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Digital education

My experience of completing a micro-credential with the OU through the FutureLearn Platform

12 August 2022

David John Crowther
Learning Technology Support Officer

I recently completed a micro-credential called Online Teaching: Creating Courses for Adult Learners with the Open University. It was a 12-week course delivered entirely online through their FutureLearn platform, with an expectation of around 12-13 hours per week of study time.

I’m a Learning Technologist and relatively new to the profession. My background is primarily in IT support in higher education, and barring a few years spent teaching English abroad, I didn’t have much experience of teaching, or an understanding of pedagogy and learning design prior to beginning the course. I was keen to deepen my understanding of those areas and start to fill in the knowledge gaps in my role as a learning technology professional so I jumped at the chance for some accredited CPD funded by my employer.

In my job, I’m immersed in the world of learning technology every day, and provide support to educators, advising on best-practice and the application of a range of educational technologies. I have been out of education myself for many years. I completed my bachelor’s degree in 2007, have not studied formally since then, and had no experience of studying online. It was going to be an interesting experience for me to be a student again after all these years, learning in a way that I had never experienced. As a learning technology professional working with academics, my experience is mostly of the teacher side of the teaching and learning equation. It was going to be interesting to see things from a student’s perspective studying online.

I must admit, the prospect of trying to fit 12-13 hours a week of study around other commitments was a daunting prospect. I have a full-time job and two pre-school age children. A typical day for me doesn’t finish until around 8:30pm, after work and childcare duties are done, so I had to try and find time to study as and when I could during my working day, evenings, and weekends. In addition, I was very conscious of the fact that I was taking on study at postgraduate level, alongside professional educators and learning technology professionals who in my mind, were much cleverer, knowledgeable, and more experienced than me. I was nervous about trying to sound intelligent, worried that the course content would be too difficult for me and that I’d struggle to keep up.

This course was my first experience of using FutureLearn. I was aware of it, knew what it was, and knew there were similar platforms out there such as Coursera, but I’d never actually studied using the platform before. I didn’t know what to expect and so I approached it with an open mind.

My first impressions of the platform were how clean the interface was and how easy it was to navigate around the course. It was well laid out in a linear structure with each week’s content following in sequence making it easy to follow. I liked how it was structured so that learners were stepped through the content in sequence, each week’s content building on the previous and leading into the next. As I was progressing through the course and completing tasks, a progress bar gave me a visual indication of where I was each week, which tasks I had completed and what I still had left to do so I always knew where I was in my studies. This helped me stay on top of things and I could jump in and out of the course, picking up where I left off when it suited me.

Week 1 mainly revolved around orientation, getting to know the platform, introductions to the tutors and other learners, finding out where I could go for help if needed, and a gentle introduction to the course material before diving in fully. This first week was crucial for me as someone who had been out of education for a long-time and who was new to online learning. It prepared me for what was to follow and put me at ease by giving me a clear idea of what to expect from the course. I see how valuable this is in an online course is, especially for those who may be new to online learning. I come from an IT background and can familiarise myself quickly with a new platform, but others may not initially have those digital skills and may be nervous about studying online. Giving learners the confidence and support to fully engage sets them up well and increases the likelihood that they’ll succeed in their studies. I think this is an essential step that should be included in all online courses and is certainly something I’ll be keeping in mind in my own practice.

The opportunity to get to know the other learners on the course was also valuable. This was facilitated through the discussion sections at the bottom of each page of the course. We could interact with other learners by posting comments to introduce ourselves, ask questions, and share knowledge and insights. This was important for building a sense of community right from the start. I was pleasantly surprised and more than a little relieved to realise that I didn’t need to feel nervous about my level of expertise compared to the other learners. Many of them were in the same boat and had similar feelings and worries about the course. This helped me relax and made me feel more like part of a community of learners who were all in it together, supporting and learning from each other. I felt more comfortable asking questions because it was made clear that no question was too silly and there wasn’t any pressure to try and sound intelligent. I could engage with the course on my own terms, mostly at my own pace and feel supported by the tutors and other learners.

