Category Archives: Lessons learned

What we have learnt from the process of developing, delivering, and running FutureLearn courses, including how to make them enjoyable and compelling, and ideas we have used for marketing.

1st FutureLearn Asia Pacific Forum, Shanghai, China

future-learn-cupcakes_cropped
FutureLearn cupcakes. Source: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/news/the-free-learning-revolution-simon-nelson-futurelearn-22-jul-2015 CC-BY-NC-ND

I was delighted to be asked to represent one of three UK FutureLearn partner institutions at the first FutureLearn Asia Pacific Partner Forum, held in Shanghai, 24 & 25 November 2015.

Partner Forums are one of the things that make working with the FutureLearn partnership so useful. A chance to meet others a few times a year who are facing the same challenges, providing regular opportunities to share experiences and learn from each other, as well as influence the development of the platform. And we do really influence the development of the platform. Previously Partner Forums have happened in London, but with recent expansions in the Asia Pacific partnership, an inaugural Forum was planned in Shanghai, aiming to replicate meetings in the UK, but for Asia Pacific partners.

I set off to meet up in Shanghai with Kate Dickens, Project Lead for FutureLearn from University of Southampton, Joanna Stroud, Project Lead for FutureLearn from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, and 4 of his staff. We took part in a very well organised and intensive two day forum with around 70 representatives from HEIs and specialist organisations based in the Asia Pacific region, from countries including Australia, Malaysia, Japan, and Korea,  as well as several Chinese institutions and representatives from the British Council and Consulate.

In a packed two days, as well as getting to know each other, we got to know a bit about how the approaches developed within UK and European FutureLearn partners were being received by more recent Asia Pacific partners, and had the opportunity to share with each other some of the things we have learned in our time developing and delivering free online courses with FutureLearn.

FutureLearn’s mantra for free online courses, which appears at the beginning of nearly every presentation,  is to ‘Tell stories, provoke conversation and celebrate success’.

As Newcastle University courses have consistently succeeded in achieving higher than average engagement with our courses,  I was asked to present a session on Effective Storytelling in Newcastle’s free online courses, and to sit on a panel discussing approaches to course development and sharing top tips.

For the panel session, which took place on the morning of day 2, I was on the stage with Kate Dickens from University of Southampton, David Major, Learning Technologist from FutureLearn, and Professor Hongling Zhang from Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), Lead Educator on the Intercultural Communication free online course. The session was facilitated by Kate Sandars, Partnership Manager from FutureLearn and was based on questions from the floor, which were many, and discussion around them, which was lively. The session was very much about the practical aspects of developing and delivering free online courses, and about how this aligns with institutional strategy. The panel session overran and there was much continued discussion  in the following tea break.

Just before lunch on day 2 I presented a half hour slot on ‘Effective Storytelling’ in our free online courses at Newcastle University. I was pleased to be asked to do this session, as our courses consistently achieve higher than the FutureLearn average for social learning (engagement of learners with discussion and comments), and we also achieve higher than the average FutureLearn full participation rate (the nearest metric we have to ‘course completion’) – with our Ageing Well: Falls course having the highest full participation rate of any FutureLearn course to date, at 57% of those who started the course.

This indicates to us that there is something about our approach to working with teams of educators on developing our courses which works. Our focus on learning design is crucial to course success and we do focus on it a lot, right from course conception to delivery.

Why is storytelling so important? Well I think that the telling stories analogy is a great one for us to focus on. It enables us to talk about course creation in a different way, it encourages us to examine what is special about storytelling and storytellers. Why do stories work? Why are they compelling? What qualities to they have which are different to campus based courses? How can we replicate some of that in free online courses? And why is making courses online so different to making campus based programmes?

The session went down really well, and there was further lively discussion afterwards over a delicious lunch with colleagues from Monash University, the University of Malaya, RMIT, Fudan University, SISU and others.

An afternoon tea reception hosted by the British Council ended the Forum, which was an amazing privilege to be asked to attend, and which profiled the work of the University and its approach to online course development which has generated much interest from Asia Pacific HEIs.  We look forward to following up with these contacts over the coming weeks.  Many thanks go to Simon Nelson and his team at FutureLearn for asking us to represent established partners, for giving us the opportunity to profile our work and courses in the Asia Pacific region, and for looking after us so well in Shanghai.

Translating education offline to online – Katie Wray on building The Enterprise Shed

The video presentation from Katie Wray (below) outlines her experience of translating classroom entrepreneurship education to an online course. We enjoyed working with Katie on delivering ‘The Enterprise Shed’, the third of our FutureLearn courses. Here she describes the process we went through and the pleasing results.

