Making great online courses: 10 insights from FutureLearn

PART TWO: 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 is part two: 

6. Manage and meet expectations – Another frequently mentioned reason for dissatisfaction is a mismatch between the prerequisite knowledge of a course and the learner’s actual knowledge. Saying that the course is for ‘everyone interested’ in the ‘Who is this course for?’ section might seem like an inclusive option, but it can lead to the course not satisfying any learners’ needs. Professionals often mention that if a course is for everyone, it can be insufficiently advanced for their needs. Equally, a high-level course that invites everyone might cause disappointment, with some learners not being able to keep up with the pace and content. Be clear upfront about whom can benefit the most from the course and what previous knowledge is required from them – University of Groningen’s ‘Language testing during awake brain surgery’ has a good example of a requirement description.

7. Use quizzes to teach and challenge – Quizzes are often mentioned as one of learners’ favourite part of a course, as they find it useful to check their own understanding of the learnt material. However, not all quizzes are created equal. A well-designed quiz explains the right answer, so it functions also as a learning tool, not only as a form of assessment. Also, it should be fairly challenging – learners complain about patronising quizzes, as they feel that their time was wasted – they could have gotten all the right answers even without going through all the study materials. Finally, a quiz should not only test fact recall, but much rather a deeper understanding of concepts learnt throughout the course.

8. Engage with the learners FutureLearn’s platform was uniquely designed to stimulate conversation between educators and learners, enabling learning by sharing and discussing different perspectives. When asked about their favourite parts of the course, learners often mention their interactions with the educator team – receiving a piece of advice or personalised answer to their question can give a really unique touch to the course experience. When we asked learners who felt that the course they took exceeded their expectations, the third most cited reason was educator engagement, giving a real boost to learner motivation to keep up with the course. Even people who did not participate in discussions mentioned that they would still read mentor contributions, as a highly credible source of information. 

9. Golden nuggets: additional links and summaries – Learners greatly vary in their motivations, existing knowledge, and time availability, so when designing a course, it can be hard to cater for all needs.  By including additional links to journals and other reading resources, you can provide sufficient information for learners who are hungry for more. When we analysed ‘most liked’ and ‘bookmarked’ learner comments, one clear pattern was that useful links and additional knowledge sources were ranked higher than more ‘opinion based’ contributions. Learners also greatly value downloadable summary PDFs and weekly recaps that help them synthesize their knowledge and retain information.

10. Interact and have fun – When we asked learners about particularly memorable courses, learners often mentioned ones where they were introduced to new interactive learning tools. We recognise that there is an incredible array of interactive tools online, hence instead of developing equivalents on our platform, we encourage educators to build on these proven tools when designing their courses. A good example is Padlet, used by Cambridge English Language Assessment in ‘Teaching your subject in English’ – where teachers were asked to share their lesson plans. The tool allowed for more interaction and depth than the discussion section would have. Learners were equally enthusiastic about the chatbot introduced by University of Oslo’s Introduction to Norwegian course.  They could practise their newly acquired Norwegian skills with a chat application – a highly interactive and fun way to put theory into practice.

Data sources:

  • Post-course surveys (more than 50 surveys comprising more than 5000 responses in total)
  • NPS surveys (500-800 respondents per survey) measuring overall satisfaction with FutureLearn
  • Qualitative learner interviews

See part one of this article here.


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