How Technology Is Changing the Way People Learn

July 8th, 2015 No Comments Features

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We can make all sorts of assumptions about the way technology is changing learning, but what does the science actually say? According to Alfred Spector, Google’s vice president of research, it says a lot. For example, virtual tutors have helped average students reach the top 2% of their course; video games provide immersive environments that take the bordedom out of studying; and social networks are being used to increase interaction between students.

But tech hasn’t created perfect conditions for all forms of learning. Patricia Greenfield, a leading developmental psychologist who teaches at UCLA, warned in a 2009 Science article that a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that spending a lot of time with computers, smartphones, and other such devices weakens people’s ability to think deeply, critically, and creatively. As we rush around the web gathering little pieces of information, we seem to be training our brains to be quick but superficial.

So let’s take a look at the ways in which tech has pushed us forward and the ways it’s holding us back.

Better at Maths, Worse at Reading

In a series of studies including over 56,886 K-12 students, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education found that edtech applications boost mathematics achievement, especially when individualised computer-assisted instruction is involved.

“Supplemental CAI programs, such as Jostens, PLATO, Larson Pre-Algebra, and SRA Drill and Practice, provide additional instruction at students’ assessed levels of need to supplement traditional…instruction,” the researchers write.

In the spring of 2013, Joost van der Veen, an Educational Sciences graduate student at Utrecht University in Amsterdam, investigated the edtech app Drillster’s influence learning. He found that high school participants using Drillster as a study aid achieved 10% higher marks on a final test and were able to absorb the subject matter at least 40% quicker.

In 2013, a study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology showed how a technology-based personalisation intervention within an intelligent tutoring system (ITS) for secondary mathematics was used to adapt instruction to students’ personal interests. When 145 ninth-grade Algebra I students were tested in personalised and non-personalised groups, results showed that students in the personalised group solved problems faster and more accurately than students in the non-personalised group. Even once the personalised treatment had been removed, students who had received it continued to write symbolic equations for normal story problems with increasingly complex structures more accurately and with greater efficiency.

“Interest-based interventions can promote robust learning outcomes such as transfer and accelerated future learning in secondary mathematics,” the researchers write. “These interest-based connections may allow for abstract ideas to become perceptually grounded in students’ experiences such that they become easier to grasp. Adaptive learning technologies that utilize interest may be a powerful way to support learners in gaining fluency with abstract representational systems.”

On the other hand, a 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback.
Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University, a lead researcher on the study, thought academics might “find differences in the immersion facilitated by the device, in emotional responses” to the story. Her predictions were based on an earlier study comparing reading an upsetting short story on paper and on iPad.

“In this study, we found that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers,” said Mangen. But instead, the performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story. “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

“When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right,” said Mangen. “You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.”

Mangen also pointed to a paper published last year, which gave 72 Norwegian 10th-graders texts to read in print, or in PDF on a computer screen, followed by comprehension tests. She and her fellow researchers found that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally”.

More Games, Bigger Brains

In a study published last year, German researchers asked people to play video games for 30 minutes a day over a 2 month period. Their brain volumes were then compared with a control group. People who’d been playing the game (Super Mario 64) had larger grey matter structures in areas of the brain associated with memory, spatial navigation, strategic planning, and fine motor skills.

The study’s lead author, Simone Kuhn, explained: “While previous studies have shown differences in brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games.”

Kuhn conducted a follow-up study earlier this year, recruiting 150 male and female 14-year-olds to play 12 hours of video games per week. He found “a robust positive association between cortical thickness and video gaming duration” in teens who invested the most time in games. Even more telling, the cortical matter increased in two different areas of teens’ brains: the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and self-control, and the Frontal Eye Fields (FEF), which govern visual-motor processing. The fact that two cortical areas are involved suggests that gamers may be better at multi-tasking and decision-making than non-gamers.

In August, British researchers found that certain video games, particularly strategic games such as “Starcraft,” can increase a player’s “brain flexibility,” which the scientists described as “a cornerstone of human intelligence.”

