8 minute read  written by  . Published on May 23, 2016

This is part two of the series entitled MOOC vs. Book. See the first part of the series here: Which will Win: MOOC vs. Book?


In the first post we discussed the comparison some people have made between MOOCs and digital textbooks. Now we’ll explore a case study from Dr. Barbara Oakley, who sat down with Class Central to share her experiences. Dr. Oakley is the lead creator of Learning How to Learn, the #1 most popular MOOC on Coursera, and therefore the #1 most popular MOOC in the world, with nearly 1.5M enrollments. She based the MOOC on her recently-published book, A Mind for Numbers. Both were her intellectual children, into which she poured a great deal of time, care, and effort. First was the exhaustive research for the book, writing the manuscript, and obtaining feedback from hundreds of experts to ensure its accuracy; then came the MOOC, which Prof. Oakley spent many painstaking hours crafting — learning video production along the way (with doting assistance from her husband, Philip) — and putting it all together.

Prof. Oakley believes that books and MOOCs are not substitutes for one another, but are very different, and in fact are good complementary channels from which to learn information. 

Prof. Oakley believes that books and MOOCs are not substitutes for one another, but are very different, and in fact are good complementary channels from which to learn information. We share her thoughts from our conversation in quotes below, and offer brief commentary on them.

Different Possibilities: Deep Dive vs. Engaging Overview

“Books can go into more detail and depth. They also make it really easy to see what reference a particular statement might be based on. For the MOOC, I tried to distill the key essence of the book and recombine the material in ways that even better served learners who were trying to digest the slimmed down, video form of the material.”

It makes sense that a book would aim to be comprehensive in its chosen topic, while most MOOCs are introductory in nature. We come to expect videos in MOOCs, but probably not hours and hours of videos.

“MOOCs allow for vivid animation and motion. This attracts and retains learners’ attention at multiple attentional levels in the brain. I can add visuals and special effects that make the experience more immersive for learners.”

Prof. Oakley is drawing on neuroscience to explain why video can be engaging versus just text — but this does not mean the traditional visual form of a “talking head”; an effective video uses motion, different perspectives, and vivid metaphors and visuals to be effective (see her tips in this Nautilus article).

“MOOCs are much more than digital textbooks — they allow for a full use of video, mastery learning through extensive quiz questions (allowing students to take and retake quizzes until they really understand a concept), and the vibrant ‘coffee shop’ of the discussion forums.”

Here Prof. Oakley cites the major features of modern MOOCs, and how they differ from regular text (which in many cases is just a Google search away). Automated multiple choice quizzes (which take quite a bit of effort to create well) let people check their understanding and allow for mastery learning, which is making sure that people understand fundamental concepts before moving on to more advanced ones. The discussion forums offer a way for people to share questions, answers, and ideas, and characterizing this as a “vibrant coffee shop” is an example of someone practicing what they preach in advocating for strong, apt metaphors.

Different Production Principles: Iterative Revision vs. Planned Production

“I had the luxury of having the book manuscript in front of me when I started scripting the MOOC. Sometimes I used a little part of the book manuscript as a backbone to help me begin to create part of a video script. By the time I’d revised the book material to make it more like how we speak than how we write, and added in opportunities for additional imagery, the scripts became quite different from the book.”

We can see that Prof. Oakley utilized her book content to create lessons for her MOOC. But she took the time to craft it carefully for the audience and the medium. Whenever Class Central talks to professors, we hear that the process of writing a book or creating a MOOC causes them to re-think the organization of the material, and this usually results in an improved learning experience.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’d add that a moving picture is worth two thousand words. I have animations in the videos and can compress what would ordinarily be an hour-long lecture into 6–7 minutes because it gets crystallized and synthesized.”

This is where the value of video comes in. The value is not to pander to short attention-spans nor to simply “keep it short” by briefly covering the main points; it is to optimize the content. Prof. Oakley created new metaphors and designed animations for the MOOC. There are very memorable ones: working memory as a limited number (three or four) of slots that a goofy octopus can reach through with its tentacles, and focused vs. diffuse modes of thought as two levels of a pinball machine. Books may have visual illustrations, but the animations, with Prof. Oakley’s supporting gestures, make a strong impression.

