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Using Technology to Improve how the Brain Learns

by Kelly Walsh on July 28, 2015

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We’ve Only Just Begun to Explore the Ways in Which Technology can be Used to Improve How we all Learn

It is common knowledge that an array of technological advancements have made many medical miracles a reality over the centuries. The ways in which technologies are being applied to solve medical problems is accelerating at an ever-more-rapid pace.

While learning is not “a medical problem”, it is certainly a “brain problem”, and the brain is our most advanced organ. We’ve barely begin to understand how this amazing mass of cells works. Along these lines, I’m fascinated by the possibilities for information or ‘computer’ technologies to be leveraged to help the mind grow and enhance learning, much as other technologies have been used to help other human organs thrive.

Guest writer Sam Butterworth wrote this article related to this topic earlier this year. Not only did the study by Simone Kühn of Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine show that brain connectivity can be dramatically improved by gaming but a Berlin study also showed that the use of video games from a young age could increase the growth of new neurons in the brain. This article, published earlier this month, further supports the benefits to the brain that come from gaming.

The article, More Attention, Less Deficit: Brain Training Systems, discusses how a clinical psychologist in West Chester, Pennsylvania used Cogmed, a computer-based brain training program, in treating a 12-year-old with ADHD, who used to have trouble in school.

The results were surprising. His working memory improved, he retained more information in class, and he got higher grades on tests and quizzes. And the success made Ben feel better about himself.

‘Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind for several seconds, manipulate it, and use it in your thinking,’ says Tuckman. ‘It is central to concentration, problem solving, and impulse control.'”

This Psychology Today article, How Technology is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus, reminds of the malleability of the brain and that, while technology can have beneficial effects on the brain, it can also have deleterious effects. Indeed, all potential uses of technology have to be weighed and negative impacts considered.

“There is, however, a growing body of research that technology can be both beneficial and harmful to different ways in which children think. Moreover, this influence isn’t just affecting children on the surface of their thinking. Rather, because their brains are still developing and malleable, frequent exposure by so-called digital natives to technology is actually wiring the brain in ways very different than in previous generations. What is clear is that, as with advances throughout history, the technology that is available determines how our brains develops.”

Just as the brain is complex beyond our current understanding, so too is the relationship between technology and improving how the brain learns, rather than just changing how the brain learns.

Another Angle

Looking at this from a more psychological perspective, there are plenty of smart folks out there that are confident that the proper mind set alone can be a powerful tool to help facilitate learning. This is a simple non-technical technique to enhance learning, but certainly technology can be used to help inculcate that “I can do it!” mind set, right?

Further supporting this concept, in the article, Smart Strategy: Think of the Brain as a Muscle, we learn about a study indicating that students do better in school if they are told they can get smarter if they train their brains to be stronger, like a muscle.

Just about anyone who teaches and hasn’t fallen prey to the ‘dark side’ (the cynicism that undermines so many in this challenging field) can tell you that if a student believes they can learn, they are more likely to be able to do so than that student who doesn’t.

So why don’t we see more information and computer technology tools focused on helping bolster student attitudes about their own capabilities? Seems like there’s a lot of untapped potential there.

So Many Possibilities …

There just seems to be so much possibility here. I’m excited to be alive in these amazing times and see how this continues to take shape in the years to come.

Please … if you have some research or interesting articles about this topic, I hope you’ll take a moment to share a link, or a comment, or question, and participate in the dialogue. Thanks!

About 

Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer at The College of Westchester, in White Plains, NY, where he also teaches. In 2009, Walsh founded EmergingEdTech.com. He frequently delivers presentations and training on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. His eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book is available here. Walsh became the Community Administrator for the Flipped Learning Network in June of 2016. In his "spare time" he also writes, records, and performs original music ... stop by kwalshmusic.com and have a listen!

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own, or those of other writers, and not those of my employer. - K. Walsh]

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly Walsh July 30, 2015 at 11:12 am

Thanks Mary – I’m familiar with Jane through her TED Talks, but have not read Reality is Broken. And now there’s a new one coming! So many great education authors, so little time :)!

Mary July 30, 2015 at 10:35 am

Another great article, Kelly! I love talking to middle schoolers about metacognition. Jane McGonigal has a new book out in September titled SuperBetter that addresses gaming and its impact on stress, learning, goal setting and a host of other things. I’m sure it will be a treasure trove on this topic, just like her first book, Reality is Broken.

IT Support July 28, 2015 at 4:07 pm

I completely agree Kelly, there needs to be a more technological focus in improving the self esteem of students. There should be more applications/tools motivating students in expanding their potential. A positive mind has no boundaries. We need the tech industry to direct their focus in improving education.

Kelly Walsh July 28, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Thanks Brannon – undoubtedly a fine line we need to walk. And young kids need social interaction, so that’s a caveat we all need to keep in mind, right? But the upside of what technology can enable in terms of brain development is certainly exciting!

Brannon July 28, 2015 at 11:15 am

Great article Kelly!

It’s great that the benefits of gaming are finally becoming more apparent and more people are becoming aware of this. And technology is evolving so rapidly that it’s actually quite scary where we’ll be at 10 years from now.

As a parent who has a child (4) who is growing up in a generation dominated by technology, it’s both comforting and concerning.

In one way, the technology and information at her disposal has helped her to learn things at an incredible pace that amazes me all the time. She was using an iPad like a pro when she was 3. She could beat entire levels of Super Mario 3D World on Wii U as well! Her hand/eye coordination progressed quite rapidly.

On the downside, there are a lot of reports about screen addiction with kids that I find disturbing. And technology also means major distractions for kids.

I’m all for using technology to understand and improve the brain. Especially if it means in the near future, I can use it to obtain better memory and thinking capacities!

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