy of course elements). The tab not only shows all commenting activity, it can also be filtered to show just the comments from people the learner is following. The Replies tab shows each learner the replies to comments s/he has made. Learners are also, by default, notified of replies by email. In Week 1, it is good practice to encourage learners to follow other learners and to contribute comments and replies to the step discussions. The Progress tab shows how many steps the learner has completed and the tests taken.
These are the objective indicators of progress. Good learning design will also encourage learners to set their personal goals and to assess and celebrate progress towards them. For example, the initial course email could ask learners to write down what they hope to achieve from the course, and at the end of the course a Discussion step could ask them to reflect on what they have achieved in relation to their goals. Or a Discussion at the start of Week 1 could ask learners to say 'why are you here?' (as in the Ageing Well example earlier), then the educator addresses some of the reasons in an end-of-week email.
A typical course structure
Course structures will vary to suit the course topic, aims, and resources. The structures below are offered as exemplars to be adapted. A typical course will have around 15–25 steps per week. The first step of a week does not have to be a video step.
Here is a typical Week 1 course structure (from an invented course on Teaching With Technology).
Week 1: Teaching with Technology – Introduction
|1.1||How can we teach better?||The big question or issue that the course is addressing, by the lead educator||Delivered||Video|
|1.2||Why are you here?||Introduction to the course team, learners, and ways of learning||Conversational||Discussion|
|1.3||Ways of teaching and learning||Introductory course material||Delivered||Video|
|1.4 - 7||Teaching methods||Further core course material||Delivered||Video, Audio, Article|
|1.8||How I teach||Learners reflect on the course material and relate it to their personal teaching experience||Reflective||Discussion|
|1.9 - 1.12||Technologies for teaching||Further core course material||Delivered||Video|
|1.13 - 1.14||Case study: Essa Academy||Ground the content in a case study||Case-based||Video, article|
|1.15||What makes a good teaching environment?||Learners address the question by reflecting on the core material in relation to their experience||Reflective||Discussion|
|1.16||End of week assessment||Learners test their knowledge of the course material||Assessing||Test|
|1.17||Five ways for you to learn more||Suggestions for how to engage more deeply with the course topic||Delivered||Article|