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Social Learning and large scale online learning

Professor Mike Sharples, FutureLearn Academic Lead, commenting on some of FutureLearn’s features around Social Learning and addressing the challenges of large scale online learning 

How do you offer compelling learning experiences to millions of people worldwide? That’s the question I have been tackling as Academic Lead for FutureLearn.  Nine months ago, we took a decision to design the FutureLearn platform around a new type of massive-scale social learning based on sound principles of effective learning. As well as providing teaching from world-leading professors through video and text, our aim has been to create a community of FutureLearners who share ideas, hold engaging discussions, and support each other. And rather than try to prevent failure and dropout, we have chosen to reward success at each step. Each decision about design of the FutureLearn platform has been made to support these three principles of: world-class storytelling, social learning, and celebrating progress.

One challenge we need to address is that not everyone wants to be social. Rather than building separate ‘social spaces’ such as online forums, the discussions are tied to the teaching material. Every element of text and video has a rolling comments area, open to everyone, where you can start by seeing what other people have to say, then perhaps add a quick reply. If you like a comment, you can choose to follow its author so that you start to see the most interesting discussions. We’ll be building on those concepts of ‘discussion in context’ and ‘following’ over the coming months, so that social learning feels like having a quick chat with friends about what you’ve just seen.

Another challenge is how to offer online support for massive-scale free courses without a large network of official tutors. The solution is to harness the power of the community, where everyone has an opportunity to be a teacher as well as a learner. Following other learners is part of a powerful system we are building of ‘reputation management’ that will allow you to acknowledge good contributions and promote people who offer helpful advice. Success will be recognised not just for passing an assignment and completing a course, but also for contributing to the FutureLearn community.

All these approaches need to work with huge numbers of learners, so that comments don’t just flash past, and reputations can be built over time. We have drawn not only on expertise at The Open University but also from a team with backgrounds in entertainment and social media, as well as our FutureLearn partners. However, this is just the starting point. Feedback from our first courses and beyond will help us see how people study and interact, so we can continue to improve the experience. So we are learning too!

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