MOOCs, Games, and the Brain

It seems like at least once a week there is a major news headline declaring that our educational system is broken, and looking at the data on how U.S. students compare with students in other countries, it is hard to doubt that this conclusion is true. The training system is broken as well. Results from an ASTD study suggest that as much as 90 percent of new skills learned during training are lost within one year, which means that despite large expenditures on training programs, many companies are not realizing significant returns on their investment (ROIs). What’s worse, many companies do not systematically analyze these ROIs, so they really have no idea what they are getting for their training dollars. Part of the problem is that the traditional models of education and training aren’t brain-friendly, meaning that they are completely removed from how people actually learn. For many years (and even centuries), the commonly held belief was that exposure to information equaled learning. But this simply isn’t true: spending an hour listening to a classroom lecture or attending a four-hour seminar with no follow-up does not translate into meaningful learning, yet this remains the dominant model in many organizations.

There is some good news to be had in all of this: broken systems open the door for innovation, and that is exactly what is happening right now in education and training. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have swooped onto the scene, threatening commonly held beliefs and business models left, right, and center. I’ve said before that the main influence of MOOCs is pedagogical-they are changing the focus from knowledge to outcomes, from what students know to what they will be able to do. Using MOOC tools, instructors can design courses that do translate into meaningful learning because they are more closely aligned with how people actually learn.

Here are some ways MOOCs promote brain-friendly training programs:

No more long boring lectures

Let’s be honest: lectures don’t work. The reason they don’t work is because people don’t pay attention to them. Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur measured students’ brain activation during various daily activities and found that their brains are about as engaged during a lecture as when watching television, and considerably less than when sleeping. Other research has found that during a standard 50-minute lecture, students start to lose interest after about 30 seconds and then cycle between attention and inattention in short and ever-decreasing increments. Given Mazur’s research, this finding is hardly surprising-how can people pay attention to something when they are less alert than during asleep?

The MOOC model solves this problem by eliminating the long lecture altogether. Although videos provide the main method of formal content delivery, this delivery is kept to a minimum. In early MOOCs, videos ran for around 10 to 15 minutes, but now the average is closer to 5 to 7 minutes, with other activities in between. Many videos also contain embedded activities, such as recall questions and topics for reflection, which engage the brain so that it doesn’t shut down.

A lot more active learning

Our brains are not built to memorize; they are built to do. Active learning focuses on the application of knowledge, rather than just its acquisition. This is especially important for training programs, in which the goal is to improve job performance and boost the company’s bottom line. Knowledge by itself does not mean much if you can’t do anything with it, and learning to apply knowledge can help people deal more effectively with new kinds of problems. A recent Harvard Magazine article explored the “twilight of the lecture,” and in it, Terry Aladjem, the Executive Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, explains the importance of active learning: “Active learning is really at a premium. It’s the most effective thing… That means focusing on what students actually do in the classroom, or in some other learning environment. From cognitive science, we hear that learning is a process of moving information from short-term to long-term memory; assessment research has proven that active learning does that best.”

MOOCs use several active learning strategies, including real-world problem-solving and interactive simulations, course discussions on social media platforms, assessments that require students to curate and share content, and peer-reviewed assignments and exams. As interactive Internet technology improves, the options available for active online learning will only expand.

Games to make training fun

The words training and fun don’t often appear in the same sentence (and usually with good reason), but that doesn’t mean these two things are mutually exclusive by nature. I’ve talked before about using gamification to increase employee engagement, especially with the new generation entering the workforce, and games are increasingly being used in education because they are very brain-friendly and highly effective motivators. Games activate multiple brain pathways associated with good feelings. Success in a game can trigger the brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act as the body’s “natural morphine” and are associated with feelings of euphoria and exhilaration. Games also stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. According to neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones in a New York Times article, computer games can trigger the brain to produce dopamine, “which helps orient our attention and enhances the making of connections between neurons, which is the physical basis for learning.”

There are many ways to gamify a MOOC: employees can earn points by watching videos and contributing to class discussions, badges can be created to represent various achievements, competitions can be held, serious games can be incorporated, and so on.

The world, and especially the business landscape, is changing so quickly now that training programs that employees sleep through and then forget no longer cut it. To compete, organizations need training that produces real, measureable ROIs. MOOCs combined with gamified applications can motivate and engage employees as well as provide meaningful learning experiences that will help them tackle real-world problems confidently and effectively.

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