In FutureLearn's MOOCs, Conversation Powers Learning at Massive Scale

two laptops facing each other with blue conversation bubbles above them
Illustration: iStockphoto

“Personalized learning” is one of the hottest trends in education these days. The idea is to create software that tracks the progress of each student and then adapts the content, pace of instruction, and assessment to the individual’s performance. These systems succeed by providing immediate feedback that addresses the student’s misunderstandings and offers additional instruction and materials.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has reportedly spent more than US $300 million on personalized learning R&D, while the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative—the investment and philanthropic company created by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan—has also signalled its commitment to personalized learning (which Zuckerberg announced on Facebook, of course). Just last month, the two groups teamed up for the first time to jointly fund a $12 million program to promote personalized classroom instruction.

But personalized learning is hard to do. It requires breaking down a topic into its component parts in order to create different pathways through the material. It can be done, with difficulty, for well-structured and well-established topics, such as algebra and computer programming. But it really can’t be done for subjects that don’t form neat chunks, such as economics or psychology, nor for still-evolving areas, such as cybersecurity.

What’s more, this latest wave of personalized learning may have the unintended consequence of isolating students because it ignores the biggest advance in education of the past 50 years: learning through cooperation and conversation. It’s ironic that the inventor of the world’s leading social media platform is promoting education that’s the opposite of social.

Interestingly, one early proponent of personalized learning had a far more expansive view. In the 1960s, Gordon Pask, a deeply eccentric British scientist who pioneered the application of cybernetics to entertainment, architecture, and education, co-invented the first commercial adaptive teaching machine, which trained typists in keyboard skills and adjusted the training to their personal characteristics. A decade later, Pask extended personalized learning into a grand unified theory of learning as conversation.

For the layperson and even for a lot of experts, Pask’s Conversation Theory is impenetrable. But for those who manage to grasp it, it’s quite exciting. In essence, it explains how language-using systems, including people and artificial intelligences, can come to know things through well-structured conversation. He proposed that all human learning involves conversation. We converse with ourselves when we relate new experience to what we already know. We converse with teachers when we respond to their questions and they correct our misunderstandings. We converse with other learners to reach agreement.

This is more than an abstract theory of learning. It is a blueprint for designing educational technology. Pask himself developed teaching machines that conversed with students in a formalized language, represented as dynamic maps of interconnected concepts. He also introduced conversational teaching methods, such as Teachback, where the student explains to the teacher what has just been taught.

Pask’s theory still has relevance today. I know, because for the past four years, I’ve helped develop a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platform based on his ideas. The platform is operated by FutureLearn, a company owned by The Open University, the UK’s 48-year-old public distance learning and research university.

As Academic Lead for FutureLearn, I was determined not to copy existing MOOC platforms, which primarily focus on delivering lectures at a distance. Instead, we designed FutureLearn for learning as conversation, and in such a way that learning would improve with scale, so that the more people who signed up, the better the learning experience would be.

Every course involves conversation as a core element. Each teaching step, whether video, text, or interactive exercise, has a flow of comments, questions, and replies from learners running alongside it. The steps make careful use of questions to prompt responses: What was the most important thing you learned from the video? Can you give an example from your own experience?

There are also dedicated discussions, in which learners reflect on the week’s activity, describe how they performed on assessments, or answer an open-ended question about the course. And online study groups allow learners to work together on a task and discuss their learning goals.

Even student assessment has a conversational component. Learners write short structured reviews of other students’ assignments, and in return they receive reviews of their assignments from their peers. Quizzes and tests are marked by computer, but the results come with pre-written responses from the educator.

When we began designing FutureLearn, previous research suggested that students don’t like to collaborate and converse online. Other online learning platforms that provide forums to discuss a course find these features are generally not well used. But that may be because these features are peripheral, whereas we put conversation at the heart of learning.

From the start, the conversations took off. In June 2015, the British Council ran the largest ever online MOOC, on preparing for the IELTS English language proficiency exam. Some 271,000 people joined the FutureLearn course, including many based in the Middle East and Asia. Just one video on that course attracted over 60,000 comments from learners. By then, we had realized that the scale of conversation needed to be tamed by using the social media techniques of liking and following. We also encouraged course facilitators to reply to the most-liked comments so that learners who were following the facilitators would see them.

We had expected to deal with abusive comments on courses like “Muslims in Britain” and “Climate Change.” That hasn’t happened, and we aren’t entirely sure why. The initial testers of FutureLearn were Open University alumni, so perhaps they modelled good practice. Comments are moderated to remove the occasional abusive remark, but most of the conversation streams are so overwhelmingly positive that dissenters get constructive responses rather than triggering flame wars.

To be clear, students aren’t required to take part in a discussion to complete a FutureLearn course, but the learning is definitely enriched when students read the responses of other learners and join in. On average, a third of learners on a FutureLearn course contribute comments and replies.

FutureLearn is now a worldwide MOOC platform, with more than six million total registrations. We’re continuing to consider new conversational features, such as reflective conversations where learners write and discuss annotations on the teaching material, and experiential learning where learners share their personal insights and experiences.

FutureLearn has taken the path of social learning and proven that it can work at scale. Going forward, the big challenge for FutureLearn and for educational technology in general will be to find ways of combining the individual pathways and adaptive content of personalized learning with the benefits of learning through conversation and collaboration.

About the Author

Mike Sharples is Professor of Educational Technology at The Open University and Academic Lead at FutureLearn. He is Associate Editor in Chief of IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies and a Senior Member of IEEE.

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