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Learning from experience – FutureLearn’s first second runs

Matthew Shorter, Acting Head of content at FutureLearn, talks about the first of the second runs of courses on FutureLearn and discusses what it has been like to work with partners.

This week marks an unusual sort of first for FutureLearn: our first second. It is the opening week of a second run of a free, online FutureLearn course, Web science from the University of Southampton. Later this month, we will also see second runs beginning for UEA’s The secret power of brands and the University of Reading’s Begin programming: build your first mobile game.

All three of these partners were brave enough to be among our first eight courses to run on FutureLearn before Christmas last year. They were therefore part of a very public experiment and gesture of trust in the ability of our platform and our team to handle the challenge of opening up to thousands of learners in real time. As exciting as it is to see all the content taking shape and then being delivered through FutureLearn, it can be tantalising to realise that there are simply not the hours in the day to take a full part in all the courses.

As we venture into the next phase of the FutureLearn journey the first runs of these courses, as well as the other five which started last year, have given us enough meaningful data to provide some clear insights into delivering social learning at scale. You can read more about this on our blog.

Having taken part as a learner in the first run of Web science, I can very confidently testify to the quality of the course. We’ve discussed with all of our partners planning second runs what we learned from first runs: data about learner activity, survey results and comparing notes on how we all dealt with the feedback we were receiving in real time both directly and through comments on the website. So I know that this run is going to be even better as a result, and the same is true for the others. Building and strengthening the feedback loop between what we learn and how we change our platform and content to suit is central to our vision for FutureLearn, and one of the ways in which the presence of massive numbers of learners can be a distinct advantage.

That said, the feedback that we’ve had for these courses even in their first iteration has been very positive. Feedback we’ve read on Facebook and in interviews includes:

Web science: “This is a really good course. There’s loads more to the web than we see/experience. Made me think & change a few things- good stuff!”

The secret power of brands: “This was my first MOOC last year, and it was fantastic! For me it has set the standard that other online courses need to meet.”

Begin programming: “It’s great and we’re already starting to come up with our own game ideas. I have been surprised how effective it is to learn online.”

On a personal note, I hope I speak for my university colleagues in Southampton, UEA and Reading when I say that it has been a brilliant experience to work together. Each of these partners has in their own distinct way been a vocal and constructive participant in the decisions we have made in FutureLearn from the first time we all came together for our first workshop about a year ago. The atmosphere of creative collaboration that has taken hold right across the FutureLearn partnership has been one of the real pleasures of this job, with a real sense that we are all exploring relatively unknown territory together, each bringing our piece of the puzzle, whether that is experience in media, technology, business, design or as theorists and practitioners of distance learning.

I should also give special mention to UEA, who not only stuck their necks out in offering the first course to go live on our public beta, but also took part in private testing of the platform last summer (alongside the The Open University), offering real course material to real users. We invited several hundred friends, contacts and alumni of The Open University to take part in a closed alpha trial of the platform, starting as we meant to continue, by gathering data from real-world use. Looking back, I can’t imagine now how we could have managed without this testing. It enabled us to learn on numerous fronts – everything from internal workflow and communications, through platform functionality, handling user feedback and on to course content.

Reading, for their part, found another source of additional data that has helped them reshape their course for the second run, in working with a group of students and their teachers from Ousedale School in Newport Pagnell and Olney in the UK. The students and their teachers took part in the first run of Reading’s course on programming as an enrichment activity. After reading about their experience on the FutureLearn blog, the MOOC team at the University of Reading invited the students in to share feedback and experience a taste of university life.

Although it has not always been an easy ride, I’d like to think that our partners have been rewarded for their audacity in being such early adopters. Certainly looking at the courses now, it’s fascinating and gratifying to see how they have evolved through these iterations.

You can sign up here for:

Web science: how the web is changing the world (The University of Southampton)

The secret power of brands (The University of East Anglia)

Begin programming: build your first mobile game (The University of Reading)

Second runs are also starting in March, and open for enrolment now, for:

The mind is flat: the shocking shallowness of human psychology (The University of Warwick)

Fairness and nature: when worlds collide (University of Leeds)

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