How do you create the most popular MOOC?

The British Council’s MOOC has received more sign-ups than any other course on FutureLearn. So what’s the secret to its success?

The British Council’s Exploring English MOOC has so far received more sign-ups than any other online course on the FutureLearn platform. Chris Cavey, Open Learning Manager at the British Council, tells us the secret to its success 

Could you tell us more about the ‘Exploring English’ MOOC – why did you decide to create it?

The British Council has been involved in English language teaching for more than 70 years and has very successful websites for learners and teachers that attract around five million users a month, so we already have a large online audience. Working with FutureLearn gave us the opportunity to try something new and interesting and it was a partnership that was a good fit with the British Council remit of offering opportunities for English language learners and adding value for UK companies like FutureLearn.

We decided to make the course about UK culture as well as English language because we’re aware, from the work we do, of the huge interest in UK culture around the world. We also thought it was a good idea to focus on an area where everyone who joined the course would have something to share – their opinion about the UK and something about their own culture. 

What does the course offer?

We ask learners to give two hours a week to the course. They’ll be asked to share their opinion about an aspect of UK culture (music, countryside, literature, etc.) then they’ll watch a short video featuring unscripted authentic English. A video tutor will point out some of the language features in the video and then learners will do some exercises to work on that language. There isn’t a language syllabus, rather we look at features of authentic speech and show learners ways they can add polish to their own English. The course is aimed at learners at intermediate (approx. B1 on the CEFR) and above. At the end of each week learners share some information about their own country. This could be recommending a book or a film or talking about national and regional identity and what it means in their country.

I think the main thing it offers learners is the opportunity to feel like part of a global community of learners. For example, I’ve seen learners from Japan chatting with learners in Brazil and talking about the broad stereotypes of each others’ countries or Italian learners reminiscing with Russians about popular Italian singers of the ’80s. The learners are engaged in genuine exchange in a way that mirrors their use of social media in many ways and I think they find that very motivating. 

How many people have now signed up?

Overall, there have been over 225,000 sign-ups to the course’s two runs. For the first run, our audience was 67% female and came from over 190 countries. Around 30% of the learners were involved in education, either as students or teachers and activity in the discussions suggests that the course is very popular with English teachers. Spain has had the largest number of learners with Russia, Brazil and Italy making up the top four. 

Do you have plans to offer similar online courses in the future?

Yes – our course about the IELTS language test starts on May 11 and we have a number of other courses in the pipeline. 

How do you think the rise in online courses will change HE?

As Simon Nelson of FutureLearn says, ‘MOOCs are not going to transform education, the internet is.’ There may have been a spell about a year ago when everyone suddenly thought ‘we have to have a MOOC!’ but actually, I don’t think that’s true. What institutions do have to do is work out how they will respond to the challenges and opportunities that the internet brings to education.

Do you think we are utilising MOOCs, or could we be doing more? 

It’s early days, I think. It’s an exciting time for us in the British Council as we explore the potential for MOOCs but I think our situation may be slightly different from that of universities and other institutions. 

Through offering the Exploring English MOOC what have you discovered about online learning? 

Lots! The big question for me was how were we going to keep such a large audience engaged when there were so few educators on the course? The ratio of learners to educators was around 15,000:1. And what happened was that the learners started working together to help each other, answer each other’s questions and guide each other towards answers. The way the social aspects developed was extremely interesting. We’re involved in online learning in other websites and online courses but the ways that social learning took place on Exploring English were, for me, the most interesting part.