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What is beta?

Head of Product Matt Walton explains what we mean by “beta” and some of the new features you can expect to see over the coming weeks.

beta pic

Today FutureLearn starts running its first public course. It’s an exciting moment for all involved and the beginning of the next phase in our journey to build a new way for a large number of people to learn together, for free, from quality providers of higher education.

The important word in that sentence is “beginning”.

We have launched the site in what is known as “beta”. This means that, although we’ve done plenty of testing and have already run several pilot courses with small groups of learners, the site is still very much in development. It’s an approach that most modern web services take, on the basis that most services will never be as good as they could be without the insights that come from contact with real users.

What our learners will see today is a web product that has reached a degree of maturity that allows us to run simple, high quality courses that are accessible from desktop, tablet and mobile devices. We’ve been designing and writing code for just under six months. We’re very proud of how far we’ve come in such a short time, but we’re even more excited about the next phase: The delivery team will continue working and delivering new features as they have been doing for the last six months, working in much the same way, but with the benefit of watching real people use the site and being able to develop the product in a much more informed way.

The number of learners on our first courses can be comfortably referred to as “massive” (and will have the dynamics that are inherent in a community of scale) but has been limited to allow us to test how the features scale for thousands of simultaneous learners while receiving a manageable amount of feedback.

For those early adopters who have signed up to take part in the first courses, this is their chance to help inform the development of the platform. We encourage feedback via the tab you’ll find on the left of every page and every suggestion or vote helps inform our roadmap of features and how we prioritise them. We read all the feedback we receive, so please be constructive and we’ll do our best to incorporate your ideas.

With all that in mind, I thought it was also worth sharing a little about where we are and the sorts of things that we already have planned, which you can expect to see emerging over the coming weeks and months.

Telling stories

The sense of narrative through the course is important, as is creating engaging ways to communicate ideas. We’ve created a ‘to do’ list that allows you to find your way through the course. And we’ve already provided a number of ways for educators to communicate ideas through video, audio, text and pictures.

Over the coming months we’ll be continuing to develop the signposting around courses, helping you to plan your time better by providing information such as guide timings for activities. We’ll be building new and interesting ways to explain concepts too, including features such as image galleries, polls and embedded interactive objects.

There will also be a course notices section that will allow educators to provide a live commentary alongside the more formal elements of the courses and reflect on the conversations happening around the course.

Provoking conversation

At the heart of FutureLearn is the social experience. The best way to learn is by sharing and discussing ideas with others and asking and answering questions. The support and encouragement of others is also important to help make learning an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

To begin with, we have provided features that allow a conversation to happen around the learning materials. Learners can ask questions, post links or share an insight in the margin of each page.

There are also moments through the course where learners are encouraged to discuss a specific topic and learn by sharing their ideas and hearing the views of others. And every comment around the course is displayed on an activity feed that allows you to see what is happening right now.

Soon, you’ll start to see ‘like’ buttons that allow you acknowledge comments you agree with or questions that you’d like to see answered. We’ll allow you to filter and sort discussion by the ‘most liked’ comments or by people that you follow, to help you find your way through the conversation.

We’ll soon be providing small group discussions too, which will allow you to have a conversation in a group of up to 20 people. This will enable a much deeper level of debate than is possible with the whole course. We have plans to develop this further with a range of tools that allow groups of learners to collaborate and share ideas in different ways.

We’ll also be providing more ways to find and connect with people that you’d like to learn with and help you build out your profile by providing links to your other social media profiles.

Celebrating progress

We currently provide some simple tools for assessing what you know and allowing you to keep track of how you’re doing. We include multiple choice quizzes to help you check you’ve understood the course material and tests that we score and count towards your course mark. We’ll be expanding our range of assessment options and how we let you see your progress over the coming months.

There will also be a progress page that gives you a high level view of how much you’ve done recently, how much of the course you have left to do, and your overall score.

We’ll be adding new question types and multimedia to our quizzes and tests too. And we’re working on peer review and assessment that will enable learners to post open answers as text or other pieces of media that can be critiqued and assessed by other learners. Peer review can be almost as effective as teacher-marked assessments and the act of reading and marking the work of others is proven to be a very effective way of helping you learn.

There’s lots more coming and lots that we’re already working on, but we’d love to hear your ideas on how we can improve and develop.

When will we stop being in ‘beta’?

In many ways we’d like to create a sense of perpetual beta, where we, like our users, are always learning. We intend to keep a development team working and developing the product for as long as FutureLearn exists. And we will keep listening to our learners and educators and make improvements based on what they say. However, we expect to be able to remove the current ‘beta’ tag that exists by our logo early next year once we feel that the service is mature enough.

We’re really excited to be sharing our beta product with you today and we’re looking forward to hearing what you think.

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
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