The neuroscience behind good digital learning

This article is for anyone that’s interested in the basics of neuroscience and how this can be used when designing good digital learning. To preface this, we’re not qualified neuroscientists, we simply wanted to combine several current theories into something that made sense to us and is what we use when designing digital learning experiences!

What is neuroscience and how can it be used in corporate education & operational effectiveness?

At a fundamental level, everyone’s brain works in a similar way and is made up of two bits. The Mind is the “us” that we know, the voice in your head reading this article (or to borrow and analogy from computer science, the software) and the Brain (the hardware) is the physical stuff that our Mind runs on. The field of research tasked with trying to decipher all of this is Neuroscience.

The brain is the most wondrously complex thing we have discovered in the universe to date, built with over 100 billion neurons, each with between 10,000 and 100,000 interconnections, providing a total number of connections greater than the number of all the stars in the universe. This is why we are such a fantastically mixed bunch of individuals, each with our own hopes and dreams, largely governed by our genetics, our upbringing and our experiences.

This vastly connected network, with all its tiny systems, is whirring away right now as you read this article, doing everything for you, usually without any conscious knowledge. Everyday tasks, from sitting upright, to regulating hormones around your body are largely accomplished without any active engagement from our conscious mind.

Our brains use a strategy of putting regularly needed activities (or subroutines) into areas of the brain that don’t require much conscious effort. We develop these subconscious skills over a lifetime, through a number of techniques that reinforce connections between neurons or groups of neurons. An example would be tying your shoelaces, something that at first seemed complicated and required concentration and repetition of complex manipulation and dexterity, is now something that can be completed without any conscious thought.

These learnt skills and behaviours can have both positive and negative outcomes. However, the brain is amazing in its ability to adapt to change to new stimulus or requirements, meaning we are capable of new thought, we just need the right tools to help.

What this means in practice for the corporate learning world, is that much behaviour is often unconscious, or heavily influenced by unconscious biases. By tapping into the fundamental way the brain adapts to change, we can help people learn and retain new skills and behaviours to help them become more effective at their job.

One such tool is gamification.

What is gamification and how can it be practically used in a Learning Platform?

Gamification is the use of gaming techniques in non-gaming scenarios (such as learning at work) and is a great way to target specific, known behaviours or skill deficits within a group of people.

Within Digits Learning Platform glo™, we provide Administrators and Learning Designers an array of gaming techniques & tools (goals, objectives, levels, badges, dashboards, reports…) to help create cognitive change that can be demonstrated by looking at neural measures and outcomes.

An article “Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults” in Nature back in 2013 demonstrated the use of a custom designed computer game to help older adults regain lost cognitive function.

This large study showed that combining a number of known techniques, such as a progressive, dynamic skill need (the game getting harder as you progress) and multimodal requirements (strategic, reaction & prediction) and regular use helped elevate the cognitive ability of the participant.

One of the key findings of the study was that “Closed loop” activities proved to be the strongest way to increase performance. In practice, this means that the individual needs constant feedback and stimulus to encourage performance in a specific skill or behavioural demonstration and this is where good digital learning can provide the instantaneous feedback, not always possible from traditional classroom training.

By continually changing the skill level requirements of the game, based on real-time performance of the individual (as is experienced when playing any addictive computer game), there is a burst of activity in the prefrontal cortex (often described as the “conductor of the orchestra”) which, over time helps hardwire the skills and behaviour demonstrated in achieving the new level or goal.

Reward cycles are another important part of reinforcement of skill or behavioural retention. The prefrontal cortex provides the ability to decide to delay immediate gratification for a better longer-term result. This ability to wait for a reward is one of the reasons we have evolved to be the dominant species on the planet.

Why should I care?

Designing learning without some basic knowledge of how the brain works is like trying build a jigsaw in the dark. Some pieces may fit together, but you’ll miss the big picture.

Unfortunately, much corporate eLearning today is simply a PowerPoint deck turned into a slideshow with some basic navigation and questions at the end. We have known for 20 years that flashy graphics and simulations are not enough; the experience must be authentic and relevant to the learner's life. (Woolf, B. P. and Hall, W. (1995).)

Added to this, many of educational models (such as Learning Styles) are still believed and used within corporate learning, whereas they have been proved to be incorrect for half a decade.

It’s time to get some real science behind corporate digital learning development, opposed to the “we’ve always done it this way” approach.

What is the science behind it?

Activity-dependent plasticity plays a very important role in learning and in the ability of understanding new things. It is responsible for helping to adapt an individual’s brain according to the relative amount of usage and functioning. In essence, it is the brain’s ability to retain and develop memories based on activity-driven changes of synaptic strength that allow stronger learning of information.

An exposition in the use of functional imaging techniques (fMRI, which allows detailed brain activity to be visualised in 3D whilst the subject is actively engaged in learning) is providing huge amounts of data to help understand some of the fundamental functions of the brain and support research projects across the world.

Woolf, B. P. and Hall, W. (1995). Multimedia Pedagogues: Interactive Systems for Teaching and Learning.

J. A. Anguera, J. Boccanfuso, J. L. Rintoul, O. Al-Hashimi, F. Faraji, J. Janowich, E. Kong, Y. Larraburo, C. Rolle, E. Johnston & A. Gazzaley. (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults - http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7465/full/nature12486.html

Ganguly K, Poo MM (October 2013). "Activity-dependent neural plasticity from bench to bedside". Neuron. 80 (3): 729–741. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2013.10.028.

About the author

With over 20 years’ experience, Chris specialises in how people interact with Digital Media.

Having studied interactive media development at Plymouth University’s Media Lab back in the late 90ies, he joined a large software development company specialising in cutting edge computer, video and multimedia authoring technologies. Chris subsequently joined Digits Industries as Commercial Director in 1999 and has worked on many blue-chip Learning Platforms & Digital Content projects ever since.