Seven things we learned by doing a MOOC by Professor Robert Jones

Professor Robert Jones (@robertjones2) will be hosting a live webinar called Digging Deeper into Branding on Monday 2nd March at 12 noon GMT. Click here to watch live or view after the live streaming.

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It was on a plane high above the Atlantic, in January 2013, that I first came across MOOCs. An Economist article was reporting on a new phenomenon from America – massive open online courses – and how they could transform universities. A month later, back at work at Wolff Olins in London, I found myself branding Britain’s first MOOC platform, FutureLearn. And six months later, we at UEA were creating the first course for FutureLearn, ‘The secret power of brands’ – a small sampler from our full-time postgrad course, Brand leadership.

We got into MOOCs mainly in order to learn. No-one knows where the whole digital education thing will go, or whether online teaching really will transform universities, but we wanted to get involved, to try it, and to get ahead of the curve. So what have we learned?

There’s a huge appetite

We’ve run our course four times so far, and in total 50,000 people have signed up. We’ve been astonished by the level of interest, from practically every country on the planet. Not everyone starts the course, let alone finishes it, and it’s up to each learner to choose how deeply they want to get involved. But there’s no sign of interest petering out: online courses are definitely not just a fad.

The trick is in the framing

With 20 years experience as a branding practitioner, I’m not short of things to say. But putting content into an online PowerPoint isn’t the same thing as helping people learn. We had to find ways to show things, not just tell them (not as easy as it sounds). And to help people discover things for themselves. The trick we learned is to frame the content with questions that trigger people’s critical intelligence, so that they don’t just drink up our content, they challenge it too: a technique I’ve learned from UEA’s education technology expert Helena Gillespie.

People learn best from their peers

I found the first run slightly terrifying. FutureLearn encourages learners to post comments all the way through the course, and that’s exactly what they do. On the first run alone, they posted 30,000 comments in total – how could I possibly read them all? After a while, I learned to relax, to just dip into the discussion, and to let the learners get on without me. Feedback shows that people have a brilliant learning experience just from interacting with each other. One of the most successful elements is in week 2, when people mark each other’s essays. People tell us that they learn a lot from writing an essay, but so much more from marking someone else’s.

You can test even the most amorphous knowledge

Branding is not a subject where there are right and wrong answers (or even an agreed terminology). You can test people through essays and projects – but could online tests, which have to be multiple-choice, ever work? We learned that they can. It’s hard work writing questions that dig deeper than the pub quiz kind, but it can be done. You can get people really thinking hard by asking them to choose among possible definitions of a concept, or among possible courses of action, or among possible reasons for something. The most unstructured knowledge is testable in a structured way.

A face helps

Of course, online learning can become depersonalised, and we quickly discovered that it helps to have a face on film, and a voiceover behind slideshows. I do a short YouTube message at the end of each week, to create a sense of personal contact. And on each run of the course, we put on a Google Hangout or a webinar, so that learners can talk to us live. We also discovered hat it helps for learners to do the course with a nearby friend.

MOOCs change lives

By far the most common word used in feedback on the course is ‘eye-opening’: the course opens people’s eyes to the things that organisations do to build their brands, so they never quite see the world the same way again. Many learners tell us they’ve used the course to influence branding at the company they work for, or to help build the brand of their own start-ups. And we’re just starting to see a flow of learners applying for our full-time course at UEA.

Online learning works

The biggest discovery for me is that online learning actually works. It’s often seen as second-best to face-to-face learning: not true. People can learn at their own speed, in their own time, review things as often as they like – it’s all on their agenda, not the teacher’s. In fact, I’ve applied this to my full-time course, adopting the ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where all my content is online (mostly PowerPoints with voiceovers made on Camtasia), and classroom time is given to discussion and project work. Students, particularly those whose first language isn’t English, tell me this gives them much more confidence to contribute in class. And none of this would have happened if my eyes hadn’t landed on that piece in the Economist, 30,00 feet up, two years ago.

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