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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.