See also “A toast to post it notes” for more details on how we planned the course together as we sought to make things as collaborative as possible.

A toast to post-it notes (for learning design)

A learner from the Enterprise Shed (Newcastle University’s third MOOC) shared one of his favourite TED talks, in which Tom Wujec, a designer who has studied how we share and absorb information, explains how he watched many people try to effectively describe and solve a ‘wicked problem’, such as the best way to make toast.

What was the most effective approach Wujec found?  Getting people with a range of skills to work together with post-it notes and paper to perfect the workflow. Interestingly he suggests it is even more effective when they work silently.

MOOC design

This struck a chord with us as we tend to work in similar ways when designing our MOOCs – though our team rarely work in silence (maybe something to try next time). We take cues from the JISC ViewPoints project and constructive alignment to plan and assemble each week of the course. With the academic team, we establish the audience, our motivations as well as those of the learners to clarify the aims and outcomes. We then use rolls of brown paper to create a course timeline, writing down what the learners must be able to do at the end of the course and for each week that they couldn’t do before they started. We ask how we/they will know they have attained this learning (some form of assessment in the loosest sense) and then plan activities and content that will get them to that point.

Post-it notes have the great advantage of being movable, whilst also allowing multiple people to contribute and collaborate on the whole. This is something Wikis aim to allow (though not always successfully). Started with pen and paper, rather than technology, helps us collectively produce something we can use very quickly and without many of the restrictions electronic tools tend to entail. As my colleague Nuala says, technology can get in the way at this stage.

Once planned on paper, we have found that using Trello is a bit like using post-it notes online, but with added ‘to do list’ and project management functionality. After planning on paper and in Trello, we then create the shell of the course in the FutureLearn platform. This helps visualise and restructure further, before testing on willing guinea pigs, and changing the design again. The bits we change and iterate the most tend to be the highest quality and most positively received elements of our courses.

MOOCs and collaboration

MOOCs themselves can become great collaborative spaces. We had many wonderful contributions from learners on our courses. For The Enterprise Shed, this was one of the lead-educator Katie Wray’s aims. The whole course was a bit like a World Cafe. We did as much as we could with the tools available to aid collaboration.  We crowd-sourced ideas links and videos (including favourite TED talks such as the one at the start of this post) . Learners also shared  designs through Padlet, another free collaborative technology which is a bit like paper and post-it notes. This is a great tool for sharing, but it could do with a commenting feature to facilitate feedback on posts.

Learners were able to gave each other feedback on ideas through comments in discussion and through the peer review tool in the platform.This was a really valuable element of the course, and something we would like to do more of.

Making MOOCs more collaborative

One of the tension for us with our courses at present is that the busier they are (the more active users) the harder it is to track what is going on in discussion boards, both for us and for the learners. It would be great if learners could tag posts so that people could find like-minded people and relevant posts more easily.

Small group discussions are coming in FutureLearn, but it will be wonderful if tools within MOOCs could be developed to aid the formation of groups around shared interests. Better still if we could have tools to collaborate in a way more like being in a room with paper and post it notes. We could really make a virtue of the Massive in MOOCs if we had these tools.

Reciprocal links with the Archaeology of Portus

One of the great things about FutureLearn is the opportunity to work with partner institutions. For example, we have seem many synergies between our Hadrian’s Wall course and Southampton University’s Archaeology of Portus. We see learners in Hadrian’s Wall discussing and recommending Portus or referring to specific steps and activities, and even continuing dialogue with fellow learners they met through Portus.

Professor Graeme Earle (lead educator on Portus) has added links between steps in the Archaeology of Portus and other MOOCs including Hadrian’s Wall, which we have reciprocated. Learners can more easily see and follow connections between the courses (see links below the two courses below). Currently, users have to be signed up to both courses for this to work. If FutureLearn realise the plan to make individual steps more open (viewable without signing up to the course) this will become even more powerful.

