Barbara Oakley moved ten times by the time she was fifteen years old.  These early moves taught Barb the value (and danger) of bringing fresh perspectives to different social groups. A former linguist and now a professor of engineering, she is a best-selling author and teaches Learning How to Learn, the world’s largest massive open online course, along with her co-instructor, Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute. Before becoming an academic, Barb went from US Army private to Regular Army Captain, worked as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers up in the Bering Sea, and served as a radio operator at the South Pole Station in the Antarctic. Evolutionary theory has helped her to understand and integrate her knowledge of human behavior in widely different settings. 

Sometimes I’ll be sitting in on a dry academic presentation describing how an internationally renowned university has over one million students in all fifty of their massive open online courses—“MOOCs.”  What can’t help but make me chuckle is that Learning How to Learn, Terry’s and my course, now has over one and a half million students.  In one, single MOOC.

I’m convinced that part of the secret of attracting so many learners is that our MOOC applies insights related to how evolution has shaped our ability to focus. Keeping up on insights in evolutionary research is why TVOL is always a must-read for me.

To give just one example of how evolution relates to our MOOC, let’s say you’re sitting in your kitchen, and you spot a spider about ten feet away.  Whoa! Your attention goes to alert.

Suddenly, the spider skitters forward—it’s only five feet away.  Your attention immediately goes on hyperalert.


If you look from an evolutionary perspective, it’s very clear what’s going on.  Objects that move have a propensity for danger. This is why motion attracts our attention.  But moving objects that loom closer pose a special danger.  This is because, from an evolutionary perspective, looming objects have a special propensity for killing you. This explains why we have developed special neural circuits that hijack our attention when looming motion occurs.  (Skarratt, PA, et al. “Looming motion primes the visuomotor system.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 40, 2 (2014): 566-79.)

What does this have to do with making an online course?

A lot.

If you look at many of today’s MOOCs, or even just conventional online courses, there’s not a lot of motion.  A professor sits in front of the camera and talks.  Sometimes a static picture will appear.  In part as consequence, the course is boring—no wonder that academics often say that online learning isn’t as good as face-to-face.

But in an online course, what if you pop the instructor from the left to the right on the video screen?  Or even better, what if you appear to make the professor loom forward by changing from a full body shot to a waist shot?  Like it or not, visual tricks with motion, especially perceived looming motion, can help keep a student’s attention fixed on a video—which can help them better learn and retain the material.

In the Learning How to Learn MOOC, we used dozens of insights drawn from evolutionary findings to help induce learners to stick with, and learn from, online materials.  Knowledge of evolution, in other words, helped us build the world’s most popular course.

What could knowledge of evolution help you do?

For more on Barbara Oakley’s work:

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Published On: December 29, 2016

One Comment

  • Bob Lapsley says:

    Hello Ms. Oakley, my name is Bob, the construction worker. An odd ball for sure. You see unlike most of my coworkers, I have been fretting about humanity’s state of affairs as have so many that visit TVOL. It took some coffee for me to send you, a professor of Engineering, this note.
    So here I posit naïve reasoning for sure. I apologize if i waste your time, but these thoughts wont leave me. I hope this worthy of at least a short reply .
    I am thinking of “information”…
    as simply a change of state. We humans note such changes, and recognize some more than others as meaningful to us. We can expect something to follow, good or bad. We are first the meaning makers. If changes are recurring and regular enough, we exploit them in this way and that. We order the information. I think we call this ordered information “knowledge”. The ordered information is like a recipe. We “engineer” information to yield intended results. And we get results dependably. Based on how well our results fulfilled the intended we attribute a value. So here is my jump, thinking that any “intention” is value laden, an expression of a moral stance, it is social, and it is political. I conclude that engineering is first and foremost a social study heavy with implied ethics and morality. I don’t find this view shared, probably for good reason. I dont talk to people.
    I stand exposed by my ignorance.

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