Soundings Series: Dr. Barbara Oakley discusses the power of learning

Katarina Kovac, Staff Reporter

The popular Soundings Series presented by The Oakland University Research Office on Jan. 24 featured Dr. Barbara Oakley, a best-selling author and co-creator of “Learning How to Learn,” co-teacher of the world’s most popular online course and an OU professor within the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department.

In her presentation, Oakley discussed everything from how to break into popular book publishing, the outreach and impact of social media, the pros and cons of utilizing social media and the institutional impact of massive open online courses.

Despite being a current engineering scholar, Oakley described her teenage years as a time when she failed math and science courses. When the occasion arose much later in her life in which she needed to acquire basic technical skills, she set about applying the skills she had once used in learning Russian to the study of mathematics.

Oakley couldn’t afford to attend college, so the only way she could pursue her desired field in the study of languages was to join the Army.

“The Army decided to commission me in the Signal Corps, which was a heavily technological area that demanded a proper math and science background,” Oakley said. “I quickly realized that the engineers I’d worked with in the military had great problem-solving skills, as well as knowledge of a subject area of engineering that had recruiters pounding at their door.”

Although she thought she wasn’t technologically or analytically gifted, she ended up excelling. This led her to becoming the distinguished professor of engineering she is today.

Oakley co-teaches a course called “Learning How to Learn,” which is the world’s largest massive open online course with over 2,000,000 students attending. In addition to her engineering successes, Oakley is also a New York Times best-selling author who has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and many prominent media outlets.

“While I was working as an assistant professor of engineering, I ran into a nasty person,” Oakley said. “This was the type of person that was really nice when you were around, but did horrible things behind your back. I kept wondering, why do people do these kinds of things?”

As an engineer, she proceeded to try and research the topic, and came across the term, ‘malignant narcissism.’ She found that there were thousands of research publications on the topic, but zero scientific publications. This inspired her to take it upon herself to write a book about it, which she proceeded to publish with the Wayne State University Press.

Oakley then wrote numerous novels, many of which were featured on The New York Times best-selling list.

Leanne DeVreugd, research office initiatives coordinator at OU, believes the mission of the Soundings Series is to help faculty learn how to become publicly engaged academics and intellectuals.

“The scholars featured in the Soundings Series bring positive attention to their own work and to the university through their active engagement with local organizations, national and global communities and online audiences,” DeVreugd said.

Events such as the Soundings Series that highlight world-renowned faculty members like Oakley allow students and faculty to understand the importance of research, and expose them to ideas that will expand their minds intellectually.