Even more significant, we now know that these effects can last over a long period of time. When psychologist Daphne Bavelier asked subjects to do a simple mental rotation task, followed by several hours of action games over the course of a few weeks, she found that they were far better at the rotation task when tested again after the gaming period. But here’s the best part: the improvement was still there five months after having done the training.

“That’s really, really important,” Bavelier says. “Why? Because [if] we want to use these games for education or for rehabilitation, we need to have effects that are going to be long-lasting.”

Selective Knowledge, Shallow Creativity

As we come to rely more heavily on Google for information, the shape of human knowledge starts to change–some say for the better, others say for the worse.

Think of those moments when you’re trying to recall the name of a movie but only remember certain fragmentary features–the name of the lead actor, the gist of the plot, a song from the soundtrack. This is what psychologists calls the tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, and what Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better calls the “outsourcing of memory.”

“When faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly,” he says. That means we’re no longer mentally storing the kinds of facts we used to.

One study carried out by Harvard scientists shows how the Internet has changed the way our memories function by making information available at the click of a mouse or tap of a screen. The researchers asked participants to type out a collection of memorable statements, such as “An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain.” They found that participants were better able to recall the phrase if they believed it had been erased. Those who were told that the information had been saved on the computer were much more likely to forget it, even though they had been asked to commit it to memory. The researchers also found that participants were more likely to be able to recall the folder locations where the work had been stored than the statements themselves.

On the surface, this may appear to be a problem. But this ability to Google other people’s memory stores, Thompson argues, is the “defining feature of our evolving relationship with information.” Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner called this phenomenon “transactive” memory: we share the work of remembering because it makes us collectively smarter, expanding our ability to understand the world around us.

“We’ve been using transactive memory for millennia with other humans. In everyday life, we are only rarely isolated, and for good reason. For many thinking tasks, we’re dumber and less cognitively nimble if we’re not around other people. Not only has transactive memory not hurt us, it’s allowed us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us alone. It wasn’t until recently that computer memory became fast enough to be consulted on the fly, but once it did–with search engines boasting that they return results in tenths of a second–our transactive habits adapted.

Wegner first began exploring this notion of collective rather than individual knowledge in the 1980s by observing how partners in long-term relationships often divide and conquer memory tasks in sharing the household’s administrative duties. He suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good “metamemory,” meaning we’re aware of our mental strengths and limits and good at intuiting the abilities of others:

“Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you begin to realise that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. So you begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to them, treating them like a notepad or encyclopedia.” In many respects, Wegner notes, people are superior to these devices, because “what we lose in accuracy we make up in speed.”

But in a Brain Pickings article on the subject, Maria Popova cites Thompson as warning that “outsourcing our knowledge to digital tools may actually hamper the very process of creative thought, which relies on our ability to connect existing ideas from our mental pool of resources into new combinations, or what the French polymath Henri Poincare has famously termed ‘sudden illuminations.’ Without a mental catalog of materials which to mull and let incubate in our fringe consciousness, our capacity for such illuminations is greatly deflated.” Thompson writes:

“These eureka moments are familiar to all of us; they’re why we take a shower or go for a walk when we’re stuck on a problem. But this technique works only if we’ve actually got a lot of knowledge about the problem stored in our brains through long study and focus. You can’t come to a moment of creative insight if you haven’t got any mental fuel. You can’t be Googling the info; it’s got to be inside you.”

This is the argument that advocates of rote memorisation and content-based learning often make. You need a solid base of knowledge before you can begin to think creatively and critically about that knowledge.

On the other hand, maybe technology can help us extract useful knowledge from the slush. Maybe, Thompson says, the Internet is helping us sift the meaningful from the meaningless, while we remain just as capable of absorbing that which truly stimulates us:

“Certainly, we outsource when the details are dull, as we now do with phone numbers. These are inherently meaningless strings of information, which offer little purchase on the mind. But when information engages us–when we really care about a subject–the evidence suggests we don’t turn off our memory at all.”

One way to ensure we remain creative is to simply stay aware of technology’s impact on our own learning process. “Understanding how to use new tools for thought requires not just a critical eye, but curiosity and experimentation,” Thompson writes. “How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers? Think of harder questions.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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