Mindshift Week 4: Adopting a Learning Lifestyle

Why Should You Keep Learning?

Some 1400 new neurons are born every day in your hippocampus. This neural birth rate doesn't decline very much with age, but unless your brain continues to encounter new experiences (e.g. by learning something new), your new neurons will die off before they can mature and hook into your exisitng larger neural network.

New neurons allow us to distinguish between similar experiences and store them as distinct memories. This means that we need to help new neurons survive and thrive for our own mental health, and for learning.

Physical exercise is one of the most powerful ways that help produce new neurons, while learning encourages their growth. You can imagine physical exercise as sowing seeds for neural sprouts, while learning is the water and fertiliser for it to grow.

When you are young, it's more likely that you will encounter something new. It becomes easier to fall into a rut with age. Learning that makes an impact on your brain has to be slightly out of your comfort zone.

You should try to do something new every day to help your new neurons survive and grow. It can be using your left hand to brush your teeth instead of the right, or sitting at a different seat.

As it turns out, learning a language when you are older is good for you, since the areas of the brain that are positively affected by language learning include areas that are negatively affected by ageing.

It seems that action videos are good for maintaining mental flexibility.

This is a case of use it or lose it (which applies to our regular muscles too...), even if you think your gifts are natural.

So there's exercise, learning something new or exposing yourself to new environments that can help your new neurons to survive and grow. It nurtures new neurons and synapses, which create a cognitive reserve. This means that when some neurons and synapses are natually gone due to ageing, you have others that can take over the neural pathways and maintian your mental health.

MOOC Tips 1 - How to Get the Most from MOOCs

MOOCs are a great way for adults to keep up a learning lifestyle.

These tips are from Ronny De Winter's insights. He's a super-MOOCer.

  1. Set learning goals. Define what you want to learn, in the short term and also in the next 2-3 years.
  2. Use a MOOC directory. (e.g. Class Central) to read reviews and view rankings, as well as discover, sort, and filter MOOCs across different platforms.
  3. Investigate. Find out more about the MOOC - the outline, prereqs, syllabus, and suggsted weekly workload to make sure it's manageable for you.
  4. Schedule the time. It's recommended to allocate twice the recommended time.
  5. Fast-MOOCing. Some like to listen to videos at 1.2x to 2x the original video speed, and some advanced MOOCers will use Fast-MOOCing to skim through the syllabus and slides, before watching the videos at twice the regular speed. Once you are comfortable, it allows you to cover all the material more efficiently. The caveat is that this may not work well for certain courses. (My own recommendation to myself is don't go there again, because I've been there before and I know how it ends: Not well. Once I start speeding it up, it seems like it's just a rush to get to the finish, and I usually end up getting impatient and end up learning less.)
  6. See how things go. Use the first week as a "trial period", and if you find the MOOC is not a good fit, drop it.
  7. Balancing: Don't take too many MOOCs at once. You get more out of studying a few subjects deeply rather than many superficially. (And also, you put a lot of stress on yourself if you try to take on more than you can. One gripe I have about Coursera is that you cannot bookmark courses, so it forces me to enrol as a form of bookmarking, and then it tells me that I'm missing deadlines. Sure, I can reset, but I don't really want to start the course now...)
  8. Use discussion forums wisely. Use it to get your questions answered, but realise that it can be time-consuming. (I'm thinking if you start mindlessly browsing the forum to read topics instead of learning...)
  9. Novelty versus bugs. Be aware that a brand-new course may have bugs that need to be ironed out. But there's always the novelty factor, and it can still be fun.

Dirty Little Secrets of Traditional vs Massive Online Teaching

The good thing about MOOC-making is that co-instructors can work together even when they are not physically located nearby.

Making good online material is something anyone can do. LHTL was made for less than $5000, yet it had the same number of students as all of Harvard's dozens of MOOCs put together, that were made for millions of dollars and with hundreds of people.

But not everybody does it. At many universities, the attention is on doing great reasearch, not teaching. It's why you end up sometimes with lecturers who can't really teach.

Professors become professors for most part because they are good at showing off what they know, but this is generally the opposite of what you need to be a good teacher - where it's important to be able to explain concepts simply.

University teaching is also about filling a timeslot. There's no motivation to be efficient, to find better ways to communicate the material memorably in fewer hours.

Online, it's very different. The online world is highly competitive. If you had the option of two classes, but one has a professor that is more engaging, wouldn't you pick that class over the other?

Although universities can provide valuable insight into what you are trying to learn (especially by lending insight from research), they're not used to this competition. This is one of the reasons for a huge range in quality of online materials, even from top-rated universities.

Well-done online learning can be better than in-class learning.

Online courses is a bit of academia, Silicon Valley and a little bit of Hollywood thrown in, which can maintain interest.

How LHTL was Made

Barb learnt about how to set up a studio and edit film by searching online. The video editing for LHTL was mostly done by her, with some help from her husband, Phil (who is also the cameraman).

It took her several months to really get comfortable with editing the videos in the video-editing software. But it was what taught her the great value that video editors brings to MOOCs.

Not all top-notch MOOC-making facilities even have a full-length green screen. The full-length green screen that is used is a simple cloth on a frame. The infinite effect was simulated by draping the cloth gently forward. The green screen is essential for allowing you to change the background.

The switching from full-length shot to half-body has a zoom effect, and this helps grabs attention, along with other kinds of motion.

She also makes use of a teleprompter. A good script means careful planning, and there is no wasted time. Writing everything also makes it better to think about what exactly should be included, from metaphors, to other funny things to convey the key message. It also includes instructions on where things should go (what should be shown on the screen) and what she needs to do. With Word's Outline View, she can also rearrange the order of the videos as she writes the script.

