Thursday, 28 February 2013

FutureLearn: pedagogical & mLearning MOOC platform - the approach


For all of you out there wanting to push your government into setting up a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform gathering knowledge from all your national universities, take a look at the approach of UK’s open university on planning a MOOC platform, it looks very promising.

Ever since I was 9 years old I have watched school television on BBC where the Open University UK rolled out wonderfully rich and comprehensible visual content. At age 10 I could understand and speak basic English thanks to them (Dutch being my mother tongue). Now, as in a dream come true I am researching right at the center of that same institution and … even bigger news: they are starting up their own MOOC platform, the so called FutureLearn ! So ok, I am a bit enthusiastic here - read subjective - but after hearing yesterday’s introduction focusing on the pedagogical and design plans of the FutureLearn MOOC platform from Mr UK-MOOC himself – Mike Sharples – I gladly list why I think FutureLearn starts with an advantage and could become a strong contender to the already existing xMOOC platforms out there (EDx, Udacity, Coursera...). 

Strong pedagogy and ubiquitous design at its core
  • Start from ubiquity, mobile design: we live in a mobile age, immigration, brain drain, brain movement, hopping between cities, moving to where the work is … an increasing amount of people are becoming citizens of the world. This mobility is enabled in part by telecommunications, more specifically mobile devices. And all of us are using mobile devices more frequently each day. This is a global movement, as many developing regions are also mainly accessing web content through mobiles. As such, building a platform starting from mobile ubiquity is – to me – the right thing to do. Forget mobile enabled, bring mobile learning at the core of the design, as well as content and learner activity and this will result in more course engagement (more on that tomorrow, will share some of my research on that topic).
  • Built pedagogy linked to mobility and social media: offer small content snippets, provide short courses as well as longer courses, build a narrative to anchor the content that is offered and the learning actions that are demanded from the participants for higher retention, …
  • Engaging the learner for their needs: as many of us are lifelong learners, engaging in learning that fits our knowledge needs is important (and time saving), this is also taken into account in the new platform: short courses (6 – 8 weeks, but can vary), progressive rewards (informal and formal).
  • Put an institute with online pedagogy experience right at the core of the set-up and planning. The only people really knowing what online learning is about, are the open universities world wide. They are best equipped to set up MOOCs using proven practices for online courses. And yes, MOOCs are different from traditional online courses, but they have similarities. And the Open University of the UK is right at the center of FutureLearn. They understand Open Educational Resources, online dynamics, getting learners accustomed with online learning... for them the transition of getting online courses to a qualitative strong MOOC level is within reach.
  • Build in rapid iteration options, so the platform can be optimized as research and consequent analysis provides  new insights 
Challenges faced by starting a (national) MOOC platform:
  • Access to relevant research and information sources (sometimes good research papers and information are only accessible through payment)
  • High quality course content: e.g. rich multimedia, preferably accessible to all
  • Solving online best practices learning problems
  • Ubiquitous platform: users will use their own devices (UYOD comes to mind)
  • And most importantly (in my view): a platform that meets the learning needs of the participants as mentioned above: tailored, guiding learners through chaos that comes along with MOOCs, multiple devices with which learners will access it…) which inevitably leads to contemporary sound pedagogy.

So how does FutureLearn seem to tackle these challenges (remember, I only took notes during the presentation of the platform, so I could be wrong at some point due to my speedy note taking)?

Using the strengths that already exist – partnering up
The UK has some strong elements for setting up a MOOC (but then all of us have, it is their approach which is usable!):
  • A high quality multimedia production house (BBC). Just think about the awesome documentaries! (National Geographic also comes to mind when looking at great visuals)
  • A high profile national library: the British Library just teamed up with FutureLearn, enabling course participants to have access to resources (not sure to what extent, this access can be guaranteed taking into account copyright/costs and such, but … they are partners so the best possible options become possible)
  • Bringing together strong partners: FutureLearn says to partner up with top UK universities (looking at the 30 most highly rated universities – not sure how this works in practice). Strong partners means, proven qualitative content and teaching approaches (admittedly old school teaching). 
  • Linking traditional university learning with online learning: this is where the combination of Open University with UK universities comes in. 

So FutureLearn is rolling out the big guns, building a platform which is embedding educational tools and formats enriching todays educational reality.

On the critical side
All of the above is great in theory, and I really belief the approach starting from a strong, contemporary pedagogy is the only way to have a sound base for any learning platform, but … turning this into practice can proof to be quite challenge. For it means that all stakeholders involved must be willing to go through the change. And change management as we all know is the toughest human nut to crack. So will it work? Will the platform be as innovative as planned? Will participants be willing to reinvent their learning? Will the facilitators of these courses be willing to put themselves in the new teacher roles as guides on the side? We will see, but as to date, FutureLearn is said to roll out its first open courses in September 2013, having gone through beta testing by then, so … let’s wait and see!