- What is a step?
- Using a step to present external content or resources
- What is a good FutureLearn week?
- Tell stories, provoke conversation, develop skills and celebrate progress
- Every step should contribute to learning
- Steps should build on one another, especially in activities
- Learners should be encouraged into meaningful conversation early
- Task instruction should appear on the step where it is relevant
- Weeks should throw to future and feed back to previous works
This article will go into detail on what makes a successful step, activity and week on FutureLearn.
What is a step?
A step is the smallest unit of learning within the FutureLearn ecosystem. Each should present an experience combining content artefacts with conversation through the lens of the educator’s narrative voice. In the same way that a lecturer provides a personal narrative to presentation slides, bringing their content to life while directly addressing the learner.
When coming to FutureLearn from experience with traditional LMSs/VLEs, it is tempting to see a parallel between steps and ‘uploading resources’ for example in Moodle. Accordingly, many educators may come to conceptualise courses they deliver by distance as being collections of resources such as readings combined with short instructional ‘interludes’ such as slide decks.
FutureLearn however, sees each step as a learning opportunity that should operate ideally both interconnected within the context of the course, and as a discrete landing page such as an open step (visible to search engines) or a highlight step (visible before the course starts, like a preview). Accordingly, it is important that we design them with this learning experience in mind.
In addition to a ‘content core’, steps include several other affordances and attributes:
- ‘Educator’s Voice’ – FutureLearn’s approach to storytelling places the educator in the role of the ‘storyteller’; the learners’ guide through the course. This mediation must provide a lens to material, for instance by wrapping academic literature with a narrative or explanation rather than reproducing lengthy extracts. FutureLearn also provides tone of voice and style guides.
- Related Links/Files – Where appropriate, steps should signpost high-quality material that might add to the learning experience or provide extension beyond the course.
- Conversation – Steps should provoke conversation and guide learners towards making contributions which benefit both their learning and that of others.
- Call-to-Action – Steps should suggest action which will enable progress. At times this may be linked to conversation (above) and pose specific questions a learner should strive to answer. Other times it may take the form of task-action outside of FutureLearn, for instance observing a phenomenon in the real world, or undertaking independent research.
- Completion – Each step provides for the notion of completion and celebration through the inclusion of a “Mark as complete” toggle.
These features allow course creators to make steps that touch upon multiple pedagogies and provide more valuable and better supported learning experiences. They also, when used well, can reduce the amount of steps required to realise a pedagogic goal. For example, to draw learners into conversation around salient literature, the separate phases of reading, explanation and discussion can be presented in a single step, rather than multiple Article steps followed by a Discussion. By encompassing content and comment on a single step we can provoke better focused and centrally-located conversation and preserve the use of Discussion steps for broader, concept-spanning conversation.
Using a step to present external content or resources
Due to the broader more holistic nature of a step, using one to reproduce, for example, a book chapter is not appropriate or effective within a FutureLearn course. Instead, steps should pull core material into the narrative of the step clearly attributing origin/copyright, provide opportunity for further exploration, and then guide learners towards action. Inclusion of lengthy external works directly in the step body creates an intimidating experience.
For example, a common task might be to ask learners to read multiple articles and then consider them in the light of a question or statement (e.g. “How do the approaches of the two authors differ?” etc.). A preferred pattern for this would be to present short introductory extracts from each as blockquotes setting up the contrast, inviting learners to read the two papers in full if they wish and then directing them to discuss it and interact with the views of other learners.
While it is important that material core to the learning is presented solely within the step, FutureLearn recognises the need to draw on the best of the web and academic material. There are two platform mechanisms for enabling this:
- Related Links & Files – Article, Exercise and Video steps allow for related links and files to be associated with them, and rendered in a discrete section underneath the main content.
- Inline linking – Traditional hyperlinks can be created in any step content field that supports Markdown.
In choosing which way to incorporate external resources, it is important to consider the purpose and intent behind its use in that step and ensure that this is communicated clearly to learners. Where material is deemed optional, it should be integrated in a way that doesn’t punish learners who do not wish to engage with it. For instance, “optional” material presented as a whole step would affect a learner’s progress and eligibility for a Certificate of Achievement.
- Background – Where material is non-essential to the step’s learning, for instance linking organisational names to their respective website, they should be inline linked-only, and not also appear as a related link. In these instances, it is also important to consider the context of the link. For example, when introducing an organisation, linking to their homepage is often most appropriate, but when using them as an example of a given viewpoint, it should link to evidence of that. (e.g. “Many bodies work to eradicate child soldiers such as the UN, and the International Red Cross”).
- Extension – Where material adds to broader awareness and knowledge, but isn’t core to understanding key course concepts, it should be appear as a related link or file. For example, you may choose to attach interesting academic papers or more comprehensive reading to a step. It is vital that the both the ‘title’ and ‘description’ fields are well used to inform the learner what they are clicking through to, and also why they may wish to do so, allowing them to make informed decision about additional study. Three examples are shown below, two showing different approaches to including bibliographic referencing and one linking to extended video content from which the step was drawn.
What is a good FutureLearn week?
Broadly speaking, learners who “fall out” during the first week of a course do so in three places: during the initial “administration” steps, at the transition from these to the start of the “core content”, and at the end of the week leading into subsequent weeks.
FutureLearn has been experimenting with different ways of managing these three transitions both in platform functionality and through course/learning design. This article attempts to share our findings and our current working principles & recommendations based on these.
