New year, new MOOC

New year, and yet another MOOC. I’ve started ‘Sustainability, Society and You‘ with Futurelearn. It’s not my first time with Futurelearn – I completed their web science MOOC in December – so it would seem an appropriate time to offer some reflections on the Futurelearn platform. Disclosure: the university I work for has also launched MOOCs on Futurelearn, although I am not involved in those in any way, and these are my thoughts from the student perspective.

Firstly (at least in my limited experience so far), the primary delivery medium is not video. Each week’s topic is split into a number of subtopics. Within each subtopic are the actual content items, some of these are video, and some are text-based. While this arrangement makes the learning process quite linear (each item has a mark as complete button and a next button), it does make it quite easy to plan how to arrange the various tasks throughout the week.

Secondly, the course team’s estimate of the time required has been much more accurate than other MOOCs. If it says five hours work a week then I know I can plan on needing to do around five hours work, plus or minus a margin of error. That’s unlike others I’ve done where the course team’s estimate might have said eight to ten hours, but in reality doubling that estimate put me closer to the real workload. You could argue that perhaps those were courses I wasn’t particularly well prepared for, and yes, you would be right, but I should have been prepared because according to the course team I met the required pre-requisites. The Futurelearn MOOCs I’ve done have set realistic expectations of me before I started the courses, and I think that would really help to keep students engaged and active in the courses. It would be interesting to compare the retention of Futurelearn MOOCs with that of other platforms such as Coursera and Udacity.

I do have some criticisms of the platform. The user interface was not entirely intuitive to me when I first started using it. Clicking on my profile picture at the top right pops up a mini-menu giving me access to a list of my courses and the usual account settings and profile editing options. No surprises there. When I’m in the content pages there’s a tab at the centre top, which pops out the main navigation in a header. Again, nothing unexpected. At the top left is the Futurelearn logo. I clicked on this expecting to go back to some sort of home page, as would normally be the case on a blog for example, but no, I get a pop-out menu with three options: To do, activity and progress. If I hadn’t wanted to jump back to the home page quickly, I could have gone through a large chunk of the course and never found that it existed. There’s also a feedback tab around half-way down the left hand side. This not only allows students to give feedback on the content, but also on the platform, and by clicking through students can suggest and vote on potential improvements for the platform. Incidentally, not only can you vote, but you can give one, two or three votes to a feature request, and each feature request has a status: under review, planned, started, completed or declined.

The platform is orientated towards promoting discussion and the development of a learning community. The forums are embedded on each content item, but are not really forums. In terms of promoting engagement I think that’s a great idea, but the functionality is closer to a basic commenting system of a blog, and that limits what you can do. You can choose to follow people, but it’s difficult to develop a network at the moment because of how the comments are displayed. There is no option to track comments or replies to comments (on the content page), and having a threaded display, perhaps not to the extent of a full blown forum on each page, would help greatly. You can see who’s following you (and who you’re following) and their comments either from the profile page, or via the ‘activity’ option in the menu that appears when you click on the Futurelearn logo. A quick check of the feature requests shows that the top two, both with a status of planned, are ‘break up discussion forums into smaller groups’ and ‘notification on comment’, so I’m not the only person to have spotted these as issues. In some ways, the reduced amount of content compared to many other MOOCs means that you have to engage with the discussions to gain the most from the courses.

Overall, I like Futurelearn. They’ve obviously given a great deal of thought to the learning design of the courses (and I’d expect nothing less from a development that involved the Open University). They are managing the expectations of their students (e.g. the time estimates) and getting them actively involved in a meaningful way with developing the platform further. I’ll be posting more thoughts related to the content of the course as it progesses using the #flsustain hashtag.

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