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Evolution of Educational Neuroscience Technology in 21st Century

Posted by Peter Barnes on May 16, 2019 at 2:37 PM

What's changed in educational neuroscience technology this century?

How has neuroscience research and the development of technology impacted the tools educators have to improve learning outcomes for all students?
Recently I was interviewed on a podcast produced by Sentral, providers of proven web-based student management software.

The discussion focussed on how educational neuroscience and technology had changed in the last two decades, from the turn of the century in the year 2000, until now, almost 20 years later.

And it covered a wide sweep of topics as well - from how students are learning English in China with the help of educational neuroscience programs to some thoughts about cost versus value in educational decision making.

Listen to the interview 

Topics covered

  1.   Educational neuroscience evolution in 21st century
  2.   Technology changes since year 2000
  3.   Learning difficulties
  4.   Teachers & speech pathologists
  5.   Using neuroscience technology for English language learning in China
  6.   Types of evidence
  7.   Cost versus value in educational decision making
  8.   The future for neuroscience-based education models

People & organisations mentioned

  1.   Sentral  (sentral.com.au)
  2.   Harvard University
  3.   Stanford University

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

Episode 98 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Evolution of Educational Neuroscience Technology in 21st Century

Colin Klupiec: Peter Barnes is an ex banker turned learning innovator, based in Sydney. About 20 years ago he decided to leave the banking world and explore the emerging field of educational neuroscience. It saw him navigate turbulent times when it came to delivering educational neuroscience software.

But times have changed. The computers and science are both better and are making significant differences to the lives of students with learning difficulties. It’s a good example of how the struggle with technology sometimes really is worth it.

I caught up with Peter in his home office, over a cup of tea at the kitchen table.

Peter, I actually wanted to ask you, your background is as a banker. Talking about educational technology over the last 20 years, that's something I don't immediately associate with someone who's come from banking. Walk me through it.

Peter Barnes: Okay. I've been all sorts of people. I've been an accountant, I've been a journalist, I've worked in human resources, I've spent quite a stint in banking, running a bank here in Australia for international bank, and just before the turn of the century I decided to leave all that alone and I went and helped my wife, who's a speech pathologist here in Sydney.

She had obtained the license to use some educational learning software for her remedial clients, kids who were having trouble learning to read, having trouble speaking, having trouble learning, having trouble with their memory. She needed someone to help her with all that stuff.

I had to kind of learn the technology, which back then that was at the turn of the century, and we're now almost at the end of the second decade. Imagine 20 years ago what technology was like.

Colin:  This was something that was enough to spark your interest out the finance world and into a different way that the mind actually works.

Peter: I got really interested in it.

Colin: Is that because the banking world was not that interesting?

Peter:  It was pretty interesting, but I'd sort of exhausted enough there. I needed something different to keep my brain working, and what I discovered was, I got connected with a whole bunch of extremely clever neuroscientists and educators and psychologists and software developers.

Colin: That was through the connections with your wife, because she had come across this.

Peter: She had come across this, yes, and it was in its very early stages, and she figured that it would add a great deal of help to the clients she as working with, and struggling to get them to improve their learning and their reading and so forth.

Technology change since the turn of the 21st century

Colin: That's a really interesting thing, isn't it? Because we think back now to the year 2000, which we can now call the turn of the century, and say, "Back then." It was really new back then.

Peter: How much things have changed in that time. I'm just thinking about back then, the technology, the development of, there were no iPhones, there's no iPads. Back then we were delivering this learning technology on CDs.

I remember, I had to learn all this stuff, because I'd been in banking, and you don't deal with technology in banking. Back then, anyway. I'd have to get three or four or five or six, depending on what we were trying to deliver to the client, to the student, CDs, and then load them onto these computers, and then fight the computer, and play with the permissions, and all sorts of stuff.

Colin: Permissions. Access denied. All that sort of stuff.

Peter:  All of that stuff, which now you don't even think about, because all this stuff comes down streaming from the Cloud.

