Saturday, 22 March 2008

Learning is a health issue

I'm playing a bit of catch up after a particularly busy month - although the way things are looking that'll be the pattern for the foreseeable future. The European e-learning market appears to be thriving in stark contrast to the ongoing financial crisis and what looks like an inevitable recession in the US. As I raised in an early post - training budget shock - e-learning is now very much a mainstream option for training delivery and as general budgets tighten and cost efficiency returns to the fore (did it ever really go away?), the obvious benefits of making available persistent, consistent and trackable learning content are now fully accepted. The question has moved on from "Why e-learning?" to "Why not e-learning?". But the wider context is one recognising the ongoing and growing need to learn, train and re-train in order to stay relevant in a fast changing global economy.

The old...

In some respects, you could say that the world of Education and Health are beginning to converge. The relatively new fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and other studies of brain behaviour is starting to stray firmly into the more fluffy world of learning. This means we can start to view education as a brain health issue. This thought was triggered by a recent report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reporting that rates of cognitive impairment among older Americans are on the decline, with education associated with better cognitive health.

The data comes from the NIA-supported Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a national, longitudinal examination of health, retirement and economic conditions of more than 20,000 men and women over 50. Researchers tested memory and judgment of a large subset of HRS participants to determine cognitive status in two groups of people, those age 70 and older in 1993 and in 2002. The scientists then followed each group for two years to track death rates.

They also looked at levels of education, income, and other factors in each group, finding that the 2002 participants were wealthier and had significantly higher levels of education, with 17 percent college-educated compared to 13 percent in 1993. The analysis found:

Cognitive impairment dropped from 12.2 percent in 1993 to 8.7 percent in 2002 among people 70 and older.
Cognitive impairment was associated with a significantly higher risk of death in both cohorts.
Education and financial status appeared overall to protect against developing cognitive impairment.
Once older people with higher levels of education reached a threshold of moderate to severe cognitive impairment, they had an increased risk of death over the next 2 years compared to those with lower levels of education.

While health treatment has improved for stroke, heart disease, and vascular conditions the researchers also suggest that cognitive reserve - our mind's resilience to neurological damage - may explain why the higher level of education found in the 2002 study group may be influencing the lower rate of cognitive impairment.

The New...

A commercial sign of this convergence between health and education is the growing industry in brain fitness, largely triggered by Nintendo's Brain Training success on the DS and Wii. Much of this is opportunistic bandwaggoning. However there are some exciting developments in Scotland which are reporting real benefits in the use of brain training exercises in a school setting.

A study in Dundee led by Learning and Teaching Scotland, as reporting by the Times, found:

“The initial pilot project that used the Nintendo DS and Dr Kawashima produced fascinating results," Derek Robertson, a development officer for 'games-based learning' at the LTS, said.
“Not only was there a marked and significant improvement in attainment in mental maths but there was also an improvement in concentration levels, behaviour and self regulation in the learning process.” Over a 10-week period, students in years 5 and 6 at St Columba's Primary played a series of 'brain training games' – including reading tests, problem-solving exercises, and memory puzzles – for 20 minutes in the morning when classes began. In a maths test at the end of the trial, their performance improved by an average 10 per cent, and the time to complete the test also dropped from 17 minutes to 13 minutes and nine seconds. Some children halved the time it took to complete the test while either maintaining or improving their score, the study found.

This is more evidence of Less Learning More Often at work. The success is leading to an extension of the study to 16 more schools - buying 480 Nintendo DS consoles for £34,000. This a small investment given the potential return, even if you scale it up across the entire country. Compare this to the billions wasted by Governments on over-engineered support structures that attempt to prop up the traditional methods of learning support to little lasting effect. Learning Skills Councils come to mind but there are plenty of others littering recent history - I only mention these as the Government announces their closure in 2010.

If we start to view education and our capacity to learn as a social health issue, perhaps we will see better targetted funding and real analytical rigour becoming commonplace rather than the exception it is today.

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