Illustrations helping millions of students world wide learn better through the world’s most popular MOOC

Client: Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning
Client: Terrence Sejnowski, Ph.D., Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Client: University of California, San Diego
Client: Coursera

The Challenge

Develop creative and universally understandable illustrations to explain difficult concepts to a wide range of readers.

The Outcome

A set of illustrations for educational videos that went on become the world’s most popular MOOC: “Learning How To Learn” with more than 2.5 million students world wide.

You can take the complete course for free on Coursera:
Learning How to Learn

When I heard that Dr. Barbara Oakley (an award winning educator) and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski (an award winning neuroscientist) had a lofty mission to teach the world how to use their brains to be able to learn practically anything, I jumped onboard (who wouldn’t!)

When a project has such a large target audience, simplicity, creativity and fun become key elements. After reading an early draft of the script for the videos, my job was to come up with illustrations that could make the viewers’ neurons spark and bring that aha! moment. We set up weekly meetings with Dr. Barbara Oakley to receive feedback on my sketches and exchange ideas. We worked together for months and during that time we came up with various ingenious ideas such as the pinball brain to explain how the ideas bounce in our brain and the octopus of attention to show how we can focus our attention to connect pieces of knowledge. By using similes we could create “neural hooks” in the reader’s mind. In other words we use old or well known ideas to hook the new ones presented by the author in the reader’s mind.

We were able to help and empower millions of people around the world so they can learn anything they want thanks to technology, science and design. The impact of this massive open online course is one of the most gratifying experiences I have had as a designer.

The Metabolic Vampires

Dr. Oakley’s lessons are rich in metaphor, which she knows helps get complex ideas across. The practice is rooted in the theory of neural reuse, which states that metaphors use the same neural circuits in the brain as the underlying concept does, so the metaphor brings difficult concepts “more rapidly on board,” as she puts it. She illustrates her concepts with goofy animations: There are surfing zombies, metabolic vampires and an “octopus of attention.” 

John Schwartz, writer at The Times.
A version of this article appears in print on August 6, 2017, on Page ED6 of Education Life with the headline:You, Too, Can Rewire Your Brain.