Learning How to Learn Online

learnI have been reading about some of the sessions at the International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace (ICELW) that occurred this month at Columbia University. 

One keynoter was Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester. She is known for her course "Learning How to Learn," which is sometimes described as being "the world’s most popular MOOC." It has had more than 2 million participants. There may be MOOCs with more participants, but her course has been translated into multiple languages and had some serious media attention. It is a broader kind of course and not really aimed at a college audience alone. It fits into a workplace focused conference and lifelong learning. It is described as a course that “gives you easy access to the invaluable learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, math, science, sports, and many other disciplines” to learn.

I haven't taken this course, but I plan to this summer. From what I have read, many of the concepts are ones I know from my own teaching and education courses. For example, “how the brain uses two very different learning modes and how it encapsulates (“chunks”) information.” That is something I learning a long time ago in teaching secondary school, and also used extensively in doing instructional design on other professors' courses as they moved online.

I was more interested in knowing what her "secrets" would be for building and teaching that MOOC. I haven't seen any video from the conference, but here are some bits I have found about her session.  

She uses the "Learning How to Learn" principles of learning that are being taught in the course in the design of the course. She is not adverse to PowerPoint slides but uses simple visuals to chunk key ideas.

Oakley emphasized the impact of integrating lessons from neuroscience. One of those is neuro reuse theory. The theory was a way to explain the underlying neural processes which allow humans to acquire recently invented cognitive capacities. It attempts to explain how the brain responds to new cognitive processes - think of many of our digital encounters - which are cultural inventions too modern to be the products of evolution. Simple application is her use of metaphors (a key element of neural reuse theory) because they allow students to a quick way to encounter new ideas. 

She emphasizes paying attention to production values in creating a course. She did her course production herself at home and says the cost was $5000. I assume that was for software, video hardware etc. Many schools now have production facilities for online course development. 

Bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) attentional mechanisms are a theory from neuroscience that she uses to keep attention on the screen.  Bottom-up mechanisms are thought to operate on raw sensory input, rapidly and
involuntarily shifting attention
to salient visual features of potential importance. Think of the sudden movement that could be a predator. Top-down mechanisms implement our longer-term cognitive strategies, biasing attention toward something like a learned shape or color that signals a predator.

This is a more complex topic than can be covered in a blog post but it is easy to accept that the brain is limited in its capacity to process all sensory stimuli in our sensory-overload physical world. The brain relies on the cognitive process of attention to focus neural resources according to the contingencies of the moment. You can attention into two functions. Bottom-up attention is attention guided by externally driven factors to stimuli. That could be the bright colored popup ad on a screen. Instructional designers can make use of techniques that marketers and game designers have long used. Top-down attention refers to internal guidance of attention based on factors such as prior knowledge and current goals. The overall organizational structure of a course - weekly elements, labels, icons - can take advantage of top-down attention.

She recommended the use of "unexpected humor" to help maintain interest, which can also be a bottom-up technique.

Wherever practicable, theory is instantiated with examples drawn from personal stories.

Overall, this is all about trying harder to engage learners. Oakley pointed out that in a MOOC learners aren’t "caged up like students on campus." MOOC learners are free-range learners - free to come and go, free to stop paying attention or attending class - and if course production values are weak, students are more likely to tune out.

In designing and teaching an online course in the traditional college/tuition/credit/degree situation, we do have students caged more, but that doesn't mean their brains operate differently.

One of Oakley's earlier books is A Mind for Numbers with the subtitle How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and her new book this summer is Learning How to Learn whose subtitle is How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens. Those subtitles remind me that these book and the topics they address are lifelong learning concerns, though certainly of interest to K-20 teachers.

I am planning to take her course this summer before I embark on a new course design project. See coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn I'll follow up on this post when I finish. If I finish. If I don't finish, I guess I'll make some analysis of why - was it me or the course?

Innovative Teaching or Innovative Learning

innovateI am preparing a keynote presentation innovation for a faculty at a community college. The campus recently opened a small innovation center with the hope of getting students and faculty to consider new ways of teaching and learning.

In doing some research on this area, I immediately was struck with the split I saw between topics about innovative teaching and innovative learning, as if they were different things. That made me pause. Are they different, the same or inextricably linked?

My talk - "Creating a Culture of Innovation" - will look at how society drives innovation in higher education through the challenges it presents to educators. Increasing demands to lower costs, improving completion rates, competition from alternative credentialing, and the possibility in my home state of New Jersey and other states for free two years of college will all dramatically force shifts in classroom demographics and approaches to teaching and learning.

Innovation requires innovators. In higher education, they can be faculty or administrators who promote pedagogical approaches, such as adaptive and active learning. The innovation of adaptive learning is not so much that adjustments are made to the learning process based on feedback from the learners. Good teachers have been during that forever. The innovation comes from the ways that technologies have been aiding that monitoring of feedback and automating some of the adaptive paths.

Innovation can emerge from philosophical shifts, such as moving to the use of Open Educational Resources.

Innovation can also come from the learning spaces and new technologies made available to teachers and students.

You can find many different approaches to innovation in education, and some of them have come from outside education. One that is out there is agile teaching. Agility is a topic that has been a concern and approach in the business tech world.   

I continue to see examples about the changing world of work that concerns innovation and have many educators considering how they might prepare students better for what they will encounter after graduation. This does not mean job training or vocational skills. It more often is concerned with the learning process, methods of evaluating learning and seeing student applying their learning to new situations. 

For those things, you might be using blended/hybrid courses whose structure is such that theory is always put into practice. Courses using makerspaces and other active learning environments address some of these concerns more than traditional lecture courses.

But I have been hearing about the departure from lecture-style, sage-on-the-stage courses for two decades, and yet I know many courses still follow that model.

In earlier posts here, I have written about innovation or innovators in education or the ideas about the disruptors that make an innovative university, I have said that companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ lives change. For example, they create newer and more powerful phones that have features customers have not asked for. Apple believes it knows what you want before you know you want it. 

But I don't think that model works in education. Our students are often ahead of us with not only technology, but sometimes with innovative ways of learning. Are they ahead of many of their teachers in using their smartphones as computers and portals to information, and apps as tools? Yes.