How do we create engaging online courses for computing educators?

With our online courses programme, launched in 2017, we made it our mission to provide computing educators with the best possible free training we can design. Five years on, here are some of the key stats about the courses’ impact:

  • We’ve produced and launched 35 free online courses 
  • We’ve created over 650 educational course videos 
  • More than 234,000 learners have participated in the courses
  • Over 19,000 teachers in England have participated through the National Centre for Computing Education
A teacher attending Picademy laughs as she works through an activity

Designed and created in-house, each and every course is a real cross-team effort that involves a lot of careful planning and a number of different stages. Here we’re taking you behind the scenes to show you how we make our courses, introduce you to the people involved, and explain how we ensure our courses are of high quality.

But first, here’s some quick answers to questions you may have:

Our free online courses — key questions answered

What are the courses? 

They are online training courses to help you learn about computing and computing education. The courses are hosted on the FutureLearn website. They are asynchronous, meaning you can take them whenever and wherever you want.

Are the courses free?

Yes! All our courses are free when you sign up for time-limited access, which gives you full access to the learning materials for the complete course duration. FutureLearn also has a paid-for ‘unlimited’ option, where you receive a certificate for each course you take.

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Are the courses right for me? 

They are aimed at educators, particularly classroom teachers, but they are also beneficial to anyone who wants to learn more about computing.

How long does a course take?

To help you structure your learning, our courses are divided into three or four weeks, but it’s up to you how quickly you work through them. You can complete a course in one afternoon, or spread your learning out and study for 30 minutes a day over three or four weeks. This flexibility makes it easy to fit a course into a busy schedule. 

How can I access the courses?

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What goes into creating an engaging online course?

Creating our online courses is a team effort involving writers, videographers, illustrators, animators, copy editors, presenters, and subject matter experts working together over months of production. The entire process is guided by our online course producers, Martin O’Hanlon, Ross Exton, and Michael Conterio, who know a thing or two about creating high-quality learning experiences. We spoke to them about what it takes to create an engaging course. 

The educators working at the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
The educators at the Raspberry Pi Foundation. On screen: Ross Exton. Left to right in person: Michael Conterio, Martin O’Hanlon.

Hi guys. You’ve created courses on a wide range of computing subjects. How do you decide what the focus of your next course is going to be?

Martin: We are driven by the needs of teachers. “What are teachers telling us they want to learn? Or what are the gaps in the curriculum where our learners need additional support?”

For example, our Introduction to Machine Learning and AI course was introduced as a result of feedback from teachers that while the subject wasn’t necessarily on the curriculum, they felt underprepared to answer questions from students or provide context when teaching other topics.

A woman holds up a Raspberry Pi computer in front of a laptop screen.

How do you then go about planning it out and turning that plan into an actual course structure?

Michael: Working with the course authors, we’ll generally agree on the big topics we want to cover or questions that we want to answer. We’ll often also have individual elements that we want to fit in somewhere, for example an activity involving making a learning resource more accessible. From there it’s a case of taking the bigger topics and working out how we can split them up into smaller chunks, until we get down to individual learning activities.

Ross: But then we’ll end up shuffling things around until we are happy — not only that we’ve got everything that we wanted to cover, but that the overall structure makes sense. We often talk about the ‘narrative’ of a course.

What is your approach to pedagogy in online courses?

Martin: At the Raspberry Pi Foundation we have a set of 12 pedagogy principles that we use through our learning resources (including online courses). We take particular care to lead with concepts, model processes, and activities; add variety for our learners; and include opportunities to create projects. 

The Raspberry Pi Foundation's 12 principles of computing pedagogy: lead with concepts; structure lessons; make concrete; unplug, unpack, repack; work together; read and explore code first; foster program comprehension; model everything; challenge misconceptions; create projects; get hands-on; add variety.
Learn more about the 12 principles in the free special edition of Hello World, The Big book of Computing Pedagogy, downloadable in PDF format.

Can you tell us about some of the pitfalls with course writing that you’ve learned along the way?

Michael: Because the learner is not present, you have to be incredibly precise with instructions as you can’t help learners directly as they are working through the content. And even if you think something is obvious, it’s easy for learners to accidentally miss an instruction, so it’s generally good to try to keep them together rather than spread out.

Martin: Luckily, it is often possible to tell from comments that learners have shared when something is hard to understand so we can improve future runs of the course.

How important is the media you add to the courses, like animations and videos? What is the process for creating this type of content?

Ross: It’s essential! It brings the abstract concepts of computing to life. The media in our courses helps our learners to visualise the ideas we’re presenting in ways that are engaging and relatable. 

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As we’re writing the course, we capture every creative idea that will best support our learners in gaining the knowledge and skills that they need. From ‘how-to’ guides with live coding, to physical computing demonstrations, or animations of robots, we think carefully about each image and video and how we’re not just telling the learner something, but showing them.

We then work with a brilliantly talented team of illustrators, animators, videographers, and presenters to create all of that media. 

A videographer preparing to film a course presenter.
And… action! We film all the video content for courses in-house, working closely with the educators who present the content.

There are lots of opportunities for social learning within the courses. Can you explain more about its importance and how we integrate it?

Ross: Social learning is a really important part of our online courses experience. Over the past year we have made significant investment to make it easier for participants to share programs they’ve written as part of their learning, for example, and for facilitators to provide support.

Martin: It is important people have the opportunity to share their learning with others. This is something often lost when taking an online course and it can feel like you are ‘on your own’. 

In the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s online courses learners are given the opportunity to ask questions, share what they have created, and provide their own insight in the comments. Educators from the Foundation facilitate the courses — responding to comments and providing advice is a big part of what they do.

Thank you Martin, Michael, and Ross. 

What new online course would you like us to create? Tell us in the comments below.

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