Graeme’s post: Hadrian’s Wall cross references

Archaeology of Portus

Portus Hadrian’s Wall
Development of the Port Hadrian: civilisation and barbarism
Aerial photography and LiDAR What does aerial photography tell us about the Roman advance?
Aerial photography and LiDAR Which archaeological features can you identify from these aerial photographs?
Find of the week – fineware Vessels for food and drink on the frontier
The Trajanic ports Can you read a tombstone?
Some finds from today Categorising small finds
Find of the week – Byzantine crucifix Belts, brooches and late Roman soldiers
Find of the week – Byzantine crucifix Brooches, artefacts and identity
Geophysical prospection Seeing beneath the soil
Terme Della Lanterna The bath house – a hive of Roman social activity
Photogrammetry and laser scanning of artefacts Reading and recording cult objects using laser scanning

Educational vodka: Making every step count

The FutureLearn Challenge

One of the challenges of developing a course in FutureLearn is ensuring the content and activities engage rather than overwhelm your audience. The participants have no exam to pass and they haven’t paid a fee. They will have varied education background and different levels of English. Some may be approaching the subject for the first time, others may  have a great deal of knowledge. They can leave the course at any time with no repercussion and the only thing likely to keeping them on task is intrinsic interest in the subject.

We know from the statistics we see from FutureLearn that If a video is too long, if a step requires too much scrolling, or if a week has too many steps (more than 20) you will lose a good chuck of your audience. At the same time, we want to facilitate deeper understanding and do justice to the complexity of the material.

Ian Haynes, the course leader for Hadrian’s Wall now views the challenge as ‘making every second count’. Rob Collins, working on the same course, describes it as, not dumbing down, but ‘distilling the essence of the learning, like making educational vodka’.

Educational vodka Recipe Ideas

We are very much still learning but we think the following can help:

  1. Signposting and calls to action. The learner (participant) needs to know what is coming and what is expected of them. FutureLearn often mention ‘Calls to Action’, which in marketing terms is what viewers need to do (sign up or buy something). In FutureLearn make it explicit that the learner should read the article, watch the video and them discuss what they have learnt, take the quiz, or do something with the information
  2. Focus on the key learning outcomes (this will help plan activities). At the same time make sure they are initially presented more like a documentary TV series, with “hooks” and possibly even a 3 act structure. Documentaries start by capturing the viewers’ attention, creating curiosity as a teaser for the rest of the series. Why did they build Hadrian’s Wall? What was it for? How might the skull have been found in the ditch etc. What are the obstacles to answering these questions? In Act 2 of a documentary, the protagonist attempts to resolve the problems, before a resolution in Act 3. It is interesting to think who the protagonist could be in a MOOC. It could be the teacher, academics, the discipline, or the subjects of a study (eg the Romans and Barbarians), but would it be more engaging if it is the learner (participant) who faces the challenges and overcomes at least some of the obstacles themselves?
  3. Journalists use Inverted pyramid writing, presenting the eye catching important information, and the “who, what, when and where” first, and the detail further down.
  4. Less is more. Keep articles and videos as short as possible. In essence, what does the learner know at the start and what do they need to do/discover to get to the next level of understanding?
  5. Balance of activities and engagement. Make sure that there are steps within activities that allow the learners to discuss, self-test or do something. Provide prompts in the form of questions that encourage reflection

Making the Most of the Steps You Have

  •  Each week’s content in FutureLearn is broken into activities which themselves  consist of a series of steps. Each activity starts with an image and 230 characters which does not itself count as a step. Use these 230 characters to introduce the content and hook the learner
  •  You shouldn’t put all the answers in the text and videos. The aim is for the learner to engage with materials (not passively receive all the answers). You can gradually reveal information through well facilitated discussions, whilst giving learners the opportunity to interpret evidence you give them, or show off their knowledge if they are more expert. If they make mistakes, that is part of the learning. Other learners as well as moderators can help the best answers float to the surface and steer others back on track. Peer reviews can serve a similar function
  • Articles and video steps can have additional files (pdfs) attached as well as links to websites. This can be a great way to give extra information to people who may be interested in finding out more. They should not be used for core material
  • There are weekly emails sent to participants as the course runs. These can be more responsive to learners, again offering links to answers or further opportunities
  • You could keep an external blog that runs during the course to provide additional information
  • Live events that take place during the course (eg Google Hangouts) not only provide a sense of interaction between learner and facilitator, they can provide additional content and learning as well. For one Hadrian’s Wall challenge, we are considering using a live event as a ‘reveal’ for an activity with a debate.
  • Quizzes are 1 step in the platform, but have an introduction page and can have further information and images as part of each question. Could an article be reformatted as an interactive case study style quiz? Could this be a more digestible way of working through the content, checking understanding as you go?

Filming for Learning

Video materials are essential to distance and on-line education and can transform campus based teaching (see for example flipping the classroom). The filming process is both enjoyable and challenging. Whilst much can be done with simple technologies (web cams, screen-casting software and mobile devices) a film crew (such as Newcastle’s Digital Media Team) can produce polished, professional material.

