Learning about ...

Designers need to know how things work

Suppose you’re commissioning a new building. Would you hire an architectural firm that didn’t know how elevators work? Or didn’t know why drainage is important, how to design good drainage systems, or what “good” even means when applied to drainage?

Yet this is what we do when it comes to textbooks and courses. Few textbook authors know how to encourage deep learning, or even what deep learning is. Few courses have well-designed feedback systems, even though we know how important that is for skill learning.


When a building has a poor drainage system, it starts crumbling from the ground up. The foundation sinks at different rates, causing stress that cracks walls and breaks pipes. It’s obvious that something went wrong.

The consequences of poor course design are less obvious. Take intro programming courses, which often lack deep learning, formative feedback systems, etc. Typically, only about half of the students will be able to write a simple program by the end of the course, when working independently. Professors who teach programming accept this as normal.

The results of poor learning? Students think they can’t learn programming. It’s “too hard.” They drop out, or switch to less demanding programs. They graduate with debt they can’t afford. Employers can’t find skilled workers.

Again, this is normal. It doesn’t need to be.

A new normal

CyberCourse can help us move toward a new normal. Imagine that deep learning was designed into a programming course from the very beginning. More students would learn more skills. They would take those skills into the next course, and the next, a virtuous cycle of skill learning.

The new normal demands more of authors than of anyone else. A few professors in chemistry, engineering, accounting, computing, etc., learn ideas from cognitive, social, and developmental psychology, and other fields. This is foreign to traditional siloed academic culture. However, the goal is not to become an expert in learning science research, and contribute to that literature. The goal is to become a good practitioner of learning science in a domain (chemistry, engineering, etc.). At a rough guess, 50 hours of study should be enough to get started on course design.

“Just tell me what buttons to press”

Some students just want to get through a course with a passing grade. They say to their professors:

I don’t have time to learn how everything works. Just show me what I need to do to finish the projects.

They use shallow learning. They memorize for the exam, and learn a few tricks to do the projects.

Shallow learning isn’t bad, necessarily. We all want to use our limited time where it will do the most good. However, if a student was a shallow learner in his/her accounting courses, you wouldn’t want to hire that person to be an accountant.

As for students, so for authors. Some would-be authors might say:

I don’t have time to study learning. Just show me how to use the CyberCourse software.

If this is you, don’t be a CyberCourse author. Your courses won’t help students as much as they could.

Motivation and opportunity

Some professors are willing to study learning, and create good Cycos. However, they need the opportunity to do so. That won’t happen if Cyco building is yet another task dropped into an already overcrowded work schedule. If a professor is to build a good Cyco and maintain it over time, s/he should do less of something else, like summer teaching, consulting, or research.

Later, we’ll talk about a business model for authors, that gives them the opportunities they need. Note that this is not a business model for CyberCourse itself. There isn’t one; it’s a free, open source project. The business model is for authors selling access to their work.

Learning about…

What should authors learn about? Three things.

How brains learn

Authors don’t need to be learning research experts, but they need to know the basics. In fact, if you’ve read about exercises and feedback, deep learning, and metacognition, you’re already on the way.

The Cyco wiki helps authors learn about learning, as well as learn how to create CyberCourses. There’s not much on the wiki right now. Over time, the Cyco community will build it up.

Course design methods

Authors take course goals, and, using what they know about their disciplines and about brains, come up with course designs. But how?

Perhaps the best known method is Understanding by Design. UbD is a standard part of many education degree programs. UbD was not designed for CyberCourse. However, UbD and Cyco fit together well.

Both Cyco and UbD recommend backwards design. Authors describe in some detail what students should know at the end of the course. Authors create exercises that students should be able to do, and build model solutions. From this they work backwards, identifying component skills and content.

Using the software

The software is complex. You can’t just sit down and start typing, as you might with a word processor. Cyco is like a spreadsheet in this regard. Spreadsheets are useless unless you know what you want to do and how to go about it, whether it’s a simple grade book, or a complex financial model.

What now?

Authors should spend maybe 40 hours learning the software before they start using it. People with an IT background would need less time.


Authors need to learn, before they are ready to make Cycos. They need to know about:

  • How people learn
  • How to design courses
  • How to use the software