Educator, writer and engineer Barbara Oakley wants to inspire everyone to learn STEM topics, and sees Massive Open Online Courses as a path to broaden the reach of higher education.
Caroline Smrstik Gentner: When you wrote “A Mind for Numbers,” you explained how our brains process learning and problem solving. What inspired you to do that?
Barbara Ann Oakley: I was terrible at math when I was growing up. But in my late 20s, after I realized how useful analytical skills could be, I went to university and, with difficulty, began learning math. Now I’m a professor of engineering. It is possible to be successful in math, even if you believe you just aren’t “the math type”.
I now realize that, as an adult, I finally stumbled across techniques for learning that have been shown by neuroscience and cognitive psychology to be immensely helpful. With the book A Mind for Numbers and the MOOC Learning How to Learn, I wanted to help people learn intimidating material and give them the confidence — and the mental tools — to do it.
I think people have found A Mind for Numbers to be so useful because it goes beyond the usual platitudes about learning and gives information that’s immediately and practically useful — all based on solid recent scientific findings. And it’s written by a person who’s gone from the worst of the worst as a math flunkie, to amongst the best, as a professor of engineering.
The Learning How to Learn book uses a similar approach, but is geared toward younger students and their parents.
“It is possible to be successful in math, even if you believe you just aren’t ‘the math type’.”
CSG: Why is it important to learn how to learn?
BAO: Clearly society believes learning is important, because so many countries devote 12 to 16 years to giving people an education. But there are never any courses in how to learn effectively. It’s like: we’re going to throw all this information at you and see what sticks. And if nothing sticks, that’s too bad for you.
Worse yet, we put the onus on teachers to teach the kids, with some help from parents. But how can we expect children to learn effectively if we don’t teach them how?
Children who are lucky enough to be in a strong family, with access to good schools, can pick up effective learning by example or, to some degree, on their own. But what about the others? Their lives are predetermined by the first six to eight years of education. If they get a bad education — especially a bad math education — it can’t just be fixed with a simple remedial course later.
Gaining good analytical skills is an important part of how society is advancing today, and dealing effectively with mathematical and technical subjects is an important way to set up students for the many different requirements of modern life.
“How can we expect children to learn effectively if we don’t teach them how? “
CSG: “Learning How to Learn” is also the title of your first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), based on “A Mind for Numbers.” It’s considered one of the most popular online courses ever (2.6 million students since its launch on Coursera in 2014). Does that surprise you?
BAO: My co-instructor Terry Sejnowski and I wanted to create a simple, free course that would give students a lot of practical information. Apparently, it worked — nowadays, we get around 6,000 to 7,000 new subscribers per week. Recently, we also did a shorter version for younger people. Now I’ve inadvertently become an evangelist on the topic of making MOOCs!
“Gaining good analytical skills is an important part of how society is advancing today.”
CSG: What do you think about the future of MOOCs?
BAO: MOOCs hold a lot of potential. I think MOOC platforms will continue to grow in impact as people realize that spending enormous amounts of money to get a university credential can be counterproductive.
However, when it comes to online learning, a lot of professors are deeply antagonistic because they feel their careers are threatened by low-cost, high-value alternatives. Indeed, if you don’t put a lot of effort into your teaching, the thought of competition can be frightening. Criticism of MOOCs from the establishment often is about the completion rates – but has anyone ever analyzed how many students actually finish reading all their course books? I’m guessing it’s an even lower percentage than those who finish a MOOC.
The reality is, there is not much that can be done to stop the flow of easy-to-use materials that often have better professors than those found in face-to-face classes. MOOCs and other online ways of conveying educational material to people are like water in a flood. You may try to hold it back, but you can’t. People love the convenience as well as the quality of well-made online learning materials.
“When it comes to online learning, a lot of professors are deeply antagonistic because they feel their careers are threatened by low-cost, high-value alternatives.”
CSG: The US higher education system is very costly, and the European one is well-entrenched. Might there be more demand for the MOOC idea in other parts of the world?
BAO: The demand is growing for MOOCs even in the US — Georgia Tech, for example, has an exemplary master’s program in computer science for only 7000 USD. Developing countries can benefit from these types of programs as well, since learners can get cutting-edge information from the best universities in the world.
China, with its huge population, has realized that a MOOC platform is a way for them to scale good education. Students in provincial cities are getting transferable credit for MOOCs. In Pakistan, the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), one of southeast Asia’s top universities, is working to set up its own MOOC platform. India, of course, is also very dedicated to the development of MOOCs.
“MOOCs offer a great way to scale good education to large populations.”
CSG: People may love MOOCs, but does this approach make their learning successful? You said before that in traditional classroom education, it’s often like “we’re going to throw all this information at you and see what sticks.” What does a MOOC do differently: how does the approach make learners take ownership of what they learn?
BAO: There is no learning approach in the world that is 100% successful for 100% of students. But evidence from research shows that university students learn just as well — and sometimes a little better — online as they do from face-to-face classes. Think of it — every day you learn at home, you have 3 to 5 more hours available where you’re not commuting, walking to class, waiting for your professor, or finding parking. At home, when you are listening to a video, you can just pause and replay if you lose track of what the professor is saying. There are none of the banging doors and talking students in an 800-person lecture hall that disrupt your learning — you can really focus in a way that can sometimes be hard to do with the distractions of a typical classroom. It’s no wonder that MOOCs are so popular.
Barbara Ann Oakley is an educator, writer, and engineer, whose research focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior. She is the author of numerous books, and created the most popular MOOC course to date. Her most recent book, Learning How to Learn, brings science-based learning techniques to a young audience.