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Barbara Oakley on the Creation of the World’s Most Popular MOOC

By Cait Etherington
July 02, 2018

Barbara Oakley did something extraordinary. She created a MOOC for less than $5000. In fact, it was shot in her basement with her adult daughter serving as an actor and her husband behind the camera. But Oakley’s low budget isn’t what made her MOOC extraordinary. Years later, she was invited to talk about her MOOC at Harvard University. Why? Her course, Learning How to Learn, had higher enrollments than all of HarvardX’s MOOCs combined. So, how did Oakley create the world’s most popular MOOC?

Neuro Reuse Theory and the World’s Most Popular MOOC

A 2017 article in the New York Times put it simply: “This is home-brew, not Harvard. And it has worked. Spectacularly.” One of the reasons Oakley’s lessons work is that they are steeped in metaphor and analogy. As the New York Times profile on Oakley explained, “She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an ‘octopus of attention.’ Hammy editing tricks may have Dr. Oakley moving out of the frame to the right and popping up on the left, or cringing away from an animated, disembodied head that she has put on the screen to discuss a property of the brain.”  But as it turns out, there is a scientific explanation for why Oakley’s metaphors and analogies are so impactful.

In a nutshell, neuro reuse refers to an emerging class of theories concerned with the functional structure of the brain. The theory of neural reuse contends that metaphors are useful because they bring difficult concepts more rapidly into view. Some researchers even contend that a system of thousands of metaphorical mappings has created the basis for abstract thought in the human mind. A 2010 article published in Behavioral Brain Science summarizes the concept as follows: “According to neural reuse, circuits can continue to acquire new uses after an initial or original function is established; the acquisition of new uses need not involve unusual circumstances such as injury or loss of established function; and the acquisition of a new use need not involve (much) local change to circuit structure (e.g., it might involve only the establishment of functional connections to new neural partners).” What does this mean? In essence, neural pathways created for one purpose can later be adapted and used to do something else. When educators use metaphors and analogies, it is easier for learners to leverage the reuse potential of existing neural pathways in the brain.

Production Values Still Matter

While the real success of Oakley’s MOOC may be her deep understanding of the neuroscience of learning, she emphasizes that production value still matters. During a recent talk at Columbia University, Oakley emphasized that over time, MOOC designers have made a lot of mistakes. First, there were video recordings of professors in actual classrooms. As Oakley notes, most learners did not enjoy watching professors, often with their backs to the audience, mumbling into a chalkboard. Next, came the split screen. During this stage, we had bullet points on the left side of the screen and a talking head on the right side of the screen.

“There are much more dynamic ways to present the material,” says Oakley, “It is important to bear in mind that we’re not producing a course for caged students in a classroom. When you’re developing a MOOC, you have a lot more competition that you do when you’re on campus where students generally have to take your courses and don’t have a lot of choice. MOOCs are for free-range learners. They don’t have to watch your materials. Most of the learners are also older – not 18 to 24 but rather 25 to 45 years old – and they have choices.”

The Future of Online Learning

Given that Oakley is the creator the world’s most popular MOOC, it is not surprising that she is optimistic about the future of MOOCs and online learning. “The future of education will involve more and more online learning,” says Oakley, “Why? Because it offers great economies of scale.” However, as also she adds, universities remain an obstacle: “You’ve probably heard this joke about universities…moving a university is like moving a cemetery. You can’t expect any help from the inhabitants!”  Despite Oakley’s recognition that universities remain an obstacle, she is also confident that as learners change, the demand for MOOCs and other flexible forms of online education is bound to continue growing.