Online Is Increasingly On Song

Dr Barbara Oakley knows a lot about running a successful online course. More than a million learners around the world undertook her ‘Learning How to Learn’ course within two years of its launching in 2014. Reflecting a trend that is becoming increasingly evident, she believes that the best online learning can be more effective that in-person instruction. To create her course, she borrowed techniques from academia, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood to combine:

  • Strong academic research, presented through easy-to-follow metaphors. “Using metaphors can more quickly get students on board with complex subjects,” she says.
  • Smart on-screen movement that keeps learners focused and paying attention. “There’s always something happening, so you have to keep your eye on the screen to follow all the changes. There’s one stream of information, but it’s moving along quickly, so you don’t have time to get bored.”
  • Humour and fun. “Humour establishes trust with the instructor,” she says.

She is enjoying her success but cautions that great online learning is not easy to pull off. Traditional instructors are used to “learners in a cage”, sitting captive in a classroom. Those students are fairly easy to teach, but today’s “free-range” adults aren’t like that. You have to work harder to capture and keep their attention. “Free-range learners expect high quality and are more demanding than university students,” she explains. “That doesn’t mean you have to be rigid and academic. It means you present top-quality academic material in a way that’s fascinating.”

She says it’s important for employers to think carefully about their content and format when it comes to employee training. Getting a good mixture of online and face-to-face learning is vital. “The ‘same old, same old’ won’t work. In 20 years it’s going to be a different world, and if you’re not trying new things, you’re going to be left behind. The employers who are rethinking traditional learning, who get in there with video editors and get creative, will be at a competitive advantage.”

And more advice for employers: “Help build a learning lifestyle,” she says. “The most important thing is to encourage the idea of learning for learning’s sake. Don’t get too fixated on immediate outcomes. Sometimes studying a study that seems irrelevant – like ancient history – can bring fresh ideas because the brain is excited. Ideas that come up in one discipline often show up elsewhere.”

She concludes: “Learning keeps workers happy. There’s good research to show that simply learning something new makes you happier.”

Contributed by Dave Hornblow, March 2017

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