Making great online courses: 10 insights from FutureLearn

PART ONE: by Reka Budai, Strategy & Insights Analyst at FutureLearn

At FutureLearn, we take great pride in having high quality courses from reputable institutions and educators. When asked recently in our Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey, 91% of learners said that the last course they took on FutureLearn met or exceeded their expectations. To make sure we continuously improve our courses together with our partners, we have a diligent evaluation process in place that looks at learner behaviour data coupled with learner feedback. The main objectives of our course evaluation are to understand what we could improve for reruns, and to uncover overall patterns in excellent course design. Learners consistently give us the same reasons why a course did not meet their expectations, or why a course was outstanding, compared to other online courses they have taken before.

To help educators who are starting to design courses for online learners, we summarised our top 10 insights from course evaluation. Here are the first five:

1. Think beyond English – While most of FutureLearn’s courses are in English, and the platform itself requires a certain level of proficiency, the global reach of FutureLearn means that approximately 60% of our learners speak English as a second language. Although FutureLearn has language-related aids in place (such as subtitles and video transcripts), course creators can go beyond this by keeping non-native-English speakers in mind when creating new course content. For example, we have recently changed some of our own language usage to make it more accessible to this audience based on the guidance we received from the British Council, who have immense expertise in talking to a non-native audience.  

2. Keep it short and simple – If you ask learners, they always prefer more videos and less ‘lengthy boring articles’ in their courses. However, we should keep in mind that reading requires active concentration and understanding – so even though it might be more challenging than watching videos, articles remain an important element of course design. That said, based on our analysis, we discovered that some articles are indeed more complex than others – to a point that might hinder enjoyable learning, especially when thinking of non-native English-speaking learners. Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, we found the average difficulty of articles on FutureLearn to be 45 (roughly between Time magazine and Harvard Law Review), yet about a quarter of our articles scored at the ‘very difficult’ level. This led us to develop a tool which analyses article text and reports the score to educators, enabling them to understand and adjust the readability of their articles during course development.

3. Use practical examples from around the world – We bring together a global learning community, which is one of the most attractive aspects of studying with FutureLearn. Learners greatly appreciate seeing examples from around the world – for example, learners can be quite surprised, yet reassured, that a teacher in China faces exactly the same behavioural management issues as one in England. Practical case studies are also illustrative additions to the course, for example learners were unanimously grateful for learning about a real-life patient in Exeter’s Genomic Medicine course. One learner mentioned that this case gave the course a real human element.

4. Schedule with learners in mind A successful online course is designed and built with the target audience in mind at all times, especially when it comes to planning an ideal start date. We looked at seasonality effects to understand whether there are some clear peaks and valleys in the number of enrolments throughout the year. What we saw is that most of the time, supply drives demand, which suggests we should make sure that courses are evenly spread, rather than competing for the limited available time of our learners.

However, one clear peak appears in January: not only is ‘learning something new’ a popular new year’s resolution, but learners might also want to address a personal finance or health situation, and look for more information to manage this. The other peak we saw is quite specific – teaching is probably one of the few professions to have a very clear schedule. Scheduling courses aimed at teachers should therefore be avoided at busy times in the school year (May/June and September), though we see a clear growth in enrolments in October once things settle down a bit. 

5. Fit around learner’s regular lives – when designing online courses, we are designing for people who might have a full-time job, need to pick up kids from school and just want to watch TV after an exhausting day. So even though they want to learn something new, we need to be able to fit into their busy lives if we want them to stay with us. The most often mentioned reason for leaving a course is life getting in the way: 35% of learners that leave our courses say that they struggle with time to complete the course. To maximise completion and satisfaction, plan for a reasonable workload and be clear upfront with the time requirement.  Also, run the course for a manageable time period: our research and experience show that the ideal course length is 4-6 weeks, allowing learners to go into sufficient depth while making it possible to fit learning commitments into their lives.

Come back to Education Technology tomorrow to find part two of this article, and five more great tips from FutureLearn on creating high-quality online courses.


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