Lifelong learning, people-centered learning platforms, and a new kind of book club

Friday Brainstorm S2 E1 🧠

Hi friends,

Welcome back to Friday Brainstorm! If you missed last week’s update, I’ve taken some time to rethink this newsletter from the ground up.

Friday Brainstorm is neuroscience made approachable and actionable for people who want to better understand their brain.

With blog posts, the goal is short-form articles that are practical and well-researched. At the same time, I want to leave space for half-baked ideas, unfiltered commentary, and off the cuff reactions to content I’m consuming.

I’ll try my best to differentiate between

  • 🌲 finished pieces (refined articles that are checked for scientific accuracy)

  • 🌱 early hunches (seeds that may later turn into blog posts or projects).

Anyway, let’s get back into it. This issue is all about lifelong learning.

We’re conditioned to think of school as the place where learning happens, but that’s simply outdated. The idea that by the time you graduate college, you’ll have acquired all the knowledge you need for a lifelong career is long gone. The pace of change is too rapid these days and knowledge quickly becomes obsolete in most industries. The fact is that everyone will need to continually learn and adapt in order to stay competitive in the job market and beyond.

Here’s an overview of what you can expect:

  • some exciting personal updates 🆕

  • people-centered learning platforms 👪

  • reflections on a new kind of book club 📚

Hope you enjoy!

But first, some personal updates 🆕

There have been 3 developments in the past month that I’m excited to share:

1. Helping lead the NeuroTechX Content Lab

Given my interests, it’s probably no surprise that I’ve long been a part of NeuroTechX, the world’s largest non-profit focused on neurotechnology.

NeuroTechX - NeuroTechX

Recently, the organization launched a new initiative, the Content Lab, to draw on the collective curiosity and creativity of the community. I’ll be leading a team of writers, editors, and designers to create the world’s first publication focused on neurotech.

I’m really happy to have the opportunity to scale my efforts and work with an entire team to produce engaging, accessible, and well-researched neuroscience content.

If want to stay updated or are just curious about NeuroTechX, sign up for their newsletter!

2. Starting a new podcast

Everyone has a podcast these days, what’s one more?

I’m joining forces with longtime friend John Alvarez to explore the world of audio. If you like this newsletter, you’re going to like the Mind Gym Podcast (working title).

The podcast will be about the neuroscience of optimal cognition, for people who want better control of their mental environment. Each episode will be 15 - 20 minutes and full of actionable insights. Think Laurie Santos’s The Happiness Lab, but with a focus on mental habits and cognition.

The first few episodes will focus on topics I’ve covered in past issues of this newsletter - the neuroscience of music, flow states, and attention. More details to come!

3. Quantifying attention with a BCI

Lastly, a side-project I’ll be working on.

After writing a series on the future of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), I felt like I couldn’t just sit around and wait for someone else to invent these things.

Last month, I bought one of the first consumer-ready EEG headsets - the Notion.

The founders behind this device wanted to create a platform for people to start making brain-powered apps, or software that responds to our brainwaves in real time.

I’m interested in measuring attention, not from the lens of productivity, but rather focusing on the attentional costs of our digital technologies. Quantifying attention lets us build the first cognitive metrics, giving us concrete data on the relative harms of social media and other apps that compete for our attention.

Look forward to more content about what the Notion lets us do!

People-centered learning platforms 👪

We’ve seen an explosion in online educational platforms in the last few decades — Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy, and many more. For the first time, knowledge was democratized and accessible to just about anyone with an internet connection.

In 2020, this market is now saturated and we’re finding that the drop-off rate for these massive online open courses (MOOCs) is extremely high. This isn’t all the surprising, as online courses are usually not much more than a playlist of videos with intermittent quizzes and additional reading. If there’s any community aspect, it’s often a forum.

This begs the question - what does engaging, internet-native learning look like?

Hyperlink Academy

Hyperlink is a platform for creating and participating in community-driven online courses. The founders noticed that despite the saturated market, there aren’t many options for people who prioritize teaching and learning together with others.

