Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Pop a pill to get smarter

Following my last post on learning being a health issue, I neglected the whole smart drugs phenomenon. Mark Oehlert has written a great post referencing a thought provoking article in The Escapist by Lara Crigger - a selected quote gives you a flavour:

But what if, instead, we could simply pop a pill to become smarter? A medication that could make us more alert, sharpen our concentration - even make learning easier.

But here's the dirty little secret: The pills are out there, just prescribed for different conditions. Healthy individuals are secretly taking drugs that fix ailing hearts and help kids with ADHD sit still in class, to make themselves smarter. It's a trend called "cosmetic neurology," a term coined by Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. And it's the future of thought. After all, when it comes to being smarter, who wouldn't want an extra dose of genius?

I wonder how prevalent this is already amongst UK/European students? More than I imagine, no doubt.

And I wonder what the implications are going forward for fair assessment/examination and indeed equal opportunities legislation as those with access to these cognitive performance enhancers gain the advantage in the workplace.

As Mark reflects in his posting:

Can you imagine designing a course one that has a drug prescription as one of the design elements? What if the "D" Divide ends up not standing for digital but for drugs?

A stimulating or sobering thought - depending on your point of view.

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.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

'Millionaire' tests help kids learn

This is an interesting short report up from the New Scientist:

Replacing dry multiple-choice tests with quizzes akin to the hit TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire could help boost comprehension levels in children.

Tzu-Hua Wang at the National Hsinchu University of Education in Taiwan has devised a web-based multiple choice testing system with some fun elements influenced by the TV quiz. The system gives pupils the chance to "prune" away two incorrect answers from four - or, in a nod to "phone a friend", they may ask the class for help.

Unsurprisingly, children were more willing to be tested using Wang's system. But he also found kids had higher comprehension levels after using it, suggesting the system could be used for educational purposes.

This is interesting as it supports my view that DESIGN MATTERS. Engaging and holding attention is increasingly tough and just moving something online is not enough. Testing strategies really do need to move on from standard multiple choice mechanisms. This research demonstrates that different approaches can have an impact on learning effectiveness.

From Tzu-Hua Wang's paper, the use of an "Ask-Hint Strategy" turns what would otherwise be a standard web-based formative assessment into an online quiz game, called GAM-WATA (not quite as catchy a title as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"). The strategy consists of two elements: a ‘Prune Strategy’ and a 'Call-in Strategy'. The Prune Strategy emulates the "50/50" life line contestants are offered on the TV show, but contrary to the New Scientist report removes one option from four, not two. The Call-in Strategy provides the rate at which other test takers choose each option when answering a question. This I think is more like "Ask the Audience" than "Phone a Friend" as reported.

I'd like to understand better how they measured the improvement in comprehension amongst students taking these assessments, but it certainly illustrates that smart design does make a difference to learning outcomes.

It also shows that you should go back to the original research wherever possible as this seemed slightly misrepresented by the New Scientist report.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Our plastic brain - a game of give and take?

Neuroplasticity refers to our brains ability to change and reorganise itself through forming new neural connections. This is clearly at the heart of the learning process but also shows itself in the remarkable ability to move and redevelop brain function in the event of injury or damage.

Indeed, as we specialise and become experts in a specific skill or knowledge area, then the brain area used most to support this activity grows. As an example, this comparative study of London taxi and bus drivers (Maguire, Woollet and Spiers, 2006) found:

...that compared with bus drivers, taxi drivers had greater gray matter volume in mid-posterior hippocampi and less volume in anterior hippocampi. Furthermore, years of navigation experience correlated with hippocampal gray matter volume only in taxi drivers, with right posterior gray matter volume increasing and anterior volume decreasing with more navigation experience. This suggests that spatial knowledge, and not stress, driving, or self-motion, is associated with the pattern of hippocampal gray matter volume in taxi drivers.

Taxi drivers navigate around a city demanding constant recall of the spatial area, adapting constantly to traffic flow, passenger preferences and other factors. Bus drivers, on the other hand follow a more limited set of routes.

Another study (Draganski et al, 2006) focused on German medical students demonstrating that extensive learning of abtract information in preparing for an exam (and comparing them with students not being examed), showed that:

During the learning period, the gray matter increased significantly in the posterior and lateral parietal cortex bilaterally. These structural changes did not change significantly toward the third scan during the semester break 3 months after the exam. The posterior hippocampus showed a different pattern over time: the initial increase in gray matter during the learning period was even more pronounced toward the third time point.

I wonder whether this suggests that cramming intensively - usually frowned upon but still a very common practice - has a more lasting impact on future learning and memory retrieval than we have assumed to date?

But then how does this sit with the other finding from Maguire's study that the brains ability to change to suit the tasks and activities we engage in, comes at a cost to other brain areas not used as intensively? In this case, they found that the ability to acquire new visuo-spatial information was worse for taxi drivers than bus drivers. This is the effect of the anterior hippocampus decreasing in size.


With the growing use of MRI and voxel-based morphometry we'll be seeing more and more of these types of study informing our understanding of how we actually learn.