Back in our school days, electronic devices were not allowed in the classroom. Teachers usually depended on lectures, print-outs and textbooks to transfer their knowledge into our heads. And even though research has been showing that lectures are not effective, teaching should be personalized and students need to engage in critical thinking and personally relate to knowledge in order to learn - for teachers preparing and evaluating those kinds of lessons is time consuming or simply impossible.
But if we use smartphones, tablets and even VR sets and robots in the classroom - and more and more often, we are - what used to be inaccessible can become fast and easy. Hundreds of professional educators and researchers are working on tools that enable teaching to be something it couldn't be before: interactive, engaging and personalized - at scale. Here are just a few examples of how edtech companies are using scientifically proven methods to make learning more effective for students.
#1 Learning through experience
The science: Discovering through trial and error and instant feedback is how humans and animals have been learning for hundreds of thousands of years. So it’s not surprising that this is the method preferred by our brains.
Experimenting engages multiple brain functions - observing and understanding, making decisions, predictions, retrieving memories and relating new discoveries to past knowledge. And what causes the most activity in the brain leaves the most lasting memories.
The tech: This is probably the most exciting category of educational apps and products - the ones that let students build things, experiment and watch what happens. Just a few examples:
- CodeMonkey - an educational game environment where students play by coding in a real programming language
- zSpace - a system that lets students manipulate objects, design and perform experiments in VR/AR
- Labster - also a VR system that lets students perform realistic simulations of science experiments and other exercises
- Game Salad lets students learn computer science and problem-solving by creating games
Everyone learns in a different way and at a different pace. We each understand things a little differently and make different mistakes. Even if teachers wanted to give each student individual treatment, walk them through problems and explain why they make mistakes - there's simply not enough time in a year to do that. And this is probably one of the most important advantages of edtech: it can give each student personal treament at scale.
Coursera’s Daphne Koller pointed out that by looking at data and understanding the most common wrong answers students give to quiz questions, you can prepare instant disclaimers for those students and adjust the way you teach the material. Students' mistakes are feedback for the teacher, too.
- PearDeck - a presentation creator that lets you see in real time how each student reacts to the material, so you can adjust your lecture instantly
- IXL gives teachers the ability to create personalized materials based on the student's performance.
#3 Memory reinforcement
The science: In order to build lasting memories, information has to be repeated, in specific time intervals, in varied form. A good learning app can help a student to revise information at the right pace by sending them reminders and scheduling homework so the revision sessions are spaced optimally, with the right exercises, to strenghten neural connections.
The tech: Language learning apps, like Duolingo, motivate you to practice every day and reinforce language skills by regularly revising chunks of material, at the right intervals.
#4 Engaging all senses
Curiosity, the urge to explore and the impulse to seek novelty, plays an important role in survival. We are rewarded for curiosity by dopamine and opioids (feel-good chemicals in the brain), which are stimulated in the face of something new. Our brains evolved to remain vigilant to a constantly changing environment.
The science: Our brains are built to tune out things that are not relevant to our interests, because there's just too much information assaulting our senses. Tuning out a lecturer who’s just speaking in your general direction is easy. It's just words that don't mean much to you.
Not all knowledge is verbal, and neither are our memories. The more senses and channels of perception information involves, the more stimulating and harder to ignore it is. The more stimulation our brains get out of a new bit of information - the more likely we are to remember it.
- Immersive VR/AR systems like Labster or zSpace
- Modular Robotics created modular blocks integrated with a programming interface that lets kids program robots and build them with their own hands
- Explain Everything - an intuitive editor for building interactive video presentations
#5 Collaboration and discussion
The science: Harvard professor Eric Mazur discovered that he had trouble explaining to his undergraduate students the concepts that he had learned back when he was a student. He simply forgot what was difficult about them. But some of his current students still remembered and were able to explain it to their peers. Richard Feynman, quantum physicist and Nobel Prize laureate, said that when you want to learn something, you should try to teach it. So, encouraging students to teach their peers is a good way to help them learn better.
Another reason to make learning collaborative - perhaps no less important than how it improves understanding of material - is teaching students cooperation, analyzing opinions of other people and emotional intelligence.
- Brainly provides a platform that matches students seeking help with peers that can help them.
- Explain Everything can be used as a collaborative whiteboard and is easy enough to be used by students to make presentations
#6 Emotional engagement
The science: Information that comes with emotions attached is more easily remembered, and in more detail. You may have noticed that it’s easier to remember an armed robbery from your past than the morning math lectures at school.
This is because the hippocampus - where long-term memory recording starts and which decides which stimuli is important - is also a part of the limbic system. Or, the brain region responsible for emotions (and decision-making).
The tech: The time-tested way to stir emotions in students is storytelling. And adding interaction to a story helps activate the decision-making facilities and increase student engagement:
- Flocabulary - they hire experienced music producers, rappers and actors to make music videos that teach all kinds of topics.
- Prodigy is a game that teaches kids math
- Loose Strands is an award-winning interactive book
The science: We learn new information best when our stress level is moderate. Too little cortisol (the stress hormone) and we just don’t care. Too much cortisol and we feel threatened and processing sensory data becomes impaired. Our brain focuses on looking for an escape or preparing to fight the enemy. But moderate level of stress - like playing for a reward, or competing against classmates - helps students focus on a task. Well-designed games engage students’ critical thinking and make them recall and test learned information, which is the only way to form durable memories.
- Prodigy - a game that teaches math
- Scribblenauts - an action game in which kids learn spelling, typing and creative problem-solving.
The science: Human brain has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to explore our three-dimensional surroundings, test things out with our hands. And most of the reality students have to learn in class - especially pre-university students - is three-dimensional. Like the physical forces, human body, animals, architecture.
Ten years ago, we had to rely on dead animals and museums to see the physical reality of the world around us. These days, students have VR (virtual reality) and MR (mixed reality) where they can watch detailed simulations of monuments, animals, chemical laboratories. They can even create their own simulations and design experiments to better understand the forces of nature and test their assumptions.
The tech: In Labster students can simulate scientific laboratories in virtual reality and zSpace is an augmented reality technology where students can investigate objects and build their own experiments in 3D.
We worked with one of our previous clients (Explain Everything) on an award-winning teaching tool that made it easy for teachers to create interactive lessons that captured the students’ attention. There is still so much more that technology can do for education, and these are just a few of the challenges edtech has already conquered, thanks to implementing the discoveries of neuroscience in how human brains learn. That is: through personal experience, interaction, provoking emotions, collaboration, personalization, practice and strategically timed repetition.