What did the British Council learn from the Exploring English: Language and Culture MOOC?

In today’s post, Chris Cavey shares his experience of working on the British Council’s flagship MOOC.

In the weeks since the British Council’s first MOOC ended, I’ve been asking myself what exactly we’ve learned from it. Did it ‘work’, as Nicola asked? My feeling is that it did – not only in terms of the numbers of learners it attracted but in what it achieved within the parameters we set for it. If it wasn’t the ‘true ELT MOOC’ Nicola described, that’s because we didn’t plan for it to be that.

As a first step for the British Council into the MOOCosphere, Exploring English: Language and Culture was in many ways an experiment into MOOCs and their capabilities. But what it confirmed for us is that there is a tremendous interest in UK culture, especially when it is related to local culture and experience. On the language-learning side, we also confirmed that there is a massive appetite for English practice, but that MOOCs may be better suited to encouraging semi-structured language practice through writing in a social media space than ‘heavy-duty’ language learning activities. At the moment the platform is quite limited in the types of activities that can be used to practise language, so we feel that our decision to focus on the discussion and comments areas was a success.

1 Exploring English: Language and Culture by numbers

For those of you who are interested in data, here is a selection of the key statistics from the course:

  • Exploring English: Language and Culture attracted 122,583 joiners – more than 45,000 of those joined after the 1 September start date. This made it by some distance the biggest MOOC to date on the FutureLearn platform.
  • Of that 122,583, almost 74,000 (60%) actually started the course. This compares to an average take-up for FutureLearn MOOCs of around 56%.
  • Of that 74,000, 51% were ‘social learners’ – that is, they posted at least one comment in discussions.
  • 54,958 learners were ‘active’ – that is, they marked at least one step of the course as complete.*
  • 14,126 learners were ‘fully participating’ – that is, they marked more than 50% of the course as complete.
  • More than 350,000 comments were posted in the six weeks of the course.
  • The pre-course survey (around 38,000 respondents) shows that learners came from 189 countries. The top ten, as you may expect, featured Spain, Brazil and Russia, and, as you may not expect, Myanmar and Ukraine.
  • 67% of respondents were female.
  • Around 30% listed ‘teaching and education’ as their current area of employment.

* This figure is lower than average, which might have been caused by the interface: to complete a step, learners have to click on a button towards the bottom of the page labelled ‘Mark as complete’, which then changes from pink to blue. Perhaps a change of wording to make it more easily understood (‘I’ve finished this page’, perhaps) would affect this figure.

Although the survey did not differentiate between students and teachers when it asked about current area of employment, teachers were certainly very well represented in the comments. Might this explain the large number of women taking the course?

2 There’s a genuine love of ‘British culture’

The video content at the core of the course was originally made as part of the GREAT campaign (‘showcasing the best of what Britain has to offer’) rather than specifically for the MOOC. We realised we had a source of rich, largely unscripted video content in areas likely to generate discussion. And, of course, it meant we were able to deliver quickly and more economically than if we had been starting from scratch.

Each of the six course weeks followed the same basic structure:

  • share your thoughts/impressions about British music/literature/countryside, etc.
  • watch a video and look at some language
  • share something from your own country or culture.

A sample discussion task might look like this:

We’d like you now to share your ideas about the British countryside. These ideas might be from your own experience if you have visited Britain, or they might be your ideas and impressions of the countryside and the climate from things you have read or seen. Share your thoughts with other learners.

The response in these discussions completely outstripped our expectations. In the introductory week, learners explained why they had joined the course. A far from atypical answer was:

Hi, I’m _____ and I’m from Brazil. I’m a English student and I love British culture and “accent”. the dream of my life is to visit the UK one day and this course will help me to increase my knowledge about the English language and culture.

A search for the string ‘British culture, especially’ brings up:

… I want to find out more about British culture, especially about music, art and food’ (Vietnam)

… I love British culture, especially British music’ (Chile)

I am fascinated by British culture, especially humor’ (Croatia)

The list goes on: people are also especially interested in ’literature and history’, ‘English humour’, ’Monty Python’, ’art and design’ …

Someone being especially interested in British food? Astonishing!  While Nicola asked whether this enthusiasm for all things British has implications for coursebooks, I see it as evidence that, as also previously noted, MOOCs will work best where they deal with  topics of interest in English rather than English itself. Learners floated several ideas for future MOOCs, including British sitcoms, Downton Abbey and the works of JK Rowling. If you can get the rights to those, the audience is there!

