Literary MOOCs: FutureLearn and Hillsdale College

I’ve taken Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) since their early days. I audited online classes back when the videos were grainy classroom lectures, shot from the back of the hall and accompanied by sound that cut out when anyone coughed, dropped a pen, or even rustled loudly.

Things have come a long way since. Over the years I’ve taken dozens of courses for business and pleasure through Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, Shaw Academy, and Hillsdale College. Recently, I found myself simultaneously taking a class on Hamlet and The Tempest from Hillsdale College and a class on Robert Burns from the University of Glasgow on FutureLearn, and was struck by the differences.

FutureLearn courses are divided into weeks, which are subdivided into multiple units, sometimes 20 or more, that you take in order. Units can consist of short videos, readings, activities, or quizzes. Hillsdale College courses are divided into weeks, with each week getting a single lecture of 40-50 minutes and a Q&A video that goes up to an hour or so, plus a quiz.

Of the two, FutureLearn courses are by far more interactive. The FutureLearn platform has a discussion forum attached to each unit, so each small piece has a digital space in which to explore it further. With courses having hundreds or thousands of participants scattered all over the globe, forum activity is constant and there’s a lot of back-and-forth within a diverse community of learners. I find I learn as much from interactions with fellow learners, many of whom have a high level of expertise in the subject, as I do from actual course content. And, course mentors and educators occasionally answer questions or clarify key points. The level of academic discussion is both voluminous and pleasantly high, at the high school to college level.

Hillsdale College has a single forum for the whole course. The activity level, reflecting enrollment, is many orders of magnitude lower than that in FutureLearn. The instructors do not seem to participate in the forum, so questions go unanswered unless a fellow learner replies with an answer. Discussions among learners can happen, but conversations develop slowly, if at all. Hillsdale is a politically right-leaning, Christian-based liberal arts college that attracts a fairly conservative population in its online courses, so the sparsely utilized forum can feel dominated by discussions of Shakespeare’s works in that light. Despite excellent course content, pitched at the high school to college level, I found the academic level of discussion to be relatively basic.

FutureLearn courses are augmented by on-location filming, activity-based modules, peer-assessed writing assignments, and links to resources outside FutureLearn. Production standards are excellent. Video transcripts are available online and as PDF downloads, and most videos have accurate closed captioning available. Video and audio files can be downloaded, as can other course materials.

Hillsdale College’s course is comparatively low-tech: a talking head lecture-style video with few visual aids followed by a filmed Q&A segment and an online quiz. That said, the professors are engaging and easy to listen to for extended periods, and the lectures jam-packed with great insights. Production and audio quality are good to excellent, but subtitles/closed captions are not available on all videos, nor are transcripts available. However, lectures and the Q&A segments can be downloaded as audio files.

The quizzes are similar but different. Hillsdale College lets you retake quizzes, recording only your highest score as you go along. FutureLearn gives you up to three tries to answer every question (usually multiple choice out of four) and if you complete at least 90% of the course, attempt every quiz question, and score an average of 70% on quizzes, you may qualify to buy a Certificate of Achievement (a relatively new offering) instead of a Certificate of Participation.

Although both courses are offered by legitimate, accredited institutions, neither course offers college credit or professional CEUs. Hillsdale College offers no digital badges or certificates for completing its courses. FutureLearn offers certificates only to learners who pay; certificates are delivered digitally (for use on online and social media) and via mail. Some FutureLearn courses, though, do offer academic credit.

FutureLearn recently made a major change, in most cases limiting free access to course content and in some cases requiring fees to take certain tests and receive a certificate. Those who sign up for classes for free get access to the course, course materials, and quizzes for the duration of the course plus two weeks; those who pay a course fee, either upon registration or by upgrading, get access to the course, course materials, quizzes, and tests for the foreseeable future, and in some classes they’ll get an additional final exam that, when passed, results in a certificate. FutureLearn also recently began offering certificate programs and degrees, mostly related to information technology.

In contrast to FutureLearn’s scheduled and time-limited approach, Hillsdale College’s courses offer the flexibility of starting or dropping in at any time. Think of them as streaming lectures, with quizzes attached to check your understanding. The current Hillsdale College online course catalog includes courses on Great Books: Ancient to Medieval, Great Books: Renaissance to Modern, and a new course on Mark Twain (currently running and not yet completed for streaming). At any given time, FutureLearn offers at least a couple literature courses covering different periods and genres. They are available to join any time during the run of the course, but interaction with other learners drops off precipitously if one starts after the first week or falls much more than a week behind.

I thoroughly enjoyed both online course experiences. The Hillsdale College online course was more of a solo spectator venture, like watching an educational program; the FutureLearn course was more of a social experience, with lots of engagement with other learners. Both have their place.

Online learning is the future of education. I look forward to many more years of learning online – and even one day developing a course of my own!