Colin: On demand. I remember buying my first CD-ROM, thinking, "This must be a really good one, it does eight times oversampling." You'd just think, "I don't think about that technology anymore."          Who's got the time? Who wants to?

Peter:  Yeah. I remember back then, doing support for this learning technology, where we'd have teachers in schools, because initially, do you want me to tell you the story about this, how this happened?

Colin:  Yeah. I mean, that's where this ended up going. Just before you do that, I was just going to ask you, just at this turning point, then, when you started to think about schools, and you're fiddling with CDs and thinking about support and fighting with computers, did you just briefly look back and go, "I think the bank was better"?

Peter: No, I actually didn't, because this gave me a whole new playground, actually. It was fun. It was fun. It was hard, it was fun, and I was enjoying myself.

Colin: Schools would've been dealing with the same struggles as well, because computers, to schools, was also a very new thing back then as well.

Peter: Oh my God, yes. Yes. Yes. Some schools had IT people, but usually it was a teacher who had shown some interest, and so the principal said, "You're it."

Later on, there was a traveling service that went around, that sometimes every couple of weeks the IT person would drop into the school and fix up whatever needed to be fixed it. But it was really Wild West back then for sure. Early 2000s.

Colin:  I can imagine that some of the schools might have said, "Listen, you've got this cool new educational technology innovation. We've got enough problems of our own right now. Do you mind?"        Did you ever get that response?

Peter: We got that quite a lot. In fact, we still get that. But it's more that the problems are, "We've got so much to do, we don't have any time."

Colin: So much technology, but no time. 20 years later, we still don't have any more time.

Peter: No, we've got less time. I think technology's been somewhat soaking it up.

Colin: The schools must've been quite interested, though, to hear that this was a neuroscience approach.

10% of the student population struggles with learning

Peter:  Yes. The schools have all the same problems of kids with learning difficulties that were appearing in my wife's speech pathology clinic.   But there's just many, many, many, many more of them.

If the statistics are something like there's 10% of the student population has some sort of struggle with learning, however it's caused, or reading, however it's caused, and it could be caused by all sorts of things, which we can talk about later perhaps, but there's lots of them. If 10% of the student population in, just take Australia for example, that's a lot of people.

Colin: Yeah, sure. I'm curious. The trajectory of neuroscience development or neuroscience research, I should say, over the last 30 or 40 years kind of matches up time-wise, I don't want to use the word correlates, but it's kind of along the same timeline as how technology evolved.

Did the two complement each other as that went forward? Did neuroscience benefit, as well, from the improvements in technology, but perhaps from a different angle?

Peter:  Absolutely. From a neuroscience research point of view, brain imaging technology and all of that helped scientists understand more about what's going on in the brain.

Colin: That was the game changer, wasn't it? When we could actually look at a living brain doing its thing, using this technology. On the one hand you got schools who are battling with the technology, and then you got some scientists who are thinking, "Oh my goodness, this is a game changer for us."

You got these two parallel things. How did you respond when you found that you could suddenly capture images from the living brain?

Peter:  It was amazing. I wasn't capturing them, because that's technology that is way out there, expensive.

Colin: You were enjoying the experience. You were sharing the experience from afar.

Peter:  I was being shown stuff by these amazing research scientists. They worked up at Stanford University and Harvard and all these places. That was one bit of technology that evolved and made a big change.

The other thing was that the ability of these scientists to use what they learnt about how the brain works, how the brain thinks and operates, and what's causing learning glitches in brains. How they used that knowledge to build software to help remediate those problems, and back, as I said, in the early days, they put that software on a whole bunch of CDs.

Then, as technology's evolved, we've now got that software being delivered over the internet, live, into a student's brain, into a student's experience. That's been a massive game changer, and that's enabled many, many more students to access this thing at lower costs than originally.

Colin:  Just takes a lot of the hassle out of it, I suppose, doesn't it?

Peter:  Takes a massive amount of hassle out of it.

