Dr. Barbara Oakley, professor, speaker, and author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), and Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential has proven this in her research and the wildly popular massive open online course (MOOC) she created, Learning How to Learn. With about 2 million participants in the Coursera course thus far (yes, 2 million!), Barb’s work proves that learners appreciate practical methods and materials grounded in research about how the brain learns.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa talks with Barb about why helping people learn about learning is so effective, the importance of creating better online materials, and tips for organizations who provide learning to create more value by focusing on these areas.
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[00:18] – Highlighted Resource of the Week – a Web page we’ve compiled that focuses specifically on massive open online courses and provides information that is useful for anyone considering using MOOCs in a professional development context.
[01:31] – A preview of what will be covered in this podcast where Celisa interviews Dr. Barbara Oakely, author, speaker, professor, and co-creator of the hugely popular MOOC: Learning How to Learn.
[04:01] – Introduction to Barb and some background information about herself and her interests.
[06:41] – In your book Mindshift you devote a chapter to MOOC-making and share that you made the MOOC for less than $5,000 and personally edited most of the video. To what do you ascribe its popularity? Barb found that if you use innovative new methods with practical, well grounded in research, online materials, learners absolutely love them. It’s her mission now to help people learn about learning and to help them create better online materials.
[08:39] – One of the trends Jeff and I here at Tagoras (and in Leading the Learning Revolution) have noted is the rise of the eSME—the entrepreneurial subject matter expert [and you’re clearly an eSME]. Because tools and technologies have gotten simpler and cheaper, it’s easier than ever for SMEs with an entrepreneurial bent to put out their own educational content—they don’t necessarily need associations for production purposes or even for marketing purposes. Do you have any advice for the organizations, like associations, that rely on experts? How can these organizations provide value to experts so they remain relevant? Barb explains there are several ways to do this, particularly with online learning materials because it’s not necessarily obvious to the SME about how to get those materials out there to the public. At the same time, really good, well-made online materials can be an enhancement for whatever institution is using them. Because of this, one of the most important things any institution can provide is a good, easy-to-use framework that a SME can put their materials online with—she uses Coursera which she’s been very happy with but notes some online providers are restrictive with who they will accommodate—other platforms include, for example, Santa Fe Institute and Udemy. Barb says there’s a growing need for simple platforms that institutions can use to easily house and accommodate online SMEs, which enhances both the expert and the institution affiliated with the expert.
[12:25] – Barb adds that another important idea is that any kind of presentation needs to be a two-way street, to enhance both the institution and the SME. If the institution develops their own basic courseware that the expert can put their materials on, it serves as a way to help enhance that institution. Revenues that come in from online materials can go more directly to the institution instead of some of the cut going to whatever other provider you may be going through—and they can be substantial.
[13:36] – If you think about organizations that provide education and learning, as do most professional and trade associations, how do you think they can help the adult learners they serve become better learners? What might that look at the context of an online course or a multi-day conference, for example? Barb points out one of the big mistakes we make with relation to learning is that we overlook the most obviously important things to help learners. For example, she recommends a good thing for institutions to do is to introduce learners to basic ideas about learning. Most people go through 12-16 years of educational institutions and they never get a course on how to learn effectively. Even in conferences, Barb says you can have a keynote of sorts that gives a common way of talking about important aspects of learning. All of this is why the MOOC, Learning How to Learn is so popular.
[18:13] – A further discussion about why learning how to learn is so important including that it’s particularly important because everything is changing so rapidly now with artificial intelligence. The ability to be quick on your feet with learning new ideas has never been more important. And the focus needs to be on smart learning—not just the typical old-fashioned academic approach—but practical insight based on neuroscience to leverage in order to learn more quickly.
[20:06] – You define mindshift as “a deep change in life that occurs thanks to learning”. What led you to focus on deep changes that happen thanks to learning, with an emphasis on career changes that can happen in life? Barb recognizes one of the most important trends in modern society today is the importance and value of having some sort of technical expertise or insight, which can be of real value no matter what career you choose. We are in a period of transition and many individuals have grown up under the idea of following your passion, and those tend to develop around what you’re good at—this can end up giving you something that has a limited appeal in the job market. Because of this, many people are trying to retrain themselves (or they want to), but they aren’t sure if they can do it. Her books, Mindshift and A Mind For Numbers as well as the MOOC, Learning How to Learn, are basically to help people realize that not only can they make big changes and learn something they thought they could never learn, but they also get the practical insight in how to do it. People like the practical aspect but they are also smart and enjoy learning the neuroscience behind what they’re doing.
[24:42] – One of the themes in Mindshift is the idea that past knowledge and experience often—maybe even always—wind up being helpful in our present, even if her past and her present are wildly different. Would you talk a little bit about how the past can be leveraged to support change rather than confining us to continuing the same path that we’ve started down? Barb recalls how somebody once told her she’d be surprised that whatever she might learn about will come in handy one day—and she has been struck over the decades as to how often this has come true. She emphasizes, if you learn something well, there’s all sorts of ways it can help you in another area. This is why it’s important to remain open and flexible in your learning—if not, it’s harder for you to get creative in what you’re looking at and you can get stuck in functional fixedness, which means you get used to one way of looking at things. A good way to prevent this from happening is to take a little bit of time to start learning something completely different. This will help build flexibility in your thinking and through metaphor, you can bring ideas from this other area into your fundamental area and be more creative. This relates to a theory called neural reuse theory which is once you create a certain sort of pattern in your brain involving one skill, you can more easily transfer that pattern and use it in a completely different area.
[30:47] – You end the book Mindshift with a suggestion—a challenge that we readers don’t just settle for making our own mindshift—which would be a weighty enough accomplishment—but that we also try to share the “beauty and joy of learning” with others. I’m thinking again of the associations that are focused on learning, where education and professional development are a key part of the value they offer, are central to the mission and vision of the organization. What are your thoughts about how such organizations might go about sharing and instilling this idea of learning and mindshifts as joyful, beautiful things in those they serve? Barb shares that before she did her MOOC, she had no previous experience with video or photography so when it came to doing the videos for the MOOC, she did almost all of the editing herself. She points out that editing is a beautiful, creative process that adds so much to the materials and it’s easy for institutions to forget how beautiful and creative the materials they’re putting forth for their learners can be—it’s truly an artistic process so creating online materials that have a heart and aren’t just thrown out there is key.
[34:30] – What’s going on in learning these days that most excites you? And, perhaps, related to that, what topic or phenomenon do you want to learn more about? Barb talks about the big project she’s working on now which is related to the fact that there aren’t really any good materials out there currently which focus on how to learn effectively. Most of the ideas she shares about how to learn effectively are not only powerful, but they’re also easy to understand, even for kids. If you teach kids about how to learn effectively when they’re young, it can help them in so many ways. Barb is currently working on a curriculum in a new book for kids with very simple, yet impactful ideas, called Learning How to Learn (coming out August 2018). Note this will also come with a parent-teacher workbook on how to use the materials. She also teaches around the world about how to do truly effective online learning that doesn’t just make people continually drag their attention back to the screen, but rather their attention is actually riveted on the screen because it’s so intriguing. Barb is passionate about sharing information about how to create online materials that help do that and knowing what we know about neuroscience and applying that can help make superb online materials.
[38:30] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education? Barb shares that it’s been around learning how to make online materials. She talks about a professor she had about 25 years ago (who was not very good) who inadvertently got her to start watching television. She explains how that helped build skills in her subconscious about how to make good video edited materials.
[41:09] – How to learn more about Barb and her work:
[42:10] – Wrap Up
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[43:37] – Sign off
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