Tell stories, provoke conversation, develop skills and celebrate progress
An ideal pattern for an opening week might be considered as:
- Present an engaging “pitch” for the course
- Provoke learners into discussion around learning
- Provide some relevant, thought-provoking and targeted content, further engaging them to discuss its ramifications and impact on the subject
- Consider how the course encourages and supports the development of skills (and if/how they’ll get feedback)
- Allow learners to check their understanding
- Surface and expose functional links to the rest of the course, specifically the next week
These stages also align with the FutureLearn Approaches to Learning:
- Telling stories – The introductory activity in a week should introduce one or more of the key “big questions” that will be addressed and contextualise them within the week.
- Provoking conversation – In addition to inviting learners’ initial responses to the above, the middle portion of a week should introduce new ideas, concepts and material, adding additional layers of perspective and complexity to the original problem. Conversation should be encouraged throughout, allowing learners to develop their understanding.
- Developing skills – Courses that help support learners in practicing, demonstrating and showcasing their skills will lead to valuable learning experiences. These may be something like communication or managerial skills, or something very specific to do with the subject area. Skills development is well practiced when in a safe space, with feedback – so consider this when designing your course.
- Celebrating progress – A common pattern towards the end of the week is to provide a means of assessment and celebration such as a quiz or test (or in later weeks perhaps a peer review activity). These should be followed with a discussion step allowing learners to reflect and celebrate on what they have learnt/achieved over the week and look forward to the next, perhaps using a polemic question which will be addressed subsequently.
Every step should contribute to learning
Ideally every step of a FutureLearn course should contribute to learning but this is not always the case with introductory or administrative articles. Because we want learners to have a consistent experience of steps as a small progressive movement towards a new understanding then we should try to wrap ‘induction’ steps within a learning focus and the wider course narrative. A step is the smallest ‘unit of learning’ available to FutureLearn courses and there is no outward differentiation between an introductory, administrative article and one explaining the most exciting concept within a subject.
For example, introducing the lead educator and course team might be reoriented to focus on bringing out people’s current exposure to a subject and their motivations for joining the course. The educator could share why the subject and its ‘big questions’ are important based on their experiences, and invite learners to share the same. Additionally, the educator should be positioned as the storyteller within a course. Introducing them in a personal way rather than through an academic biography allows learners to form a connection with them outside of an instructional context.
Steps should build on one another, especially within activities
No step is optional and there should be a sense of flow between steps in the course. Activities are a collection of steps and provide a way to structure steps into groups – rather than just one long series. Each activity will usually follow the different perspectives, domains or areas of study across the topic for the week.
Learners should be encouraged into meaningful conversations early
One of the most powerful ways of inducting learners into a FutureLearn course is to try and guide them towards conversation; a core component of our educational approach. We also believe that a learner’s engagement with the social community of a course is a strong indicator that they will return in subsequent weeks and work towards full participation.
For example, on The University of Reading’s Managing People course the simple act of moving a conversation much earlier in the first week before the welcome and introduction to the team, resulted in a 10% increase to the ‘social learner’ metric between runs and an extra 1200 comments posted on the same discussion step. This intervention has also been successful on other courses.
Managing People - First run
Managing People - Second run
This early conversation should have a ‘low entry bar’ that enables the widest range of learners to contribute. Possible foci might include social introductions (e.g. Here is why we are teaching the course – why are you taking it?) or ‘Big Questions’: questions that allow learners to bring their current perspectives or contexts to a key debate in the course without requiring ‘background reading’.
Task instruction should appear on the step where it is relevant
While steps should flow together in a logical, narrative-driven sequence, it is important that each is “self-sufficient”: that instruction related to tasks should be contained within the step that they should be completed in. For example, our peer review functionality splits the process across three steps which allows for tailored instruction around each specific phase: e.g., we guide learners towards how to review assignments separately from how to write them.
This approach should also be applied in the context of instructing learners how to use FutureLearn and engage with the course. For example:
- Mark as complete – The first step should introduce the notion of step completion and encourage learners to interact with the “Mark as complete” toggle and navigate to the next step. However, learners should never be told what their threshold for “completion” should be, because we know that this varies according to their motivations; it’s personal to them.
- Activity and Reply feeds – The first targeted discussion (often the first discussion step) should introduce the social tools in the platform, for instance defining and encouraging “Liking” and the different ways of catching up on, surfacing or perusing discussion. The first discussion step of Newcastle University’s Ageing Well: Falls course is a good example. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to enrol you onto the course to view this step.
- Social tips – David Thair, Head of Community at FutureLearn, has published an article Six tips and tools for social learning on FutureLearn which you can direct learners towards. When they receive an email reply notification, learners are directed towards their reply feed which acts as a timely and contextually-appropriate explanation of this functionality.
- Progress page – At the start of a learner’s journey, the progress page is a relatively blank slate, with 0% of the course completed and no assessment/test scores recorded. Introducing learners to it further on during the first week—perhaps after they have undertaken their first test—allows them to actually visualise what they have achieved. The British council’s Exploring English course is a good example.
Weeks should throw to future and feed back to previous works
While we know that a majority of learners complete steps within the “correct” week, we also want to encourage learners who wish to read ahead or catch up.
At the end of the first week courses should re-introduce the notion of navigating between weeks using the To do list and connect the week’s learning to what is upcoming. This might then be supported in subsequent weeks (especially in the second) by pointing back to previous weeks in their introduction (e.g. “if you are still unsure of concept x, you may find step 1.3 in the first week helpful”).