Planning the filming is essential and will save time and improve quality in the long run. Start by understanding what the video brings to the learning. You can then plan each shoot in detail. Finally, do not underestimate the logistics in bringing everything together.

Pre-Production

Plan the learning

  • Ensure you know what each clip is trying to achieve. What exactly does the learner need from the clip? What will the learner know/be able to do after the clip? What will prompt the user to view the clip? eg watch this video in order to answer a quiz, or participate in a discussion about a particular question.
  • What steps/activities will set up the learning and follow up on outcomes. Will there be a discussion/test or assignment?  what should the learner be thinking about whilst watching?
  • Remember that people are unlikely to watch long clips. 5 minutes is a maximum for most MOOC participants, but aim for less. Catch their attention in the first 15 seconds
  • You will need an accessible alternative eg a transcript of the text. This will also help people who don’t necessarily need it for accessibility reasons (for example so they can read it on the bus, make notes on the text etc)

Planning each shot

  • The film crew need to know exactly what you are aiming for, including what kind of shots, what style and who will be involved. A storyboard and/or detailed textual description will pay dividends
  •  Try to scout the location beforehand and use a mobile device if possible to try out some of the shots and see if they work.
  • Screen tests for performers can save time later. The film crew can help get the best performance
  • A script in outline or storyboard can help all participants understand what the shot is about.  Who will talk and what about? How long will people speak for? What objects/scenery will they will refer? This helps the film crew plan the shot, and the performer(s) deliver, even when you want them to improvise during filming
  • As a rule of thumb, allow an hour to shoot a five minute clip. This will depend on a variety of factors, but several takes may be needed and it takes time to set up equipment
  • Establishing shots help give the learner context, for example, by showing people arriving at the scene, showing a building from the outside. This prepares the viewer for what they are about to see and here eg by explaining why there is background noise so that viewers expect it and then ignore it rather than being distracted by it. Allow time for this
  • If time, plan to shoot from a range of angles to provide a more interesting sequence.  Don’t forget to shoot enough variety of cutaway shots – this can include wide (establishing) shots of the location, shots of hands as people talk, etc.
  • Allow extra time if detailed shots are required eg a close up of an artefact in a museum
  • Sequence of the shoot – plan the location shooting to reflect a logical order based not on the final product, but on the most efficient use of resources and travel / location set up
  • Allow extra time for cutaway shots eg a shot of something relevant that an interviewee is talking about. Cutaways also allow the video to be re-cut in different ways to allow for mistakes in interviews, taking bits out and so on, without having a choppy looking video as a result
  • Remember that whilst reality TV and documentaries make things appear spontaneous (almost as if they were shot in take), in fact it  can require planning, multiple takes from different angles and even scripting to produce something watch-able and seemingly natural
  • Shot logs – ensure that someone is logging the shots, takes, how it fits into the bigger picture and any potential issues that the post production team might need to be aware of

Logistical planning

  • When arranging transport, allow space for equipment as well as people (crew, academics, any students attending).
  • Permission for filming must be arranged with the organisation responsible for the location. Keep a copy of documentation related to this permission safe
  • Ask participants being filmed to complete a model release form in advance.
  • Health and safety risk assessment forms should be completed in advance. You may need a trained first aider on location
  • Remember that Copyright may apply to things in shot eg the cover of a book, an artwork etc
  • Allow plenty of time for editing after filming. You may also need additional images and footage (with appropriate Copyright clearance) to be cut into the sequence

Post Production

  • Editing – think about the pace and especially if dialogue driven. People generally don’t like to watch one wide shot of two people talking for a long time without any close ups of the speaker / or ‘noddies’ of the interviewer
  • Keep it short. Make every second count
  • Remember to have a transcript or alternative that gives some meaning to the text.
  • You can host materials in Youtube or Vimeo, and there can be very good reasons to do so, but the University has a streaming service ‘NuVision‘ giving you more control over the video and who can see it

Many thanks to the Digital Media team and Steve Herron for their input.

Visual Representation – proportional sizes

Sometimes it is more effective to represent figures in graphical form. One form of representation that is tricky to get right is proportional sizes of shape (square or circle) to illustrate the difference in size. For example, if you want to show one figure is twice the size of another, it is easy to create a circle that has a diameter twice as long as another, but this will be more than twice the volume, thus misrepresenting the difference.

The form at this link from think outside the box helps determine the correct relative size for shapes. You can then produce proportional shapes with an art package or PowerPoint to create your graphic.

This is one example showing the sizes of legions, cohorts and Centuries within the Roman army