Sensitive content may fall into the following categories:
- political or religious content
- culturally sensitive content
- graphic content such as violence, nudity, offensive language or medical procedures
- contentious or disputed content or terminology
- courses or topics where learners may reflect on and share sensitive personal experiences (for example, care, mental health.).
When designing a course that contains sensitive content the aim is to guide respectful discussion among learners and ensure they understand the choice to include sensitive material.
One of the challenges is making sure that the language is as accessible as possible to learners around the world without being too simple.
Frame the material
Do not assume background knowledge of the disciple. Global learners on an online course may lack fundamental understanding.
Provide an early step in Week 1, or a section of a step, briefly outlining the standards of your field, the approach that you take in the course, and how this will frame learners’ exploration of the subject.
Acknowledge upfront any different methodologies or approaches in your field, or disagreements about the direction of research. Explain why the course adopts its particular approach. This will avoid discussion becoming distracted.
When a step requires prior knowledge or mentions theories or ideas that are rooted in larger debates provide content by ensuring to insert citations and references. Help learners understand why the material is being brought into the course and how it relates to the questions the course is addressing.
Use appropriate language for a global audience
FutureLearn learners come from around the world and from a variety of educational, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds.
Language can be really important when dealing with sensitive content. You may need to provide more context for cultural and political terms than you would in a standard university course. This is especially the case where these terms may have a debated history or different connotations in different languages.
If English is not the first language of the course authors, you may want to consider hiring a copy editor. This can help ensure that the ideas are presented as clearly as possible and that the language is appropriate to the audience and course level.
As a general rule, when referring to a group of people, it is best to use the term preferred by that group. Where the preferred term is not clear or is debated, it can be helpful to explain this background to learners.
Encourage respectful conversation
The FutureLearn code of conduct for learners states, in part:
You are respectful of others, and do not use words or share content that is offensive or inflammatory.
This includes, but is not limited to, language, names or content that is sexist, racist, homophobic, antisemitic, sexually explicit, abusive, contains swearing or is otherwise likely to cause offense.
Course teams should lead by example, by making sure all the language used in the course, and responses to comments, are suitably respectful. You may also consider choosing course team members who aim to be impartial to the subject matter, especially in cases where the course addresses a sensitive topic.
FutureLearn does not expect course teams or learners to agree on every instance of content that might be deemed offensive. However, where it is possible that material may cause offense, you may want to consider explaining why it is used or even invite learners to analyse the material from this perspective.
- If a course includes violent or other potentially disturbing content, warn learners before they reach the content and in the step where it occurs. Explain that this content is provided as a helpful resource to aid the learning process and not for its shock value. For example, healthcare courses that include photographs and videos that demonstrate real-life medical procedures.
- Remind learners of the FutureLearn code of conduct. That they should not share their own personal contact information or that of colleagues, patients or students.
- For some courses, e.g. those in healthcare, finance or legal studies, a disclaimer may be included to help learners understand the limitations of the course. For example, here is a disclaimer used in a healthcare course, which may be adapted for similar courses:
Course note: Individuals and pathologies vary greatly. None of the opinions discussed as part of this course are designed, nor intended to be an offer to treat, prescribe or give advice to individuals with cancer or any other pathologies. The research, opinions and content presented throughout the course should in no circumstance be solely relied upon by any learner. If a learner is suffering from a particular health condition being discussed during the course, they should always seek medical advice from a qualified practitioner.
The FutureLearn Quality Assurance review is focused on pedagogical, technical, and accessibility course criteria. It is not intended to provide subject-related advice.
Ask for feedback from an external content expert before your course starts by providing them with reviewer permission to Course Creator.
What do we tell our learners about sensitive content?
The FutureLearn Terms and Conditions (section 2.6) say that we try to avoid instances where learners are exposed to content that:
…is factually inaccurate, offensive if taken out of context, indecent to certain people, or otherwise objectionable to you [the learner.]
However, we understand that this doesn’t cover all sensitive content, and sometimes sensitive content is necessary for the learning process.
Terminology on this page that you aren’t familiar with? Check out our glossary.