Good to see Futurelearn launch with 26 partners and
add another platform and community to the growing MOOC landscape. Mike Sharples
gave a clear, and honest, report on progress so far, at BETT. “We can’t compete
on technology, so we must compete on the learning experience” said Mike and
outlined the platform’s pedagogical approach in detail.
PLUS 1: Social
To be clear, I am NOT a social constructivist (see my 9 reasons why
), then again
neither are most of the people I hear utter the phrase, as they have rarely
read any of the background theory and often parrot the two words as if just
uttering them is enough to confer deep meaning. It’s always astonishing to hear
people who largely ‘lecture’ for a living, express strong beliefs around social
constructivist pedagogy. However, Futurelearn has people like Mike who know
their stuff and do have complete belief in social constructivist theories of
learning. In their case, there is a genione effort at applying social constructivist theory to the learning process through discussion opportunties on every screen. There are also mentors who ‘moderate’ the
discussions, looking for hot stuff.
PLUS 2: Cohorts and
A second plus is the activity groups, segmented into say 20
learners, who fill up the bus to go on a group learning journey, then the next
group of learners wait on the next bus and so on. Peer review and peer
assessment are also there for assignments. Your assignment goes into a pool and
you get six pieces of feedback, while you also assess other assignments. This
is all good stuff and I look forward to seeing how effective this ‘social
layering’ has been in learning. The danger is that the 'social constructivist' approach trumps or overwhelms the quality of the content.
PLUS 3: New player
The doomsayers warned us of a world dominated by one massive
MOOC player. Far from being a market dominated by one platform, the MOOCosphere
has a range of platforms (see analysis here
) on a range of technologies offering a range of
pedagogic models from adaptive and algorithmic through social constructivist to
direct instruction. The MOOC moaners are usually those who haven’t persevered
with a MOOC or, as I’ve found at two major conferences (WISE & Online
Educa), where the so-called ‘experts’ on the panels hadn’t taken a single MOOC.
It was like listening to schoolchildren struggle through a conversation because
they hadn’t done their homework, as they had little idea about the functionality
that supports different pedagogic models.
One can quibble about the courses but some of the University
partners are excellent, I spoke in detail to Hugh Davis of the University of
Southampton, who was positive, level-headed and proceeding as one should in
such projects, with a sense of realism combined with genuine curiosity about experimenting looking for what works and doesn’t work in MOOCs. Fascinatingly, they’re recruiting student volunteers from the first MOOC to mentor on subsequent MOOCs. That’s the spirit
of innovation I like to see. The partners are the people who will make this work
and so the relationships between the OU private company and the partners are
important. Edinburgh, for example, has MOOCs on both Coursera and Futurelearn.
I hope the OU will be as generous as Edinburgh were on their data.
MINUS 1: Not ‘open’
Once again I asked where the funding had come from for the
first batch of MOOCs and once again Mike ducked the question. I asked Simon Nelson
(CEO) the same question and he declined to answer. This, in my opinion, is
unnecessary. We know that this has taken at least £2 million of start-up taxpayers’
money, so why not be honest and tell us? It’s our money. I know how much
Coursera, Udacity and EdX have raised. The fact that it’s priming a private
company is a bit worrying for many (not for me) but I think, given the
disastrous IT projects and forays into other markets (US) that the BBC and Open
University have tried, being ‘open’ would have been welcome. The trick now, as
they will almost certainly have chewed through their original cash with
expensive BBC contractors, is how they sustain the company? Mike gave a good account
of the possibilities but this is achievable but only if they have some savvy
business people in the camp.
A great play is made of the ‘best of the UKs software talent
(from the BBC)’ being used on the project. This hyperbole may come back to haunt
them. The platform is nothing special. Indeed, in terms of functionality it is
quite basic with no real innovations. This is not a problem, because the
underlying pedagogy doesn’t need it. But the very idea that the BBC, who
recently had to abandon a £100 million Digital Media Initiative having achieved
nothing, makes this a rather laughable claim, as does the £75 million
squandered on BBC Jam, their last major online learning project, that collapsed
without a single piece of content being released. The BBC, far from being
added-value, is, I suspect an expensive and ultimately unnecessary resource.
MINUS 3: Infrequent
and odd courses
First thing to note is how infrequent the courses are.
There’s a substantial list of courses but many are not in this month and many
not until five or six months in the future. Two don’t have start dates at all –
this looks very odd - don’t they have production deadlines? Then there’s the
uninspiring nature of the catalogue. It looks more like a cobbled together evening list
than an inspiring set of courses. To be fair it’s the universities who chose
the courses, not the OU, so this is really a OU platform, not an OU offering.
MINUS 4: Design free
My last worry, and this is something summed up nicely by Graham
Brown-Martin, when he described Futurelearn as a ‘Skoda-level’ designed LMS. He
has a point, as the branding, screens and presentation are so deathly dull.
It’s like watching an unfinished, wire-frame demo. Again. To be fair, it’s
I applaud Martin Bean and the OU for this initiative but do
think it would have been a much stronger offering without the opacity on the
finances and cost and baggage that the BBC bring. Nobody believes that the BBC
is a world-leading software house and it’s ljust palin odd that a part-timer, someone
from Radio, was chosen to lead the project. I adore the OU and see Futurelearn
as a genuinely moral attempt to be ‘Open’ in HE and encourage us all to take at least one of their courses.