3 Not everyone enjoys speaking English.

In the first week of the course, we asked learners to share their thoughts on these questions:

  • How do you feel when you speak English?
  • How about when you write in English?
  • Does English feel different from speaking your mother tongue?

This was the most popular discussion on the course, with over 30,000 responses. A search for ‘When I speak English, I feel’ gives an intriguing list of adjectives: afraid, amazing, anxious, awesome, awkward, better, blocked, comfortable, completely free, confused, connected, different, elegant, embarrassed … the list goes on and on.

Remember that these are not beginners but people with at least B1 English. It’s interesting the number of people who speak of their discomfort or ambivalence about speaking English. The most ‘liked’ comment on the course was ‘When I speak English I feel myself as a dog: Understand everything, but say nothing’.

As someone who feels more comfortable expressing myself in writing, and has regularly felt the hot flush of panic at the most minor transactions in other languages, the following comment struck a chord with me:

I feel uncomfortable, I have a lot of grammar and lexical doubts. For this reason I don’t like speaking, even thought I love this language and I try to improve it. It’s very difficult to express an opinion in English compared to my mother tongue, because the expression, the words have different degree or nuance.

Commenters on previous posts have noted that expressing feelings through a keyboard is an entirely authentic task these days. I notice this morning there are still people commenting on the course, although the moderators are gone and there’s very little activity. Perhaps the MOOC provides a safe space for people who are happier communicating this way.

4 The MOOC is a social space

Commenters on the previous MOOC posts speculated that MOOCs would be most successful where they take on social learning elements. So how far did this happen on Exploring English: Language and Culture?

There was certainly much evidence of social interaction between learners – particularly in the weeks covering music and literature. It’s hard to give a flavour of these conversations without including long extracts, but here are a few summaries from the music week:

  • A long conversation about the Italian partisan song ‘Bella Ciao’ threw up nine different versions of the song in several languages and a comparison of the lyrics and how they were translated.
  • A Brazilian musician exchanging tips and recommendations with learners from Japan, India and Albania and exploring stereotypes of Brazil and Japan.
  • A Russian listening to southern Italian reggae bands on the recommendation of a fellow learner: ‘My son has the same opinion as my wife has. He is ten years old. That was great. I never would have heard about these bands if you had not told me. Thank you very much.’

The statistics showing time spent on each step of the course suggest that learners did spend more time on the discussion steps than other activities and my feeling is that learner comments became part of the content – something for others users to measure themselves against as well as comment on.

There was evidence, too, of learners correcting and advising each other. Our six moderators, faced with more than 60,000 comments in the first four days of the course, did their best to deal with questions, but it was always an uphill task and it was gratifying to see learners answering each other’s questions. For learners with Facebook accounts we offered three Facebook clinics during the six weeks where they could come and ask language questions to the moderators. These clinics were well attended and well received.

If Exploring English: Language and Culture answered some questions, others remain unresolved, including Nick’s original question:  What would the ‘true’ ELT MOOC look like?

As Nicola correctly pointed out, the title, Exploring English: Language and Culture, was not an accident. As I said in a blog for FutureLearn before the start of the course, ‘The aim of the course is to help people develop their understanding of culture in the UK and improve their language skills in the process’. I’d say we largely managed that, and we did so by choosing a topic with a broad appeal to so many learners and offering them an authentic exchange with thousands of other learners.  I’ll leave the last word to a learner from the Middle East who posted in a Facebook clinic:

Thank you so much. It is amazing and just changed my view to the life again. I come back to the music, literature and nature after many years again. I remembered my past, a nice part of my past.


Chris Cavey is a Product Development Consultant for the British Council.

Featured image by Number 34 via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.

13 thoughts on “What did the British Council learn from the Exploring English: Language and Culture MOOC?”

  1. The responses re speaking don’t surprise me at all. There is excellent research that states that the way ESL is taught in most places doesn’t produce confident or fluent speakers. Is this a systemic/methodological flaw of ELT as we know it?

    • Hi Jason. Thanks for your comment. The question those responses raised for me was more about whether people want (or need)to be confident or fluent speakers. Sure, there are many people feeling stilted when they speak in English but there are others who simply aren’t that bothered. Here’s another learner on the MOOC: “I enjoy reading or listening English because there is much more information about a variety of topics all over the world, but speaking English is not my favorite activity. I just do it when it’s completely necessary.”

