How to write a course about something that hasn’t happened

Over the last four weeks, Alan Convery of The University of Edinburgh has been running the free online course “Towards Scottish Independence? Understanding the Referendum.” Here, he discusses the challenges of developing the course on the fly and what lies ahead in its remaining two weeks.

Alan Convery discusses the Scottish referendum

Writing an online course about Scotland’s independence referendum has been challenging. I imagine that educators who create courses about philosophy or physics have a clear idea in their heads about what they want to teach and how their courses will end.

We, on the other hand, were constantly aiming at a moving target. Anything produced more than a week in advance was likely to be out of date. We had to respond to events as well as our participants’ comments. The final two weeks of the course also had to remain completely unwritten until we knew the result of the referendum.

We started with a basic structure in mind over six weeks. We planned to cover the background to the referendum, the arguments for Yes and No, and what might happen afterwards. Our live online seminars were a great forum for discussing topical issues and this took some of the pressure off us in terms of keeping everything else current.

This was particularly the case when a big issue suddenly hit the debate in the middle of a week. For instance, at the beginning, we did not expect to be talking so much about the NHS or that the referendum would spark off a debate about ‘English votes for English laws’. Thankfully, we have a breadth of expertise at Edinburgh and my colleagues have been extremely generous with their time, often at the last minute.

The need to keep things up to date means that there is often a rush on a Friday to get the course ready for the following Monday. This ‘just in time’ way of working can be stressful, but it’s also fun to be producing a course that aims to make sense of issues that are happening as we write. I hope our participants have enjoyed our perspective on the referendum and can forgive some of the gaps as we try to catch up with the latest twist in the debate.?

Much of this week’s video material was filmed in the early hours of the morning after the referendum. However, I’m hoping to have time this week to get some considered reflections on the result from my academic colleagues. Our final week is entitled ‘What Next?’

How will the referendum result affect Scotland – and the UK as a whole? Join “Towards Scottish Independence? Understanding the Referendum” now and find out in its final two weeks.

Category Learning, Making FutureLearn

Comments (6)


  • Elena

    I hope to learn a lot in this course here thank you…

  • Dr Lakshman

    I must thank all the educators who are involved in this wonderfully designed course. I hope to learn a lot about the mindset of the tertiary students who are exposed to developing their skills.

  • Petra Ninnemann-Bliefernicht

    Thank your very much indeed Alan and all the other course convenors and academics involved in this course. I am a Senior – Student and this is my first experience with e-learning. – so I was not just excited but quiete nervous.
    After 6 weeks I am convinced you found the right way to future learning. It´s not just the subject that was extremely interesting , but the system you created to present the informations. Articles – videos – discussions and especially the comments from all over the world that make you feel a contemporary witness. By exchanging your views and opinions
    you meet new ideas that enrich your life .Many thanks again – You made every imaginable effort to share the breadth of expertise with us .I enjoyed the course – and so did my grandson (9 years) who supported me and by now knows quiet a lot about Scotland – democracy referendums – different parties and the influence of canvassers. And Her Majesty´s Castle in Scotland . What next ? I signed in for 2 more courses.

  • Patrick Stoddart

    Thank you Alan and the other course convenors and academics involved in this course. I undertook this course from both an interest in the subject and to see both how the uni would attempt to provide a balanced course for such a political issue AND from the point of view of constructing and offering a course on the fly. It was a great ride and very informative both of the subject, the vote, and the meta level of the course design and approach itself. Well done to all involved.
    Many Thanks
    Patrick Stoddart
    University of New South Wales, Australia

  • Anne Wick

    Thank you Alan for this very enjoyable 6 week course on the whys and the wherefors of the Scottish Referendum. You all did a wonderful job and it was, I’m sure, not always easy, as you mentioned. Not being in my native country at this time was a problem but I felt intigrated in the discussions even although I didn’t participate all that much. A good job done and thanks to all the others, too. Best wishes Anne

  • Thérèse Caron

    Thank you, Alan Convery, for sharing with us your experience in “developing the course on the fly”, as you said, without knowing, week after week, what to expect in the near future. Congratulations to you and your colleagues!
    The way you produced your course with lectures and videos, introducing the NO and YES sides separately along with documents, I had the impression of living the experience myself. Now, I can say that I know a bit more about Scotland.
    What’s next?
    Many thanks!