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Behind the Scenes: An Interview with Developers of The Most Popular MOOC of All Time

Where user experience meets learning experience.

What does it take to make a great online learning experience? Is it the instructor? The course content? The user platform?

Most online learners would say you can recognize a great online course by some combination of all three of those factors: a dynamic instructor who can teach content they love on a platform that furnishes an optimal user experience.

We think we found exactly that course in our ranking of the 50 Most Popular MOOCs of All Time, where Dr. Barbara Oakley’s MOOC, Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools To Help You Master Tough Subjects placed first according to enrollment data. That makes Learning How to Learn the most popular MOOC of all time if you go by the total number of course takers alone.

Wanting to learn more about how they made the most well-attended online course of all time, we sat across the screen from Dr. Oakley and Coursera’s Teaching & Learning Specialist, Alexandra Urban, for this behind the scenes look at the online learning experience.

Our first two questions are directed to Dr. Oakley, whom we’ll refer to henceforth as Barb, and the last two are directed to both Barb and Alexandra Urban, whom we’ll refer to henceforth as Urban. In the interest of letting these authorities speak for themselves, we’ve produced the answers they gave us below unedited, aside from some bold phrases of their own words that we thought did the best job of answering our questions.

OCR: What made you want to create an e-learning course about learning?

Barb: Our MOOC (“Massive Open Online Course”) Learning How to Learn has had nearly 2 million registered learners over the past few years. By contrast, a typical non-fiction book sells about 2,000 copies in its lifetime. E-learning is an incredible way to reach people.

People often really enjoy having a teacher walk them through the material. That’s what good teachers do, after all—they make what you are learning more alive, interesting, and fun. And you can discover practical insights about important subjects like effective learning that are oddly skipped over in university curricula. In fact, we have just launched a complementary course, Mindshift, about how to retrain and reinvent yourself to adapt to changing industries, and to uncover and develop talents you don’t realize you possess.

Incidentally, I also wrote books (A Mind for Numbers and Mindshift), that accompany each of the MOOCs. These books have reached far more people than typical books. It’s the MOOCs that have made the difference in the books’ popularity.

OCR: Were there any design hurdles you had to overcome when working with courseware developers to translate your course material into the desirable learning experience that it is today?

Barb: Quite honestly, there were few design hurdles, because both of our courses are on the Coursera platform. This platform makes course development a very straightforward process. The foundation of our MOOCs, as with many MOOCs, consists of videos, quizzes, peer evaluations, and the discussion forum. The Coursera platform makes it pretty obvious what I need to upload to do a good job with each of these items. In fact, the platform gives me a pedagogical scale that rates how I’m doing in setting up the course so students can best take advantage of the materials, learning-wise.

I especially like that, on the Coursera system, learners can flag anything that’s a problem. When you’re creating a course with hundreds of quiz questions involved, it’s inevitable that there will be some mistakes. For example, I might set up a quiz question and mark the wrong answer as correct. Behind the scenes, I can just check whenever I want to see if learners have raised any flags—I can then fix problems immediately, so these problems don’t continue to impact other learners. Every time I turn around, Coursera is adding something that makes the experience nicer for learners, such as the ability to take quizzes on mobile devices.

Coursera also has a terrific “beta testing” program to remove most of the bugs before course launch. All of these extra touches on the underlying courseware platform are part of why learners often really enjoy the Coursera experience. The platform is user-friendly for students and instructors both.

OCR: How were your users’ learning experiences enhanced by the online delivery method?

Urban: The short answer: her videos. Just as she explains in the course, “chunking” topics is an important technique for learning new material, and Barb demonstrates this method through her clearly titled videos that rarely exceed 6 minutes. Her use of striking images, real-world examples, and stories from her own life align with research on what keeps learners interested in and attentive to the material. To top it off, Barb incorporates metaphors as well as humor to help with retention of the key concepts.

In addition to engaging videos, Learning How to Learn helps learners continue successfully through the course by providing practice opportunities. For example, in-video questions offer a pause in the video for learners to test their knowledge on what was just presented or reflect on how this topic relates to their own lives. Finally, Barb does a wonderful job of starting at the beginning: it can be difficult to assume prerequisites, so instead Learning How to Learn meets learners right where they currently are, which is especially beneficial for our community of diverse learners around the world.

Barb: Oh my, we couldn’t have been nearly as effective if we’d tried to teach the ideas of Learning How to Learn face-to-face! The videos are each about five minutes long: compact nuggets of information presented in a fun way. People tell me that they become addicted to the videos—they’re so fun, and they make tough ideas seem simple. Discussion forums, quizzes that incorporate a lot of humor along with penetrating questions, and well-thought-out projects round out the course.

In our online courses, I am not just showing a static picture to explain a concept—I’m walking into moving imagery, illustrating key ideas by standing full-body beside them and pointing out what’s going on. Unexpected motion—like me sliding up from below—helps capture students’ attention. We used scripts and a teleprompter, which meant that there isn’t a wasted second, even while we were able to incorporate a lot of humor and direct, to-the-point explanations.

MOOCs like these are like taking every aspect of great face-to-face courses, distilling their essence, and unleashing them online so that far more people can benefit.

OCR: Do you think there are any topics, such as education, web development, or mathematics, that are especially suited to online learning and that perhaps we might expect to see more of in the future?

Barb: Truthfully, I think most topics can lend themselves to online learning. In the MOOC Mindshift, I extensively explore what goes into making a good MOOC. I even go to my basement and show how “green screen” technology works, and why this technology can be particularly helpful in creating great learning experiences.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) instructors often don’t realize that there is great value in using metaphors to more rapidly “on board” learners into difficult-to-grasp topics. Metaphors can be easily made more real and memorable using green screen technology. The humanities have been a pioneer in using metaphor to help with learning—online makes it easier for STEM instructors also to incorporate these approaches into their teaching. On the flip side of the pedagogical coin, MOOCs in the humanities and social sciences provide for fantastic new creative approaches to teaching. In some ways, online teaching can be more interesting and informative than face-to-face teaching. Unexpected movement, carefully planned humor, and appealing, gradually unfolding visuals with the instructor walking in, full-body, to point out the important points, can hold learners’ interest in a way that face-to-face instruction can struggle to do.

Advances in technology have brought video equipment prices down enormously. Video editing has become so straightforward that anyone can do it if they just devote a little time to grasping the basics. My sense is that we are only at the beginning of an explosion of creativity in translating traditional face-to-face teaching approaches into the very different online environment. The results will be a real boon for students—in surprising ways, these new online courses can be even better than what we can do face-to-face!

Urban: While different content domains often require their own features and teaching methods to be successful online, we at Coursera work to support all types of subject areas on our platform. As the skills gap increases between the expertise employees currently have and the knowledge companies need, computer programming, data science, business, and leadership skills are all crucial areas for development. What we would expect in the future is a greater reliance on online learning across subject domains, as individuals along with business and government employees find they must become lifelong learners to thrive. So then, it’s less about a certain type of content that we focus on, but rather a particular type of learner who wants to access transformational educational content anytime and anywhere. Just as Barb does in Learning How to Learn, we on the Teaching & Learning team at Coursera work with all instructors to help them meet these learners where they are and help them learn the new skills they need to succeed.

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