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Creating a virtual tech learning hub to develop web skills

This week, Matt Walton, our Head of Product, spoke at an event in Helsinki, which asked: “Are MOOCs providing the European workforce with necessary web skills?” Here, he reflects on this question and FutureLearn’s vision of creating a “virtual tech learning hub.”

Silicon Roundabout - a physical tech hub that needs web skills

I gave a keynote talk in Helsinki, where I explained how FutureLearn’s social learning approach can enable people to gain the skills that will help them get a job or do their job better, and meet skills shortages in different industries – from nursing to digital. I then provided some suggestions for how others can help us develop digital skills more effectively.

Being a web professional myself, who over the last 12 months has spent a lot of time building an amazing team with the expertise to create a digital product, the subject of how to help talented people develop useful web skills is close to my heart.

Here’s a short summary of what I said.

What is the role of platforms like FutureLearn?

It’s useful to start by thinking about how massive open online courses (MOOCs) fit into a wider landscape of online tools that can help provide web skills. I was sent a report ahead of the event that described three tiers of web skills: core skills (like how to code), extended skills (like how to work in an agile software development team to build a web application) and advanced skills (specialist areas like data analysis).

Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a huge explosion in useful websites that can help you develop core skills. Services like Codecademy, TreeHouse and Exercism provide great on-demand tools to help you learn to code. There’s also a variety of services such as StackOverflow, where developers can ask questions to a supportive community of web developers and get them answered.

While we do offer courses that help you get started in this area – like “Begin Programming” or “Creative Coding” – it’s the theory that backs up these skills, how they might be used in practice and how others use them, which the social event of a MOOC can potentially bring something new and extremely useful to.

How I (and my team) learn

In pondering the question, I thought it was useful to think about how I and my team develop our skills (something that is very much part of the FutureLearn culture and always encouraged).

I tend to read books like 37 Signals’ excellent “Getting Real,” Eries Ries’s minimum viable product bible “The Lean Start Up” and Clayton Christian’s disruption classic “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”

I go to monthly meet ups like Product Tank where other product managers talk about the issues that we all wrestle with every day and where there is a chance to network over beers. I also attend their annual Mind The Product conference. And I read blogs and excellent sites like Medium, where inspiring people in my field post articles sharing their knowledge and insights.

At FutureLearn, we run regular FutureLearn Talks, where we invite interesting people from other companies in, to share their knowledge with us. And we try to visit others as often as we can, to return the favour and learn about how they do things. Plus, there’s always a quiet sociable drink with others that do the sort of thing you do, which can provide valuable perspective on how you do your job.

The developers and designers in the team do many of the same kind of things, related to their areas of expertise.

Physical hubs

Over the last few years, there’s been much discussion of “tech hubs” and the benefits of “agronomics:” the economic benefits of bringing similar people building similar things together in one geographical location.

FutureLearn is based just down the road from the Old Street junction dubbed “Silicon Roundabout” and supported by the UK Government’s Tech City initiative. Early on, we decided to base FutureLearn in London, rather than in The Open University’s home town of Milton Keynes, as we knew that, in order to rapidly build a highly talent team, the draw of London was a necessity.

The interesting thing about all of the things I’ve mentioned is that, as a social learning platform, FutureLearn is very capable of emulating many of these activities in the online world. And it can help support a “blended learning” approach, by helping remove some of the geographical issues.

What is social learning?

Fundamental to FutureLearn is the concept of social learning. Our courses provide the opportunity for leaders in their field to share ideas and inspire a debate around the. This is done in such a way that all of those who take part come away with a better understanding of the subject. The course content is the “campfire” around which people gather, to share their opinion and experience, and ask questions.

The main content delivered on our courses is short videos and articles, where knowledgeable people can explain new ideas in engaging ways. Every piece of content has an area where comments can be posted, the content discussed and questions asked. Educators can also include set-piece discussions that encourage learners to add their thoughts on a specific topic. And we provide mechanisms that allow learners to post assignments and get feedback from others within the community.

The platform is also built on some familiar social networking concepts, translated into a learning environment. Every learner has a profile page allowing you to find out more about them, you can follow people that interest you; like comments that you think are good; and filter discussions to show just the threads that involve people you follow or the comments that the course community have liked most.

Relevance, funding and recognition

So there’s lots of potential for platforms such as ours to be used to help create resources and communities that can help people learn. However, there are three areas where I think MOOCs need to develop further. We need to ensure that:

  • the courses being created are relevant in the real world and meet the needs of business;
  • there is money available to encourage universities and others to create these courses;
  • and they’re endorsed by businesses and other bodies, to enable those who’ve done courses to be recognised for the skills they’ve developed.

And it’s worth noting that these three are not unique to web skills, but applicable to all forms of professional development. All of these can be solved by doing something that FutureLearn is becoming very good at: creating partnerships.

Partnerships

FutureLearn is a company rooted in partnership. As well as university partners that bring teaching and academic expertise, we work with organisations that can provide high-quality content, such as the BBC and British Museum; businesses that can bring expertise, real world problems and money such as Marks & Spencer, Wolff Ollins and BT; and organisations that can help support skill and knowledge initiatives, such as the UK Government and Computing at School (CAS).

We’re also actively growing the range of partners that provide recognition for what you’ve learnt, such as our partnership with the ACCA – the accountancy professional body, which is recognising the exam connected to our “Discovering Business in Society” course.

Our ability to broker these partnerships is one of the ways in which we can combine academic expertise and serious educational credibility with those that can bring insights about the realities and needs of the real world.

For example, a hypothetical course on digital product management, which combines the academic rigour of someone like The Open University, University of Southampton or UEA, with the video archive of Mind The Product, with the real world problems and financial support of the likes of Sky or Tesco (who regularly sponsor events that product managers attend as part of their employee learning and recruitment strategy), could be amazingly interesting. I for one would do it.

Help us with our vision

I finished in Helsinki by presenting a vision that I thought those in the room might be well placed to help with.

We’d like people to help us create an amazing virtual tech learning hub, along with other hubs that can help meet skills gaps in areas such as healthcare. We’re building a social learning network that allows us to bring together educators and learners with those that are looking to recruit talent, upskill their employees and foster innovation within their communities and organisations.

To do this, we need collections of relevant and useful courses, created collaboratively by a range of partners, which can attract a diverse community of active and aspiring web developers, designers, product managers, marketers and entrepreneurs. We need universities and other educational organisations to work with those in this fast-moving industry who understand the skills that are needed. We want to attract investment into courses to provide high-quality, engaging content that tells stories and provokes conversation.

In addition, we need businesses to recognise how this new way of learning can help individuals with continuing professional development, which works for them right now or might in the future, by helping us create recognised, proof of engagement in learning and assessment of skills.

We’ve begun creating the platform and the ecosystem. Now we’re looking for organisations that can help us make the vision of a virtual tech learning hub a reality.

Can you help with our vision? Drop us a line at partner.enquiries@futurelearn.com. We’d love to hear from you!

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