What’s it like to teach the world’s most popular open online course?
We didn’t have to go far to find out. Dr. Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University and the instructor of “Learning How to Learn” on Coursera, the world’s largest open online course. More than a million learners have enrolled in the course since it launched in August 2014, and Oakley has become an online learning celebrity — she has received fan mail from learners around the world.
Her course is wildly popular for good reason. She’s an expert on the science of learning, and she has crafted every detail of her course with the learner in mind. I asked her advice for employers who are looking for new ways to help their workers learn, stretch, and grow.
Online learning isn’t just a poor substitute for face-to-face
According to Oakley, the best online learning can actually be more effective than in-person instruction. To create her course, she borrowed techniques from academia, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood to combine:
- Strong academic research, presented through easy-to-follow metaphors. “Using metaphors can more quickly onboard students into complex subjects,” she says.
- Smart on-screen movement that keeps learners focused and paying attention. “There’s always something happening, so you have to keep your eye on the screen to follow all the changes. There’s one stream of information, but it’s moving along quickly, so you don’t have time to get bored.” Examples from Learning How to Learn include images and text that pop up and loom toward you on the screen; she ducks when a chart flies toward her; she cuts quickly from full-body to half-body shots; and she appears on different sections of the screen throughout each video.
- Humor and fun. “Humor establishes trust with the instructor,” she says. She describes a letter from a learner who shared that they “never knew professors could be so witty!”
Quality matters a lot for adult learners
Great online instruction isn’t easy to pull off, Oakley says. Traditional instructors are used to “learners in a cage,” sitting captive in a classroom. Those students are fairly easy to teach, but today’s “free-range” adult learners aren’t like that. You have to work harder to capture and keep their attention. “Free-range learners expect high quality and are more demanding than university students,” she explains. “That doesn’t mean you have to be rigid and academic. It means you present top-quality academic material in a way that’s fascinating.”
It’s important for employers to think carefully about their content and format when it comes to employee training, Oakley says. “The same old, same old won’t work. In 20 years it’s going to be a different world, and if you’re not trying new things, you’re going to be left behind. The employers who are rethinking traditional learning, who get in there with video editors and get creative, will be at a competitive advantage.”
Learning is a lifestyle, not a checkbox
Oakley is a proponent of building a “learning lifestyle,” which is a departure from the traditional idea that you learn in high school and college, then stop pursuing education when you get to work. She emphasizes that “learning has to be done on a lifelong basis now.”
Early in our careers, she says, we take tests to tell us what we’re good at and what field we should pursue. But those tests just tell us what we’re good at right now, and people are capable of enormous change. She points to her own career as an example: She started as a linguist and translator, and thought she wasn’t good at math. She says she didn’t start relearning basic algebra until she was 26, and now she’s a world-renowned engineering professor.
Oakley is developing a new course and book, “Mindshift,” that explains the neuroscience of lifelong learning and how we can use learning to enhance our careers.
Her advice for employers: The most important thing is to encourage the idea of learning for learning’s sake. Don’t get too fixated on immediate outcomes. Sometimes studying a subject that seems irrelevant (like medieval manuscripts) can bring fresh ideas because the brain is excited. Ideas that come up in one discipline often show up elsewhere.
And, she says, “learning keeps workers happy. There’s good research that simply learning something new makes you happier.”
Find out how Coursera for Business helps employers supercharge their online learning.