Great MOOCs can synthesisee the material in a whole new way that hasn't been done before in conventional class work, and which can't be easily obtained through books.

MOOC Tips 2 - Looking More Deeply Into Quality Learning

Some factors in good online learning.

  1. Friendly, upbeat instructors. Our snap judgments are pretty effective when it comes to determining whether someone is effective or not. Look for those who can simplify the material and make the hard-to-understand look easy.
  2. Metaphor and analogy. Contrary to what some traditionalists might believe, metaphors do not "dumb things down". When we understand through metaphor, we use the same neural circuitry that is used to understand the in-depth concept. Good teachers
  3. Humour. It activates your dopamine pathways, and also serves as a kind of "rest stop" when you're learning something difficult. Humour is much more important in online courses due to the competitive nature of the online world.
  4. Good Visuals. The images should relate directly to the material. An instructor should take the time to develop appropriate illustrations. Clip art should not be overused, but throwing a complex image from a textbook isn't effective either. Complex images have to appear part by part in video.
  5. Good Video Editing. This can help you to pay attention while aiding understanding of the material.

Mentors in Your Life

A mentor can be one of the most important aspects of learning.

A mentor doesn't have to be a parent-like figure that spends many hours guiding you. It might be someone you have never met in person, but said or did something that led you to think about and make valuable changes to your life.

A mentor gives you insight, and helps you see things differently. This in turn helps you to discover what's best for you in terms of where you should go.

Even negative people can be mentors; they show us what we don't want to become.

There are 2 types of mentors, according to Arnim Rodeck (an electrical engineer who made an enormous career switch to become a creative wood worker):

  1. Mentors who energise us
  2. Mentors who are more critical and won't tolerate excuses

Mentors can even be online these days, for anything from language learning (iTalki was the example here) to horse training.

The brain works best with concrete examples, so start by asking who has had the most influence on your life or inspired you to start a new life.

Then, ask yourself what your mission is. Ask yourself this continually as the answer may change. If you don't ask the question, you will never know the answer. The answer is like an internal compass.

When you ask yourself the right questions, you have won half the battle. Ask what sort of person you want to become in the next few years, and think about what are the skills you need, and the next steps that you have to take.

Persistence is a virtue; don't let setbacks hold you back.

Motivation can come from working with someone who shares the same goals. Short-term goals are good for building focus. But to achieve long-term goals, the persistence needed has to be sustained by collaborations that are like good marriages.

Evaluate your relationships. You may have to find new short-term collaborations and cultivate new longer-term ones that take you in new directions.

Don't ask someone (especially if you don't know them) to be your mentor. This can put that person in an uncomfortable situation as they don't know what you want and whether you would be a fit. The relationship should develop organically. You should also try to give something back to your mentor, so that your relationship is a two-way street.

Sometimes, the insight from your mentor may only be very tiny and occasional, but these nuggets can still be profoundly influential on your life.

Read, Read, Read

There has been a lot focus on online learning, but don't forget the value of reading good books as part of lifelong learning.

There is a competitive advantage that comes from reading. This is what Jake Taylor has realised. He won a chance to meet Warren Buffett and that meeting changed his life. He was intrigued by how one person could acculmulate so much knowledge in one lifetime, and he started to read everything he could on Buffett.

His recommendation is to read more than everyone else.

All of this compounds out into a richer and more successful life with better decision-making all along the way.

Carving out 20 minutes a day can lead to 35 books read in 1 year.

(I had no problems with finding time when I was travelling home from work, but now that I'm no longer commuting, it really has to be intentional to carve out the time to read. I'm also trying to balance it with the note-taking view that those in the Zettelkasten community have about how you should read with a pen so that you take notes. I think there has to be a balance - some books, you might want to do that, but I would only do that on a second read-through. This way it's much less stressful. Same goes for taking notes for these courses.)

A controlled study with 3000 participants found that readers of books have a survival advantage over those who only read newspapers or magazines or not at all. Survival advantage is literally survival; it's about how readers' mortality rates are 20% lower than non-readers' over the 12-year follow-up period.

You should make a habit of reading not only within your own discipline (or areas of interest). If you are interested in a particular field, and you read, well, so is everyone else who is interested in that field! Remember creative insight? If you want to see things differently, it helps to learn something that on the surface appears to be completely unrelated. The new ideas can come from the metaphors that naturally develop in your mind.

Surviving in the New Information Economy

We live in an era where there is information everywhere. It's an information explosion.

The Age of Information will have a profound impact on our society by enhancing our cognitive abilities. It is like how the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago enhanced physical power.

But the timeline for this transformation will be quicker. In the case of the Industrial Revolution, it was 100 years before the world adapted to machines.

We discussed AlphaGo last week, an AI program based on deep learning that was bio-inspired and defeated the South Korean Go champion. Due to the increase in computing power, it's now possible for learning in deep neural network models.

This has made it possible for machines to be just as good as humans in speech and object recognition. With the new deep-learning backed version of Google Translate, the translations became much more natural (Note: I like DeepL for the langauges that it offers and from the name you can already tell that it also uses deep learning.)

There is a bigger disruption underway. Machine learning is being applied to many problems where big data is available, and can be used for medical diagnosis, in the legal profession (routine work in law offices, compliance with regulations, legal support). It will not only be cheaper, but faster than visiting a professional today.

As these new technologies mature, there will be new jobs that are created. The AI systems take over jobs that require cognitive work, but there are jobs for those who create and maintain such system.

With disruption comes opportunity.

With this in mind, be prepared for a lifetime of learning.


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