“Revising a book manuscript is a snap. Revising a finished book is more difficult, but still do-able. Revising videos after you’ve made them is a horror story. I have to say that I have written a lot of books, and doing a MOOC — a very well-done MOOC — is harder than writing a book.”

Doing a MOOC — a very well-done MOOC — is harder than writing a book. 

Here we get to the very different production and revision process. Both MOOCs and books take a great deal of planning and resources. Producing quality videos for a MOOC (following the principles described earlier) requires multiple takes and shooting in front of a green screen, and the services of a video producer and graphic artist/animator. We can see why Prof. Oakley declares that a MOOC is harder to create. And once the videos are produced, modifications can be challenging: imagine you changed one piece of terminology that you use in a video, but then notice that you refer to the old term here and there in five other videos!

Different Promotional Needs: Platform vs. Publicist

“The book publisher creates extraordinary PR opportunities — for example, I was on the popular radio show Science Friday with Ira Flatow.”

When creating a MOOC that is potentially useful to a wide audience, how do you let people know about it? The answer, for now, is to team up with a MOOC provider platform that can expose it to a large potential audience. Right now, the most popular provider is Coursera (other platforms, such as edX, FutureLearn, and Udacity are growing as well).

What about books? Well, if you are publishing a popular press book (versus an academic book that is sold only to instructors and universities), it is crucial to promote the book in order to raise awareness about it. Publishing deals usually include the service of a publicist, who can arrange for interviews, articles, and book tours. Of course, only the top-tier prospects get publicity like a New York Times blog post or a slot on Ira Flatow’s Science Friday.

“There are so many up sides to doing a book/MOOC that it is a really smart thing to do. My publisher now has placed a little label on the cover of the book telling prospective buyers that the book is associated with the Coursera MOOC.”

We can see that Prof. Oakley’s MOOC effort was clearly not for promotional purposes. She spent more effort on the former endeavor than on the latter, and she had no fear about taking the main ideas in her book, synthesizing them so that they are articulated even more effectively, and putting them out there for anyone in the general public to learn from. This was no promotional teaser; these were the core ideas of her book. Blazing a trail past others who might be afraid of cannibalization, Prof. Oakley has found that synergies can exist on the other side. Her publisher, unfamiliar with MOOCs at first, is now fully on board with using promotional opportunities to increase awareness of both her book and her MOOC.

We have seen that, from Prof. Oakley’s standpoint, MOOCs and books serve different purposes, and they can be complementary. To think of MOOCs as digital textbooks may do a disservice to the new possibilities opened up by the format and social nature of MOOCs. We see that the production methods and promotional requirements differ as well, and these are equally important aspects to keep in mind for any would-be MOOC instructors or producers.

Thanks again to Prof. Oakley for sharing her thoughts on this topic. Next week we will conclude our series with Part #3 of MOOC vs. Book, in which we will hear thoughts on the matter from Prof. Raj Raghunathan — a.k.a. Dr. Happy Smarts.

  • Yan Masarsky

    “Cannabilzation”, lol. I’d say it’s quite a freudian slip you got there, Charlie )

    Also, “To think of books as digital textbooks” in the next paragraph: I assume you meant MOOCs.

    Nice quotes and comments overall, though. I would also note that Prof. Oakley’s personal charm really adds to the material; it’s an often overlooked advantage that MOOCs can also have over books. On the other hand, it can be a disadvantage, too, if the lecturer has poor public speaking skills or can’t handle camera very well (more often this is a problem for guest lecturers). Still, either way, there is much to be conveyed through non-verbal channels: more parts of our brain are engaged in perceiving and decoding the stream of a “live” person in front of us than when we’re just consuming bare words on a page, thus there are more chances for forming a long-lasting memory imprint.