I like the way FutureLearn merely sows the seed. Which is an odd sentence to start with, so I’ll go back a step.
As I wrote about in MOOCing all over the World Part 1, I’ve signed up to a MOOC written by the University of Leicester and hosted by FutureLearn. It being a non-accredited course it won’t get me a certificate, but possibly because of this it has given me the freedom to say ‘what the hell’ and choose a subject that doesn’t relate to my profession but does appeal to my interest in history: England in the Time of Richard III.
Each weekly session (there a 6) comprises of 15 to 20 bite-sized learning objects, be they an article of two brief paragraphs, a 3 minute video or short audio clip. Working through each object twice takes no longer than 10 minutes. That’s all there is, and that’s how this MOOCs plants that seed.
An article introduces us to a book of Middle English secular lyrics that have come down to us from before the end of the 14th century are preserved in a single manuscript, which dates from about 1314-25 by way of brief narrative and the inclusion of an image, doing nothing more than whetting the audience’s appetite to find out more. A click of the mouse opens a trail of comments from students offering their own insights into the use of lyrics in odes and poetry in the Middle Ages, pasting URLs and inviting others to start their own trail of investigation. One student asks if anyone knows of any examples of medieval music that can be found online, and another quickly pastes a link to a relevant YouTube video. It’s all low key, comments are limited to 1200 characters, so don’t ramble and the atmosphere is very convivial. Importantly, everything feels simple. Asynchronous discussion is carried out in a single chat pane, with no fixed starting point other than the learning object to which it is aligned. New object, new chat. Each thread develops at its own pace, and with no obligation on the part of the student to contribute, and so far each chat has quickly swollen in size. Some chats contain 50 or 60 posts, others have almost 400.
In many online courses discussion is sporadic, and many, many fora never get going past an initial starting point; often a specific question asked by a lecturer and based around the content of a previous session. In the FutureLearn MOOC, one discussion-based activity is added midway through each week’s topic, and two of these have collected almost 2500 responses each.
So it would appear that each of those seeds I mentioned earlier are germinating into tiny user-generated virtual learning environments replete with links to further information, suggestions for extra reading and even some surprisingly useful anecdotes from other students. I would suggest that these environments have fast become-I suspect as part of FutureLearn’s game-plan-the best method from which to learn on this course. And I can think of a number of ways that may be contributing to this. It’s to do with some (or all) of these:
- Everyone who’s here wants to be here. We want to give this some ‘me time’.
- Everyone here has one very specific, shared interest
- There is no obligation to contribute to the online chat, so the lack of pressure contributes to this state of relaxation and willingness to participate
- Certainly, as an indirect result of this, the community that is being formed is (currently) wholly enthusiastic, helpful and supportive
- On a purely technical level, students feel more relaxed engaging with discussions simply because the interface is simple to use
- This all helps to encourage self directed learning by providing a starting point for further online investigation
Of course, none of this is big news to the ‘in the know’ online community and those more scholarly than me. But I thought it worth a mention.