The secret to transformative online education: emotions

Effective learning requires a lot more than articulating pieces of information. In this blog post, the team behind the Elements of AI movement reveals what it takes to build a global education phenomenon. 

The traditional view of education often considers it primarily knowledge transfer from a teacher to a student in a lecture setting. As a next step, this exact setup has been transferred to the online world only by taking a video of this knowledge transfer event and uploading it to the internet.

Even though this method has its benefits, the team responsible for creating the Elements of AI MOOC realized that things could be taken a lot further simply by addressing the learner’s emotions. Effective learning requires a lot more than articulating pieces of information. In fact, emotions need to be taken into account to achieve any kind of learning at all. 

As brain researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang explains, it is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion.

“A revolution in neuroscience over the past two decades has overturned early notions that emotions interfere with learning, revealing instead that emotion and cognition are supported by interdependent neural processes,” she writes in her book Emotions, Learning, and the Brain.

The crucial questions to ask when trying to create effective learning are

  • Which emotions do learners have regarding this topic when engaging in learning? 
  • What kinds of emotions do we believe will support learning around this topic? It’s noteworthy that emotions of negative valence may very well be desirable in some contexts. 
  • Which concrete methods can we use to evoke the desired emotions? 

Unless these questions are thoroughly investigated when creating the material, the results of the education effort may fall completely flat, or even work against the desired effect. If the learning material is not able to touch any emotions, no learning can happen. If the material pulls the wrong triggers, the resulting emotions may make people learn a completely different lesson than intended. This is exactly what The University of Helsinki and Reaktor wanted to avoid when creating the course Elements of AI part 1, and now the sequel, Building AI. 

Relieving anxiety about AI

We knew that the topic of Artificial Intelligence could cause anxiety in many. People are uncertain about how AI will affect their lives, and especially their profession. Instead of fear-mongering, we selected a friendly tone of voice and made it our goal to give the widest possible audience a chance to understand the topic. We believed that this would be the key to relieve common concerns. It turned out to be true. The feedback we’ve received is heartwarming, and Elements of AI already has over half a million participants from all over the world. 

We built the sequel to the course based on an observation that the leap from learning the basics to actually creating an implementable AI idea is still too long to take. We also identified that people’s starting points vary vastly, so it is impossible to make one solution that would narrow the gap for everyone in the same way. If you already know how to code, you need a different kind of challenge than a non-coder in order to learn. If the challenge is too high, overwhelming emotions prevent learning. If too low, it’s once again emotion pushing you away from the material.

“If the challenge is too high, overwhelming emotions prevent learning. If too low, it’s once again emotion pushing you away from the material.”

To tackle this challenge with the course Building AI, we set a goal suitable for anyone: formulate a realistic AI idea. We then built three different paths to pursue that goal, each of which is seamlessly integrated into the course, removing the stress of having to navigate through additional tools or environments. 

As a beginner, you can complete the course by doing multiple-choice exercises that coach you to formulate that idea. Even though you cannot fully execute it at this stage, just being able to formulate it is valuable. Think of how much value a company can derive from ideas that combine a realistic understanding of AI methods with contextual experience from their own field. If you are up to challenging yourself, you can choose from two incrementally more advanced paths to get you started on building and training your first machine learning models. Your AI idea then will be even more valuable as you may be able to actually produce functional algorithms as a proof of concept.

All in all, our message to education creators around the globe is: the world needs you more than ever. Remote setup and diminishing funds will make scalable education all the more crucial in the future. Consciously addressing emotions when creating education is a key ingredient towards a more inclusive and engaging learning experience for all.

Join the movement and start Building AI now. 

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