      • Wow, Chris! Are you suggesting that the chief reason for learning English might not be to speak it confidently or fluently? I think I recall an online language company doing a survey and 80% approx. said they did it to speak. Don’t you think the folks struggle might like not to or is that unimportant or just doesn’t ‘fit’ with the current modus operandi?

        • Hi Jason. No, I wasn’t suggesting that. I was speculating that the chief reason for some people to study English might not be to speak it confidently or fluently. And that those people might enjoy this kind of course. Just a thought!

          • Hi Chris, well, you wrote this,

            “The most ‘liked’ comment on the course was ‘When I speak English I feel myself as a dog: Understand everything, but say nothing’.”

            Maybe we’ve found a whole community of humans who would rather be dogs? 🙂

    • This MOOC finding has been further confirmation of what has always been known in secondary/primary ELT. Having worked extensively with teachers in Italy/France for MGP in 1990s, the cultural content of magazine material was the main draw for students and teachers alike. This led me to write two books which integrated skills work with cultural topics (one called coincidentally ‘Exploring’ with Pearson Italia). During research for British Council Language Assistant (which also has ‘Essential UK’ lesson pages) the resounding feedback from assistants across Europe and beyond was the need for cultural content to integrate into language lessons and methodological tips for exploiting cultural issues (closed discussion group chat was lively on this area). So this MOOC strategy is quite rightly confirming that engaging subject-matter which is also aiming at satisfying a learners’ thirst for cultural content can foster interaction in multilingual groups of learners.Now wiring/teaching in HE and find here in the UK that topics containing an element of discussion of cultural values/attitudes/identity generate great debate and speaking/writing production- also fosters creative use of language.Just taught a lesson to final year Law students where ethical principles related to the legislation difficulties in the area of Forced marriage issues in Family Law generate a spontaneous and lively response in their presentations. Wishing you good luck for future courses!

  2. Your post leaves the question “What did the British Council learn from the Exploring English: Language and Culture MOOC?” mostly unanswered. You say there’s a genuine love of ‘British culture’; that not everyone enjoys speaking English; that the MOOC is a social space”. Is that what you learned?

  3. As a current newbie MOOC attender it’s interesting to see things from the other side as it were. I attended a MOOC that is just wrapping up now mainly to get some first hand experience of the learning experience. The forums are fascinating, and even as an experienced online tutor (and past more than present twitter chat participant) I found it quite daunting initially to jump in and make contacts, but interesting and in-depth conversation emerged and as the course progressed I was definitely spending more and more time in the forums and less on the input. This seemed to be the case for a lot of social learners (though the active social learners were a minority that became more and more minor, though more and more focused as the course progressed). One element of the course that I found interesting and that you could consider including in future MOOCs was the use of short synchronous video conferencing. There were only a handful of opportunities over a six week course, but I thought they really helped to add an extra dimension. One was an “unhangout” on google where we met in a number of breakout rooms with other members of the community in groups of 6 to discuss aspects of the course and the on-going project work. A very small minority took part and it was fascinating and frustrating in equal parts. Very motivating to see faces and hear voices, frustrating that there wasn’t more time or more focus. A second task required us to find a partner and meet up on skype to complete a mini-project. This was even more motivating. Our chats were short and sweet but again the face and voice element was really motivating, making the huge machine of the massive course much more personal.

  4. I know that it’s the British Council’s mission to promote ‘British culture’ (scare quotes, sic), but does it have to be quite so triumphalist about it? There are many, even in ‘great’ Britain, who are excluded from the cultural capital that the ‘GREAT campaign’ celebrates. Moreover, the way that the campaign uncritically conflates British culture and the English language seems to ignore the fact that vast tracts of the world speak English in blissful ignorance of English hedgerows, or of Jane Austen, or of cream teas. I didn’t participate in the MOOC so have no idea if critical, even subversive, content was included, but I don’t get a sense of it from this write up, nor from the Britain is Great website. And, is it not a tiny bit patronizing, after having joyfully celebrated British culture, to invite the participants to ‘share something from your own culture’? This seems to be a classic case of liberal multiculturalism, which, as Ryuko Kubota (2004) argues, ‘often celebrates cultural differences as an end in itself. However, what is celebrated tend to be the superficial aspects of culture, such as artifacts, festivals and customs, and they are treated in decontextualized and trivialized manners divorced from the everyday life of people and the struggle to define cultural identity’ (p. 35). The fact that so many participants of the MOOC came from Ukraine and Myanmar, where ‘the struggle to define cultural identity’ can have you imprisoned or shot, is one of the many ironies hovering just beneath the surface of this celebratory account.