Colin: We were talking before about the fact that people don't have a lot of time, despite the fact that we think that technology, perhaps, should give people more time, but this, in fact, has actually addressed that problem, because you can just bypass all of those problems that you were talking about before - CDs, et cetera - computers, I don't think, even come with CD drives.

Peter:  No, they don't.

Colin: My laptop hasn't had a CD drive for years. The complimentary path, then, of technology and neuroscience research was perhaps unbeknownst to schools. Was this a revelation to them, when you started talking to them?

Early adopters and neuroscience 101

Peter:  Absolutely. I remember in the early days I'd go and visit schools. When schools started to get a little bit interested in this, we had some early adopters, or people early.

Most of the education population didn't know about this, and weren't particularly interested, but there were early adopters who wanted to know about it, and I'd go and talk to them, and I would give neuroscience 101.

I was an ex-banker who'd learnt enough about this stuff from the scientists so that I could translate that into simple language and talk to educators, teachers, about how the brains are operating for these kids that they're seeing in their classrooms that are not performing the way they're hoping they would be.

Colin: Did they take that well, from an ex-banker? Or did you just not tell them that?

Peter: I didn't tell them, and they didn't ask. I was always amazed.

Colin: That's interesting, isn't it? Why should I listen to you? I don't know, you didn't ask.

Peter:  No one ever said, "Why should I listen to you?"  I managed to keep their attention for an hour or more, or as long as I can get them. Teachers attention after school, usually they're running home to do all the things that they need to do, but no one ever asked me.

Colin: Perhaps it was because it was really just that interesting.

English language learning in China with neuroscience technology

Peter: I think it was just that interesting. I found it interesting. Even two decades later, I still find the whole thing so interesting, and what also amazes me is how come it hasn't yet taken on like fire across the world? In Australia and New Zealand it's been fairly slow relative to the rest of the world.

In China, for example, these neuroscience technologies, and these neuroscience programs developed by these people are being used massively to teach the English language, because they're training the brains of the Chinese kids to recognise the sounds of English, which are quite different from the Chinese sounds, and that's a fundamental piece of being able to acquire English language skills.

I guess the old rule applies: start early.

Peter: Absolutely. The earlier the better.

Colin: Is there an optimum range?

Peter: I don't know. The earlier the better.

Colin: I was going to ask, do you think that now that it is coming out, it's more well-known, those schools that have listened and are aware of the findings, are they using the findings effectively?

Or is this just another one of those things that's come up in a seminar, people have talked about it, they got excited about it for a while, and, well, it's back to business as usual?

Peter: We got so much data. In the last 20 years there's been over three million students worldwide that have experienced this technology, and the data says that if they use it the way it's prescribed, i.e. they use it a certain number of times a week, a number of minutes, and they do the exercises in that prescribed progression, it's like taking medicine.

If the doctor says, "Here, you take this pill, and you take one in the morning and two at night." If you just decide you're only going to do the morning one, well, you can't expect to get better, necessarily, and it's the same thing with this.

The evidence shows that if the schools get their students to use this neuroscience software in the way that the scientists have determined is best for achieving results, then they achieve extraordinary results.

Things like double the expected reading gain over a period. Kids who've used this for two terms are getting, instead of two terms' reading growth, they're getting a year's reading growth.

Colin: Now this fascinates me, because this asks potentially what you might think of as an ethical question. We might not have time to delve into the ethics of this, but does that mean that potentially for the last, I don't know, 50 to 100 years of modern education, that we've been artificially, I guess not artificially, and perhaps not intentionally, but retarding the potential reading gain of all children, just in the way that we've been doing it?

Then the second part of that question is, because we can now use this technology and this knowledge to do it faster, does that mean that we should be doing it?

Peter: Righto. First of all, I don't think that we can say that we've been delinquent in teaching kids for the last century, because this knowledge has only sort of emerged in the late 1990s, pretty much. Until then I think we were doing the best we could do.

Colin:                           Yeah. I mean, I know that was a fairly contentious question, but I'm just trying to look at it from the wide ends of the spectrum, because, I guess, what happens in the future is now going to be influenced by what we know now, and what we will continue to know.