In the first few weeks of the course, I was very motivated and kept on top of my studies, managing to complete all the tasks, comment in discussions and put in the expected 12-13 weekly study hours. It did help that when starting the course, it was a quieter period at work, and I had time during my working day to fit in some study around my other responsibilities. I think I would have struggled to keep up if I was relying only on a few hours in evenings and weekends to study.

Perhaps it sounds lazy, but after a full working day sitting at a computer followed by childcare duties until 8.30pm, most evenings the last thing I wanted to do was sit down at my computer again to spend more hours studying late into the night. I was so tired by then that I’m not even sure how effective my studying would have been or how much I would have retained. Mostly I just wanted to flop onto the sofa in exhaustion, switch my brain off and watch Netflix. Weekends were an option, but again, with two young children, weekends were mostly reserved for family time. I had some time for study, but it was limited. In addition to a full-time job and familial responsibilities, there was also the need to sleep, eat and have a bit of down-time. It’s difficult to be switched on and focused on work, family and study all day, every day. I admire those that have the stamina and commitment for it. Sadly, I’m not one of them.

A big takeaway for me was that for part-time students trying to balance study alongside work and childcare, it’s hard, really hard. Staying motivated is a real challenge. For the first few weeks, I was very enthusiastic. I was on it. Then the school holidays arrived, and I took my family away on a one-week break. I took my laptop with me, intending to do some studying while away, but the caravan where we were staying had no internet access and with no other options, studying was impossible. By the time we returned home, I was a week behind on the course. This coincided with a busier period at work, meaning I had less time for study during the day, and I began to fall further behind. A week behind became two weeks, and then three. At this point I was struggling to keep up and was losing motivation. In an effort to make up for lost time, I started taking a more surface level approach to the course material, engaging with the content less deeply than I would have liked. I found myself trying to get through the reading and activities as quickly as I good to catch-up. I didn’t do any further reading beyond the course material, and engaged less and less in the discussions, commenting and liking other learners’ posts less frequently, and paying less attention to replies to my own posts. I don’t think I was alone in this though. As the weeks went by, the number of posts in the discussion areas noticeably became fewer. It seems that other learners had adopted a similar approach to me and were just trying to race through the course to get to the end and submit their assignment.

I didn’t really like the ‘discussion’ areas of the course. Due to its asynchronous nature, and learners arriving at different stages of the course at different times, I often found myself arriving for ‘discussions’ late. Other learners had already completed that section of the course, commented in the discussion section, and moved on. For me it felt like being in an empty chat room reading former participants’ previous comments rather than a real-time chat/discussion. I sometimes commented, but wasn’t expecting to get many replies, if any at all. I think I would have preferred something more synchronous for discussion activities where I could interact with the tutors and other learners in real-time. In the end, the experience for me was much more one of independent learning rather than learning with others. It was hard to engage and be part of a learning community when I was just trying to keep up. I ended up mostly studying by myself.

Another aspect of the course I didn’t enjoy so much were the weekly quizzes. They felt a bit arbitrary. Rather than testing and reinforcing my understanding of the week’s content, it felt more like an exercise in whether I could memorise and repeat certain facts, statistics or passages from the course material. In the later stages of the course, I was rushing through the content to keep up, engaging sporadically and less deeply. Sometimes there was a gap of a few days before picking up where I left off, meaning it was difficult to remember what I had covered earlier that week. When it came to the weekly quiz, I often struggled to remember the content and couldn’t answer some of the questions off the bat. I found myself having to go back through that week’s content to look up the answer. I didn’t feel that I really benefited from the quizzes as a learning activity and just saw them as another task I had to complete as quickly as possible before moving on.

One aspect of the course I did like was that at various stages throughout, there were activities that required us to start thinking about and preparing some of the content that would make up the final assignment. I liked this patchwork approach, building, amending, and improving my assignment as I went along. It took the pressure off somewhat and meant that when the time came to complete and submit my assignment, I had already done most of the work. I imagine that if I hadn’t started work on the assignment until near the end of the course, I would have struggled knowing what to do and submitting before the deadline.

