This post originally appeared on SAP Jam when An Introduction to SAP HANA was only available to SAP employees. SAP Jam is a social networking solution available to customers and used internally at SAP.
I recently took an openSAP MOOC that is unusual in a sense that it is quite short and can be completed in one or two days, depending on your schedule. The course deals with an introduction to SAP HANA, presented by Vishal Sikka. Vishal's teaching style made me think about a certain concept that at least those of use who have been learners for more than a couple of years will be familiar with. It is yet another classroom concept that works very well in MOOCs, who in my opinion are superior to other forms of e-learning because they are so successful in transferring tried and trusted classroom concepts to an online medium.
Can you send us the slides?
Take a moment to think about infosessions or other online learning activities you have been involved in. What often happens is that the session starts and the presenter goes through a comprehensive slide deck that looks great. There is a lot of text and nice visuals. You can count on someone to ask: "Can you send us the slides later?", and the presenter goes like: "Yeah, sure."
For many, this will be the moment of attention shutdown. You know all the information is in the slide deck, and it will be in your e-mail inbox before long. You keep listening to the presenter, but the warm, fuzzy feeling that you can refer to the slide deck if you ever have to makes you lose attention and turn to something else. For example, your e-mail inbox.
Does that sound familiar? The problem with this approach is that you will probably never really study the slide deck if you do not have to, which means you have learned nothing.
Something you can carry home
This is not a problem that is restricted to online learning. The huge binders that will sit on your desk when you go to a classroom training can have the same effect on you. "Denn was man schwarz auf weiß besitzt, // Kann man getrost nach Hause tragen", says the pupil in Goethe's Faust, which means that information you have on paper is yours, you can carry it home and use it later. Interestingly, if you read this much-quoted verse in context, it refers to information you have written down (your notes) instead of printed material.
I remember one of my university teachers walking by when I was using the copy machine to produce stacks of printed paper I could take home for self-study. "Kapieren, nicht kopieren" he called out to me. The pun is lost in translation ("Comprehend, don't copy"), but what he meant was essentially the same thing: If you take notes and write something down in your own words, you force yourself to understand it. This is much better than storing pages of printed information you think you may read later when in fact you won't.
Do you remember the pre-PowerPoint days when classroom teachers would use overhead projectors and write on blank transparencies? Or even the good old blackboard and chalk in school? From a technological perspective, this may seem like an old-fashioned way of presenting your content, but from a cognitive perspective, it is very effective.
The problem with many PowerPoint slide decks is that they are too good. We all know that. They contain tons of information, great visuals, and nicely formatted text, which is great if you actually take the time to use them for self-study as you would use a book. Combined with the explanations provided by the teacher, they are just too much. Even if you try, the visual overload will often make you stop trying to understand what the teacher is saying because your brain is so busy deconstructing the slide content.
The way Vishal Sikka presents the content in his introduction to SAP HANA is very similar to using transparencies, even though he uses a fancy electronic device for it. He jots down some keywords and draws simple sketches while he explains concepts such as "insert only" or "compression with dictionaries", and it is very easy to follow along and – like the pupil in Faust – take notes. This teaching style actually makes you want to do that so you have something you can carry home later. Sure, you could download the videos and carry those home, but you'd have to watch them all over again if you wanted to revisit certain topics. The method of presenting bits and pieces of information one by one is usually referred to as progressive disclosure. It can be used in many disciplines, and the Introduction to SAP HANA course shows that MOOC-style online teaching is surely one of them.
I have been enrolled in a number of MOOCs on openSAP, openHPI, and coursera. Some of the presenters used the concept of progressive disclosure in a sense that they kept disclosing certain parts of a slide as they went along, but at the end of the day they presented slides, and you could of course download them your computer instead of trying to understand the subject matter of the course.
I believe that the approach used by Vishal Sikka should be massively adopted and would work well in many other MOOCs – on openSAP and elsewhere. There is probably a difference between a one-week and a six-week class, but why not cut back on slides and make the whiteboard the standard presentation medium? For those who still need the warm, fuzzy download feeling, lecture transcripts are a good alternative.