Peter: It's a very interesting question, because with our current litigious society, and parents really giving schools a hard time about delivering what they think they should be delivering to their kids, and getting the results for to kids, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that some parent one day will go, "There's this knowledge, there's this technology, it's been proven. Why aren't you doing that in your school for my kid? I'm taking you to court."

Colin: "My son or daughter can't read the Encyclopedia at age two, and I'm blaming you."

Peter: That's possible.

Colin:  Early learning centre. My instant reaction is that that's a horrible thing to think about, but it's plausible, isn't it?

Peter: It is plausible. I think it's a horrible thing to think about, too, but it could happen.

Expensive? Expense is relative to value

Colin:  This sort of stuff is expensive, right?

Peter: Depends. Expense depends on value. Expense is relative to value. Expensive compared to what?

Colin:  We could talk about this for another hour as well. Okay, but relative to a textbook, or relative, here's a good example: what if you sent your child to remedial reading lessons with a specialist one-on-one for 10 weeks, are we now starting to see some sort of parity between the costs?

Peter: Let me give you an example. There's a study that was done probably 10 years ago now that determined that this technology produces results in 12 weeks that are equivalent out one-on-one speech pathology over 50 sessions.

That's like 50 weeks of speech pathology, one-on-one, is as good as using this technology for 12 weeks, and that technology for 12 weeks can be delivered to one student, a classroom of students, a whole year of students, a whole school of students.

If you do the maths on that, you can see that it's not expensive.

Colin: At least not according to our traditional views of expense with respect to education and learning and teaching and, I guess, something as simple as school fees.

Competitive or complementary?

Colin: Do the speech pathologists see this as a threat?

Peter:  Some have. Some have done so, yes. But my wife says that really this is not a threat at all. What this does, when she has to do one-on-one therapy with students, she finds, and some of her colleagues have used this find, that it actually improves her ability to produce good outcomes for the clients, because it prepares their brain better to assimilate the therapy that she's delivering to them.

Colin: They're complementary.

Peter: It's complementary, yes.

Colin:  Okay, because I guess some of the critics might say, "What about the human contact? My child's only in front a screen, they've got an iPhone and an iPad, and the school wants them to use a computer all day long, and now you're telling me that the therapy is computer-delivered."  There is a complimentary factor, though?

Peter: Absolutely.

Colin: Actually, I wanted to ask you that as well, because with, I want to say screen addiction, but this is not the right conversation to talk about what could potentially be called screen addiction. Let's just say, students see a lot of screen time these days.

Are we starting to see, as well, that the introduction or increased use of screens, and then perhaps also increased use of therapy with screens is starting to change some of the results, or alter some brain chemistry there somehow?

Peter:  It's probably altering brain chemistry, because everything we do alters brain chemistry, and if you do it repeatedly, as these exercises do, that will alter brain chemistry.

But you've got to be careful in making global statements about this, because therapy delivered by technology, it depends what is the therapy, and there's a huge range of stuff.

You can go and buy a little program from the local corner store for $10 that is a totally different therapy, if you like, to something that's developed by a whole bunch of neuroscientists based on 20 years of research.

Colin: Sure. That's a very interesting thing to talk about, because if you're talking about "therapy", with air quotes around it, you could also say that social media is a therapy in that it makes me feel good. If looking at this screen makes me feel good, well then that's a therapy, and then that's just as valid as this other program which helps me to read better.

Again, I know this is a very big topic, it's very contentious, but I guess it's something just to flag, because anyone thinking about educational technology will start to think, "Computers. Again we're talking about computers. Can't we just do something else without computers?"

Peter:  I'm sure we can do things without computers. There's all sorts of things that teachers do without computers, and they should absolutely keep doing that, but if you're going to use technology, wouldn't it be better to use technology that has been proven to produce beneficial changes for students?

Beneficial changes in their learning capacity, and take some of that computer use time, and use it for the best possible outcome for students, rather than letting them just cruise around and play games or whatever it is with no educational content or output?