At universities, learning is often a social endeavor. Many of my classes emphasized precepts, or small discussion groups, as a core part of the learning experience. This aspect hasn’t translated very well to modern learning platforms.

Hyperlink has a strong focus on enabling active, participatory learning experiences. Here are a few of the guiding principles behind the platform:

  • Community-driven: building space for small, focused groups, learning together

  • Ambitious learning: going way beyond reading lists and video lectures to learn challenging ideas

  • Experimentation: courses with innovative structures, that adapt and improve over time

  • Peer to peer: instead of "teachers" and "students", facilitators and learners co-create the learning experience

This makes for much different learning experience than the competition. The courses themselves are also much more niche than those you can find on other platforms, from web typography to language construction. Check out two more examples below:

Probably the most underrated aspect of these courses though, are the people you’ll meet — who are drawn to the same niche topics and fields that you are.

But there’s more! In addition to the traditional course, Hyperlink is experimenting with the idea of clubs — “a lightweight way to convene people with shared interests to explore new things together”.

The first batch of learning clubs are kicking off now, including a reading group, an artist circle, a club on the future of media, and even a virtual museum explorer club.

Be sure to take a look at Hyperlink’s library of courses and clubs!

Learn Awesome

Another problem with online learning is that despite the plethora of information, it’s still a big challenge to discover the right learning material.

There are a lot of open resources available on the web, but finding, qualifying, and navigating them–let alone combining them into a self directed system–is a challenge. That’s because the tools we use today to search the web are designed for quickly finding facts, not for guiding you on a learning journey. — Dani Grant

If we want to teach ourselves a new topic efficiently, we need the real-world analog of a course syllabus. A syllabus is essentially a learning map; it defines a thematic structure, tells you what to read, and also it what order to read it.

The founder of Learn Awesome is trying to build humanity’s learning map, a crowdsourced syllabus for any topic you can think of. Unlike a syllabus, this platform draws on all the ways we learn today — blogs, podcasts, videos, graphics, forums, etc.

Not only that, but the community seems to also be experimenting with peer learning groups. I’ve been interested in fiction writing for a while, and the crowdsourced syllabus is probably one of the best collection of resources I’ve found on the subject.

With any luck, this platform could become the Wikipedia for learning. Check it out!

Reflections on a new kind of book club 📚

In the last few months, I was part of an online book club where we discussed Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. The book itself was interesting, but the structure of the club and the people involved were really fascinating.

For context, this book club was created from the community of early adopters of the note-taking tool Roam Research, which I’ve written about earlier. As you might imagine, people in this category are pretty thorough and take lots of notes.

Without going into too many specifics, Roam Research provided a common space for the club members not only to leave their own thoughts, but also to read through the thoughts of everyone else for a specific chapter or section.

For example, we went through the exercise of providing a brief summary of each chapter. After everyone added their summary, it was a really magical experience to read through 50 different interpretations of the same text. Here’s a sample:

It not only gave me a much deeper understanding of the ideas we’ve discussed, but also a greater appreciation for the diversity of perspectives within the group. It was a reminder that we all come to the table with vastly different sets of experiences, and it’s a wonder we ever understand each other at all!

The book club also had weekly Zoom calls, which featured various speakers (including the author himself) as well as breakout rooms to discuss the chapter we just read.

This was my first experience with an online, community-driven learning group of sorts, and it was truly transformative. Reading a book alone can be nice, but this format showed me that even reading can be an inherently social endeavor.

Personally, I would love to see a platform like Goodreads that also provided a way for people to easily find others reading the same books they are to form spontaneous reading groups.

I’m confident that many more people would be drawn to lifelong learning if platforms like Hyperlink and Learn Awesome continue to grow and provide more opportunities for active, participatory learning experiences.

If you’re curious to experience this for yourself, the book How to Take Smart Notes was chosen for the next iteration of the Roam Book Club and the first meeting is tomorrow. Sign up here!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this issue of Friday Brainstorm! What got you thinking? Anything to add? Let me know by replying to this email.