    • Hi Scott

      Thanks for your comment.

      It’s a shame that you’ve been able to see the Great campaign material and not the Exploring English course. I’d like to hope that seeing the course content would allay your fears on two counts. First, the content was far from ‘hedgerows and Jane Austen’ Overwhelmingly, when those stereotypical images of Britain did come up it came from participants who were far more effusive about Britain than any of us had anticipated. This was the point I was trying to make in the blog. I was hugely surprised by the depth of feeling for things I’d avoided mentioning – for fear of sounding triumphalist.

      Secondly, if you’d been able to join the course I don’t think you’d accuse it of celebrating ‘the superficial aspects of culture such as artefacts, festivals and customs’. Some examples:

      – a discussion in week 2 asked: ‘Is there a history of protest songs in your country – does music have a role in social change? Secondly, is Billy Bragg right to say that social media are replacing music as a way for young people to protest and attempt to change the world?’
      Over 10,000 comments here – from Ukraine and Myanmar, China, Spain, Vietnam, Chile, Serbia … A fascinating and informative insight. We were able to put together a playlist of some of the recommended songs to share with the learners.
      – a discussion in Week 3 – the week Scotland voted on independence – on regional identity. As you might expect, Russians and Ukrainians exchanged views on this thread and skimming through it now I find opinions from all parts of Spain, South Sudan – even Australia!
      – At the end of the week about literature I was able to put together a viewing and reading list for the learners with just some of the recommendations from the discussion thread. I’m sure that there are many participants who, like me, will be checking out films from Indonesia or the work of Naguid Mahfouz on the strength of other learners’ comments.

      This element of discussion and sharing was the real appeal of the course for me and I know from many many comments that learners enjoyed this too. Perhaps these positive comments have allowed some ‘triumphalism’ to creep into my tone and for that I apologise.

      FutureLearn are re-running the course in February – it would be great if you could join us then.

  5. How many actually finished the full course? How do you feel about the drop off rate in participation?

    Given that the course was free, but that those who finished the course had to pay for the certificate, did you feel that this was a successful way of delivering a course from a financial perspective?

    • Hi Adam

      I don’t have a stat for the number of people finishing all six weeks. I know that over 15,000 learners visited the final week’s content. Re the drop off rate, I think the points made by Cleve Miller and Mike Boyle in Nicola’s last post about our MOOC are valid: attrition rate may not be the most interesting way to measure success in MOOCs and there are lots of reasons to stop participating that don’t reflect badly on the course content. My own experience of taking MOOCs bears this out. If we are looking at attrition rate though, I’m happy that our numbers stand up against published figures from other courses.

      Re your second question. Those that finished the course didn’t have to pay for the certificate – they could choose to buy one. We didn’t expect to sell many certificates and we didn’t plan on making money from this course. We got an idea of demand and some great insights into our audience through a course fully in line with our British Council remit.

      I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how/if MOOCs might make money. Have you seen Udacity’s nanodegrees – https://www.udacity.com/nanodegrees – $200 a month for 6-9 months. You can see how that might work for tech courses but I can’t imagine anything like that happening for language courses any time soon.

  6. Hi Chris

    I found the British Councils first MOOC and the comments here very interesting, particularly regarding all those B1 level people who don’t enjoy speaking English. I think it’s because they are taught to pass exams, but not to speak. I’ve been living and teaching English in France for 20 years now. It was seeing how my daughter was taught English in French state schools that motivated me to develop an alternative teaching method which enables the French to speak and understand “real” English. For example phrasal verbs, which make up 80% of our spoken verbs, simply weren’t taught to my daughter at all in school. Neither were the myriad uses of “get”, the most used word in spoken English. My French clients (and I’m sure it’s the same in other countries) might leave school with good English grades in the baccalauréat, but they still can’t understand what on earth the English are talking about. After 7 relentless years of studying English grammar, that must be frustrating. Its no wonder so many don’t enjoy speaking English.

    In the end I found that humor was the key – I merged elements of Monthy Python, Benny Hill (I know, but the French LOVE him) and the Dangerous Brothers into a character called Dr Joy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7vRJnndORo), whose inept bumbling in French made them laugh and relax about their spoken English. Why not give the world a MOOC on our curious customs and ludicrous laws (for instance its perfectly legal to shoot anyone wearing a kilt in York with a bow and arrow. Except on Sunday)? I guarantee it will make people want to share and compare! Especially the French, they could do with a laugh…. Great stuff, thanks and good luck with future MOOCs


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