The Most Popular Course on Coursera

From the New York Times, a profile of the most popular course on Coursera, about learning how to learn. The remarkable thing is that the videos for the course were created in Dr. Barbara Oakley’s basement :

This is where they put together “Learning How to Learn,” taken by more than 1.8 million students from 200 countries, the most ever on Coursera. The course provides practical advice on tackling daunting subjects and on beating procrastination, and the lessons engagingly blend neuroscience and common sense.

Dr. Barbara Oakley has an interesting technique:

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.

The four elements of good learning, if you don’t want to take the entire course, are summarized:

FOCUS/DON’T The brain has two modes of thinking that Dr. Oakley simplifies as “focused,” in which learners concentrate on the material, and “diffuse,” a neural resting state in which consolidation occurs — that is, the new information can settle into the brain. (Cognitive scientists talk about task-positive networks and default-mode networks, respectively, in describing the two states.) In diffuse mode, connections between bits of information, and unexpected insights, can occur. That’s why it’s helpful to take a brief break after a burst of focused work.

TAKE A BREAK To accomplish those periods of focused and diffuse-mode thinking, Dr. Oakley recommends what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by one Francesco Cirillo. Set a kitchen timer for a 25-minute stretch of focused work, followed by a brief reward, which includes a break for diffuse reflection. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato — some timers look like tomatoes.) The reward — listening to a song, taking a walk, anything to enter a relaxed state — takes your mind off the task at hand. Precisely because you’re not thinking about the task, the brain can subconsciously consolidate the new knowledge. Dr. Oakley compares this process to “a librarian filing books away on shelves for later retrieval.”


PRACTICE “Chunking” is the process of creating a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed. It might be an equation or a phrase in French or a guitar chord. Research shows that having a mental library of well-practiced neural chunks is necessary for developing expertise.

KNOW THYSELF Dr. Oakley urges her students to understand that people learn in different ways. Those who have “racecar brains” snap up information; those with “hiker brains” take longer to assimilate information but, like a hiker, perceive more details along the way. Recognizing the advantages and disadvantages, she says, is the first step in learning how to approach unfamiliar material.

Coursera is pretty great. I am currently taking a Machine Learning course in my spare time, and have added a couple of other courses in data visualization and artificial intelligence to my learning queue.

Georgia Tech Joins Coursera

My alma mater, Georgia Tech, is one of twelve new universities that has joined the Coursera team. Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. In their own words: “We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.”

Take a look at the course offerings from Georgia Tech. The Computational Photography course taught by Professor Irfan Essa looks intriguing:

This course is aimed at teaching you the basics of how computation has impacted the entire workflow of photography, from how images are captured, manipulated and collaborated on and shared.  At the core of it photography means, drawing with light and how light can be captured to form images/videos. In this class you will learn about how the optics, and the sensor within a camera are generalized, as well as the lighting and other aspects of the environment are generalized to capture novel images. We will also cover post and pre processing techniques to manipulate and improve images. Finally, we will consider the power of the web and the Internet for both analyzing and sharing images, as well as the impact of mobile smart phone cameras. This class builds on concepts from well known disciplines like computer vision, computer graphics, and image processing. Look forward to participate in this class.

Sign me up!