What if MOOCs Revolutionize Education After All?

Digital Learning

What if MOOCs Revolutionize Education After All?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 25, 2017

What if MOOCs Revolutionize Education After All?

If you’ve ever zoned out during a lecture, or if your students are prone to distraction as you click through your PowerPoint deck, that’s partly because we’re hard-wired not to focus intently for longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Our bodies, after all, were evolved to master survival in nature, rather than staring at glowing bullet points on a screen.

That’s the argument made by Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, who spends a lot of time these days thinking about how people learn. And she may have taught more students than anyone else on the planet, as one of the instructors of one of the most popular online courses ever, which has had two million registered students. The title of the course is Learning How to Learn.

EdSurge recently talked with Oakley about what she’s learned teaching all those online students. And she makes the case for why free online courses like hers—which are known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs—might still lead to a revolution in higher education, even though the hype around them has died down.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on iTunes (or your favorite podcast app).

EdSurge: You've argued that the lecture model that's popular at colleges is out of tune with how our brains work. Is there a rising sense at colleges that teaching can better be more effective based on some of these things we've learned about how the brain works?

Oakley: I love how you phrased that question because sometimes people will say, "Well, my students don't want to look at videos. They just want to watch me in class." That can sometimes be true because we've trained our students that the best way to learn is to be held by the hand and have a teacher in front of them, who's making them come to class, and who's spoon-feeding the material to them. But I am beginning to notice more and more when I first did a flipped classroom model, where I had some of the lectures in videos, and then we worked materials in class. At first, some of the students were a little reluctant. I mean many of them liked it, but there were a few, not a sizeable percentage, but yeah I'd say maybe 20 percent who would prefer it to be the old way, where it's just all right in front of you.

Some people might even wonder whether MOOCs are even still around since you don’t hear much about these courses today. As someone still teaching one of these, where do you see MOOCs these days?

There's a lot going on behind the scenes, and [MOOCs] are sort of like a tidal wave where underneath there's all this action occurring, and you may not see the surface until it actually hits the shore. It takes a while for any societal change to occur. It's in professors' best interest, often, to dismiss and disparage MOOCs because, well face it, they're competition. For example, at San Jose State University, they had an experiment where low-cost MOOCs allowed people to take courses that they simply couldn't get into because there weren't enough seats in the classrooms, and it was really causing problems. They could do this for very low-cost, and the faculty revolted. They made it clear during their meetings that it had nothing to do with the students and the students' needs. It was faculty fear about their jobs.

The thing is, moving a university is a little bit like moving a cemetery. You can't expect any help from the inhabitants. It's tough for universities to take the idea that, there could be really good online materials that are better than what I might present in class. I mean in the old days, in the 1400s, when textbooks first came out, professors they were livid and horrified because they said, well textbooks are going to replace our classrooms, and we won't be needed anymore. And of course, that's not really true at all. They enhance the classroom.

Professors are really good at pointing towards industry and saying you'd never allow a pharmaceutical company to provide the final say-so on whether the drugs they're selling are efficacious because they have a vested interest, right? It's hard for professors to turn around and see that the same logic applies to them, that they have a vested interest in their colleagues and their profession. I think it's intimidating and scary for them to see that there's competition coming.

I think MOOCs will enhance classrooms, but also, they will serve as competition in classrooms, and that's going to force our universities, I think, to up their game. But it's only good MOOCs that I'm talking about that are like this. If you look at many typical MOOCs, it's a professor on one side, bullet points or pictures on the other, and they're just as boring as can be.

You mentioned the San Jose State experiment, which certainly did get a lot of press. For some of those courses, the student performance was low, and as a result they stopped doing them.

This is what I was alluding to as far as making boring MOOCs, and sometimes making somewhat problematic MOOCs. Some of those San Jose State MOOCs showed very good results. It's easy to kind of cherry pick and only point to the ones that didn't have as good of results. Most recently, there was a comparative study at MIT where students, if I remember correctly, did a little bit better in the MOOC course on the same standardized test than the people who took it in class. And they preferred the MOOC course to the in-class course.

It's coming. The University of Colorado is now working towards having MOOCs so that people can take them for college credit. Once they begin becoming broadly available for college credit, it's going to start changing the scenario of higher education. Largely because it will provide for more competition and lower cost for college degrees, which I think are good things for students today.

What have you learned about teaching—maybe even that you can apply to your in-class teaching—from the experience of teaching so many students in an online format?

One of the biggest things I learned is that students often don't know squat about how to learn effectively. They'll come up, and say, the darndest things. For example, I had one student come up to me and say, "You know, I just don't understand how I could have flunked this test." And he showed me this test, and I'd red-lined all over it. He says, "I understood it when you said it in class." The thing is, we've gone so crazy overboard with understanding is the golden key to everything, that we've somehow communicated to students that you don't need to practice. You don't even need to memorize or remember anything because you can always look it up. If you just understand it, you're good as gold. And it's really a disservice to students that we've been doing that.

For example, this student would say to me, "I can't do well in your course because I don't understand English very well." And then I'd say, "Well okay, when you're listening to the videos in the flip portion of the class, and I say stop right here and work the problem yourself, do you do that?" He says, "Well no. I don't have time." So he was never actively working any of the problems. He wasn't working with his team and so forth. So once we got that figured out, and it was made clear to him if he doesn't make the time, he's just not going to pass the class. He started doing a lot better.

You've talked about how you struggled as a student of math back in the day. How did you overcome your learning challenges?

I flunked elementary, middle, and high school math and science. I enlisted in the army to learn a language, learned Russian, and found out I followed my passion right into a ditch because recruiters were sure not banging at my door and saying, "Gee, we just gotta have your Russian language skills." So that's what prompted me to see if I could retrain my brain. Also, I was like, "Aren't I supposed to be open to new experiences and new adventures, and yet I'm blocking this whole area out?"

The reality is I was very lucky. When I went to the Defense Language Institute, although they didn't know any neuroscience at the time they talked right in-line with the techniques we now know today to be the best in-line with what we know from neuroscience.Learning how to how to learn a language taught me meta-skills about learning, such that when I turned around and said, "Well let's see if I can actually learn math and science," I could start using some of those skills.

Now if I'd known then what I know now about learning, I could have done even a lot better. But at least it gave me a toe-hold when I was 26 to start developing a little bit of procedural fluency. I wouldn't just solve a chemistry problem and then turn it in for homework. I'd solve it, and then I'd see if I could solve it cold again.

Ultimately, my goal was to be able to look at a problem and pace through it in my mind as if I was playing a song. I could pull it instantly to mind, pull all the solution steps. I kind of knew it inside and out, and when you do that with enough problems, you begin to internalize the material at a very in-depth level. Lo and behold it worked because I was applying ideas of chunking, which I teach about in Learning How to Learn.

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