What is evidence?

Colin: I suppose you often get the response that says, "You're telling me it's proven by people in white lab coats hiding in laboratories who write complicated academic papers with language that I don't understand, and you've read all those, and decoded them, and you're telling me, but I'd still like you to prove it to me."

Peter: Well, what is evidence? This is a whole other question we could have a chat about.

Colin: How much time have you got?

Peter: Very quickly, because we don't have a huge amount of time here, very quickly, evidence can range from the stuff you just described, it's the laboratory, white lab coat, all that kind of stuff, with all sorts of data and academic language which most of us don't understand, right down to the evidence of kids reporting that they can now learn better, read better, remember better, understand what the teacher's saying.

And in between those two ends of the spectrum we've got things like field studies where schools will do, like for example in Australia, NAPLAN, and we've got data from some schools who've done NAPLAN before students used this learning technology.

Colin: Right. It's coming out in some of our standardised testing.

Peter: Yes. Absolutely. There's all sorts of research out there, all sorts of evidence.

Colin: Sorry. You're suggesting that NAPLAN was actually useful for that part.

Peter: We probably shouldn't get into an NAPLAN debate.

Colin: I think we've raised about four topics that are probably at least maybe one or two hours for each topic, but I only say that because, again, NAPLAN is another topic, but it does get a bad rap, but if there are positive things coming out in that, well then that's worth looking at.

Peter: Sure. I think NAPLAN deserves some of the bad rap it gets, but it also does have some value. Let's talk about that another time.

The future for neuroscience-based education models

Colin: Sure. Just before we go, and I know that time's getting away, but where do you see this going?

Peter: Where do I see how going?

Colin: The introduction of neuroscience-based education models, for example, like a scientific model of education with the support of educational technology that's coming out of neuroscience.

Peter: I think it's inevitable. It's inevitable that it will become more widespread than it is today. It's inevitable for a number of reasons. One is that the technology and the neuroscience and the understanding and the ability to build more powerful applications is improving all the time.

For example, give you one example of that before we continue on that train of thought, is that at the beginning of this century, almost 20 years ago, the standard protocol, the standard time to get a result for a student who was using this technology was 90 minutes a day of exercises for five days a week.

Now, it's got that down, through efficiencies, better data analysis of all these millions of students using this, down to 30 minutes a day. It's 1/3 now of the time. You can see the power of what's been happening.

Colin: The results are feeding back into the development of the technology.

Peter: All the time, yes. Yes.

Colin: In that sense we're actually discovering new things about the brain by doing that as well.

A new paradigm

Peter: We are, absolutely. To answer your question, where's this going, I think it's inevitable that it will continue to improve, that educators with see the value of this, and they'll see the value for their students for the results. It increases student learning capacity. The students that they're educating will have greater capacity to learn, will learn about what the curriculum is delivering to them, what the curriculum and the teachers are delivering to them will be learnt better because we're improving the student's brains.

This is a new paradigm. We've never thought about, until recently, thought about how to get better education results other than, "Let's get better teachers. Let's beat the teachers up. Let's increase funding. Build more halls." All of that stuff, "Let's change the curriculum. Let's get a better curriculum, that'll fix it all."

What's been forgotten, or not recognised until this neuroscience revolution came along, was that if you can improve the brains of the students, the learning capacity of the students, that's a surefire way of getting better educational outcomes. I think it's inevitable that this is going to expand. The use of this is going to expand.

Colin: Peter, I think we've probably mentioned at least five potential PhD topics.

Peter: Something for you to do in your spare time, Colin.

Colin: Well, no, we'll throw it out to the listeners. If you've got a good idea for a PhD topic that Peter should pursue. It sounds like you've got enough things on your plate at the moment, but it's been great to speak with you, and we look forward to talking to you again about some of these developments.

Thanks so much for your time.

Peter: Thanks, Colin. And I’d like to thank Sentral for their time in conducting this interview. For more information on proven web-based school management solutions, visit sentral.com.au


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