One of the most popular MOOCs ever teaches students how to learn

Coursera's most popular online course, streamed by 1.8 million students from 200 countries, is filmed in a basement that "smells faintly of cat urine," writes John Schwartz for the New York Times.

The basement belongs to Barb and Phil Oakley, producers of "Learning How to Learn," and the smell belongs to Fluffy.

Created by Oakley, engineering professor at Oakland University, and Terrence Sejnowsky, neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, the course combines neuroscience and common sense to teach students how to tackle complex subjects and beat procrastination, writes Schwartz.

While other universities spend millions and employ a team of professionally trained staff to create their massive online open courses (MOOCs), Barb and her husband, Phil, began with only $5,000 and the Google search bar. In this tight-knit production team, Phil operates as both camera and teleprompter, while Barb handles the editing, notes Schwartz.

The wild success of this low-budget "home-brew" came as a surprise to the Oakleys, writes Schwartz. 

In the early days of filming, Barb "looked like a deer in the headlights" on camera and would often flub her lines, she says. Although he maintained a strong, supportive front, Phil admits he too worried whether "anybody was even going to look at this."

While there are many other MOOCs that use neuroscience to teach learning, its Barb's skill at presenting the material and her message of hope that have launched the course to worldwide popularity, writes Schultz. Her main audience consists of 25- to 44-year-olds facing a career change and trying to tackle new learning curves, he reports.

Strategic planning and logistics for MOOC initiatives

Barb's teaching style relies on metaphors to communicate complex ideas. According to the theory of neural reuse, a metaphor and its underlying concept operate on the same neural circuits, writes Schultz. In this way, metaphors bring complex ideas "more rapidly on board," says Barb. Goofy animations like surfing zombies and metabolic vampires help to illustrate difficult concepts about brain properties.

For Barb, the experience of learning belongs to everyone. When students feel frustrated or "really stupid" for not understanding a concept, it's because "they don't know how their brain works," she says.

Her own struggles with learning and feelings of inadequacy have shaped her drive to help people rewire their brains and find confidence.

As a student, Barb shares that she flunked math and science courses throughout elementary, middle, and high school, writes Schwartz. But after joining the army and learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute, Barb realized that electrical engineering was her calling. To tackle her math and science technical courses, she relied on the practice and repetition techniques she picked up in her Russian studies, writes Schultz.

Along the way, Barb met future-husband Philip Oakley during her stint as a radio operator at Antarctica's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Three weeks after a fateful breakfast meeting, Philip proposed on the true South Pole at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, writes Schwartz.

To improve program launch success, give marketing a voice

In two of her previous books, Barb shares her journey with adult learners. But her next project aims to help 10- to 13-year-olds who don't feel like "superstar learners" find confidence in their learning style, she says.

On making the switch from an adult audience to a younger one, Barb notes that "teaching kids how to learn is one of the greatest things we can do" (Schwartz, New York Times, 8/7)

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