college student

 How MOOCs Foil Distraction

By George Leef:

With the surge in online education over the past few years, one course at the University of California has been exceptional. “Learning How to Learn” with an enrollment of 1,192,697 since it was initially offered last year, is the world’s most popular online course, according to The New York Times, narrowly beating out “Machine Learning.” Students who have taken it include cardiologists, engineers, lawyers, war refugees in Sudan, and 12-year old kids.

“Learning How to Learn” is the creation of neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute and Oakland University professor Barbara Oakley.  What is so fascinating about the course is that it teaches how the brain functions – the knowledge that enabled Professor Oakley to go from being, as she admits in this Nautilus article, “a terrible student” who “flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science” to a professor of engineering.

Related: MOOCs: What You Need to Know about Them Now

She had great difficulty with college course material, especially math, because the standard fifty-minute class with homework assignments didn’t convey the material effectively. Eventually, Oakley realized that the problem was the way the educational experience was structured did not match up well with the way our brains work best.

She explains, “Human brains have evolved with a flitting, fleeting ability to maintain focus on any one thing. Those who kept too fixed a gaze on the wildebeest they were stalking could end up being killed by the lions stalking them. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that humans may not have been meant to sit boxed up for prolonged periods, focused on a teacher in a classroom.” In short, she says, “We’re built to be distracted.”

Short Bursts of Attention

That is why online education can be far superior to the traditional arrangement of putting a number of students in a room with a teacher or professor at an assigned time for a span of 50 minutes. While some learning can occur in that format, it is decidedly sub-optimal. Most students learn more in short bursts of attention highlighted with motion, followed by an interaction (a quiz of some kind) to ensure that they grasped the content.

Once Barbara Oakley figured that out, she was able to conquer the math and earn her Ph.D. in engineering. She learned how to learn the abstruse concepts. Well-designed online courses make it easier for students to progress through the material they need to learn.

Oakley’s experience matches up perfectly with that of Kevin Carey, who signed up for the daunting online MIT introductory biology course and wrote about his hard-won success in his book The End of College, which I reviewed here.

The Feedback Loop

Lacking in the science background expected of students attempting the course, Carey was able to earn a solid B only because he could listen (and watch) the videos at times of his choosing, with no distractions. He had the ability to go back over a point as often as necessary, consult with other students in study groups, and benefit from frequent quizzes so he’d know if he really understood the material or not.

That last element, the feedback loop, is especially important.

Oakley explains that research from physics shows that “students don’t really learn from careful explanations – they learn from making mistakes….Mistakes in the frequent low-stakes quiz questions available online can force students in physics—or any other subject—to revisit the explanation.”

Stopping a “real” class every few minutes to quiz the students and get their corrected answers back to them is hardly possible.  But in an online course, the feedback loop is a feature easily built in, one that simultaneously keeps students attentive and increases their comprehension of the subject matter.

Innovations in learning, however, have led to a Luddite reaction from many educators who don’t want to change what they have been doing for years or fear that online courses will make their jobs will disappear.

Oakley calls them the “MOOC deniers.”

Among them is Professor David Bromwich of Yale, who recently wrote an article entitled, “Trapped in the Virtual Classroom.” Bromwich argued that online coursework “discourages more complex thinking about the content and aims of education.” University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Zemsky brushes aside the development of MOOCs claiming that they’re “neither pedagogically nor technologically interesting.”

Fortunately, educational traditionalists can say whatever dismissive, misinformed, or hostile things they want to about online courses without having the slightest impact on their growth. Educators like Oakley and Sejnowski will keep on improving their courses and large numbers of students will continue to give enroll in them and learn from them.

There is probably no more free market in America than the market for educational material. Nothing can prevent people from offering different modes of learning and students from trying them. No governmental agency (at least to my knowledge) has the power to regulate online education. Whereas incumbents can and often do turn to regulators to stifle new competition in other markets, education remains a wonderfully laissez-faire domain.

Don’t get me (or Professor Oakley) wrong. We are not saying that online courses are always the best or that face-to-face education will disappear. Our argument is simply that by expanding the range of choice for students, online courses catalyze healthy competition. That is vital in education, a field that has long rested contentedly.

The lessons from “Learning to Learn” and other MOOCs can help professors improve their “real” classes. They alone are not the answer to improving education. Oakley writes, “That will come from a variety of sources: MOOCs, resources developed by textbook companies, and teachers themselves. Online assets will not serve as a replacement for in-person instructors—rather, they’ll serve as assets, provide high-quality personalized tutoring and great testing materials with rapid grading.” (If you want to look into “Learning to Learn” yourself, you can do so here.)

How the Brain Learns

We often hear complaints that colleges are “failing their students” because high percentages drop out. I have never regarded that complaint as worth listening to; it’s the students who fail by not doing what it takes to pass.

But Oakley’s work casts a new light on this matter. Something can be said for the argument that if a school doesn’t encourage its faculty to look into what we have learned about our brains and does all it can to incorporate the research into their courses, it has indeed failed its students.

Instead of devoting time and money to workshops on “diversity” and similar fads, colleges should consider a faculty workshop on how to improve teaching effectiveness. Many professors will grumble, but the alternative to doing so might be unemployment.


George Leef is director of research for the John William Pope Center for Policy Research.

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