I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be able complete and submit my assignment in time and complete the course. As we entered the final weeks, and the content turned towards preparing our assignments for submission, I was still a few weeks behind. I considered giving up entirely but in the end I persevered. I did rush through the final weeks’ content so that I could concentrate on completing and submitting my assignment, but I did manage to cobble together and submit something. It wasn’t as good as I would have liked it to be though. I really struggled with writing the rationale which I feel was due in part to the fact that I hadn’t engaged with the course content very deeply and didn’t have a good enough understanding of the material to write a convincing and well-evidenced rationale in support of my learning design decisions. I was glad I was able to submit something by the deadline though, even if it wasn’t very good. I do hope I did enough to at least scrape a pass.

I felt a huge sense of relief when I finally submitted my assignment. It had been a hard slog and completing the micro-credential had pretty much taken over my life for the previous 12 weeks. Now it was done. I could forget about it and move on to other things.

Reflecting on the 12 weeks I spent studying on the course, although it was challenging and stressful at times, I’m glad I did it and I do think that I benefitted from it. Whilst it hasn’t turned me overnight into a learning technology guru with a deep understanding of pedagogy, I still felt I learned a lot. The content covered was enough of an introduction into the various concepts for me to act as a jumping off point for further study. One of the benefits of completing the course is that you retain access to the course materials afterwards. This will be a useful resource for me to refer to as I continue to develop professionally. It was also very useful to experience things from the student perspective, trying to complete a quite intense postgraduate level course alongside work and family commitments. I really saw how challenging it is.

Would I attempt another 12-week micro-credential like this one? No, not for the foreseeable future at least. It’s simply not a realistic prospect for me right now with the other time pressures in my life, and after being out of formal education for so long, I don’t think I’m quite ready for postgraduate level study yet. I struggled with the academic writing and learning how to reference properly. I think if I were to try again, I would need to complete a study skills course first or perhaps a short course on preparing for postgraduate study.

Would I like to complete other short courses on FutureLearn? Yes, absolutely. I really liked the platform, how the course was structured and how you’re guided through the materials in sequence. I enjoyed the reading, tasks, and reflective activities each week. It was a very engaging course and for someone like me, who doesn’t have the option of returning to full-time education on a campus-based course, the flexibility to be able to study from home at my own pace as and when it suits me is a huge benefit. It enables me to keep learning and developing on my own terms, at a pace that works for me. For me, FutureLearn provided a more than adequate alternative to a face-to-face course. In many ways I think I preferred it to more traditional forms of education. I really felt like I was studying on a proper course, alongside other learners, rather than just watching a tutorial video on LinkedIn Learning or something similar.

I’ve already made a shortlist of other courses I’d like to complete on FutureLearn. They’re much more manageable in terms of time commitment with only 2-3 hours of study required per week. That’s a much more realistic prospect for me. I think I may pay for a FutureLearn unlimited subscription to get access to more courses. At £19.99 per month (discounted at £9.99 for the first few months), I think it is good value considering the quality of the courses and the platform. The short courses don’t have fixed deadlines which means I can complete them when it suits me, without the pressure of meeting deadlines.

If I could change anything about the micro-credential that I completed, it would be to have less strict submission deadlines, perhaps with several submission points spread throughout the year to give learners some flexibility and choice on when they can submit their work. That would take the pressure off a little and allow learners such as myself a little more breathing room to study at their own pace. The pressure to keep up with a 12-week course and submit by the deadline may be too much for some people, could result in disengagement and eventually giving up altogether. I think more flexibility would increase learner autonomy and would be in line with the UDL principles covered in the course.

I’m glad for the experience of completing the micro-credential. I wouldn’t want to do it again any time soon, but I did gain a lot from it. The course content was directly relevant to my work as a learning technologist in higher education and I will be taking a lot of the concepts and ideas into my own practice.