‘The brain and digital learning’: A review of Stella Collins’ new chapter

It goes without saying that digital tools, content and apps have the power to grab our attention and pull us in. But in equal measure, the digital world has encouraged us to skim, skip and digress. Can digital deliver the deep-dives we need for focused learning? Why are games having more impact on our brains than digital learning? Is digital the problem, or is it how we use it that counts? These are just some of the questions explored in Stella Collins’ chapter on ‘The brain and digital learning’ in the new edition of Neuroscience for Learning and Development. We got our hands on the preview edition and took a deep-dive into this brand new chapter. Packed with insights, tips and pointers for those in the industry to ponder, here are our insider shares.

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Perhaps there is something in gamification after all

It’s slightly worrying for anyone working in digital learning when the chapter on “Your brain and digital learning” opens with:

“There is something curious about learning digitally because it appears that ‘digital learning’ may have less impact on your brain than other digital activities such as video games designed for entertainment.”

Stella goes on to outline how lab tests show the impact playing video games has on areas like visual acuity, multi-tasking and our ability to pay attention, as well as our ability to think and react in new situations. She states that some argue that games have helped people learn to learn better – a skill that is increasingly important in our ever-changing work environments.

However, digital learning programs designed to enhance learning specific skills may have less impact on our brains. “Games manufacturers may be able to teach us some lessons,” states Stella, but we can be smart about what kind of lessons. The book puts forward that there’s a case for unpicking what works in these games that produce results, and injecting these techniques into digital learning gaming rather than trying to study the neuroscience from scratch.

Our thoughts on this…

Gamification was a top buzzword in the industry just a few years ago, but its hype has tailed off of late. What we do know is that shallow or lazy nods to games in learning, or approaches that are bells, whistles or gimmicks, are unlikely to engage or deliver results. Stella rejects bell and whistle approaches herself.

  • Did we do gamification wrong, or a bit quick and dirty? (Probably).
  • Does L&D have the skills to design effective games? (Maybe not – but others do!)
  • Did we fail to invest into researching actual techniques that work, or by putting money and time into those who do? (Possibly).
  • Did we evaluate the results of (any) gamification examples in our learning effectively? (Evaluation isn’t usually the hottest area for L&D!)

There’s certainly something in gaming and a huge opportunity for learning (simulations, VR or otherwise, for example). Perhaps there could be a follow-up article from Stella on what it is that makes games work, from her/the brain’s point of view, that we can turn into some tips.

Exposure vs. learning

With all the different forms of digital content we explore every day, from online conversations, webinars, videos, games, MOOCs and more, how can we be sure we’re learning and not just being “exposed” to content? This is a key question posed and explored by Stella in this new chapter. As we all know, exposure to something is not the same as learning it.

We’ve written before on the responsibility L&D teams have to make sure digital learning content is “time well spent.” Especially when we know people are increasingly busy, and bombarded by and addicted to digital – adding more into an overfull pot may not be okay. Digital learning has to drive or deliver something useful and of value.

To work, the book states, digital learning needs to do all the things other types of effective learning do – from engagement and emotions, through to participation and practice and reflection and recall. In other words, all the components Stella sets out in the first part of her book.

But does digital learning always do this?

While she lists the potential benefits of digital learning, Stella also lays out some drawbacks to digital in terms of how it affects the brain. Here are some key points made around that…

Negative attention and distraction

To engage end users, we’re often told to grab users’ attention. Yet Stella points out that many of the attention-grabbing techniques used in the digital world are short-lived and work by constantly presenting changes. This means we may become better at paying partial attention – but we don’t focus in, in a sustained way, which we need for deep learning. Citing articles that show a general decline in our ability to “read deeper,” as we instead skim and grab as we read for speed, the sense that those creating digital learning may be adding to this decline is one worth noting. She is not, however, making the case that attention spans are lower – this is not the goldfish theory!

Instead, the point seems to be that because digital content has the ability to continually pull our attention in, in a surface-level way, we are not only skipping the deep-dives into the subject and often being distracted; we are also not always stopping to reflect, imagine, contemplate or think creatively about what we’ve explored. There’s potential, it seems, for digital learning to give us a double-whammy effect and make our minds like a stone that continuously skims over water, without going deeper or ever landing anywhere.

On the flip side, digital learning experiences that encourage activity, creative thinking and/or spacing can help. In fact, a key benefit of digital learning portrayed in the book is that it lends itself to spaced learning. So there is a silver lining.

Knowing how to learn

In our profile of a modern learner research, we uncovered that one of the most popular courses taken voluntarily by people online in 2018 via Coursera was “Learning how to learn.” While I had taken this as a shocking reflection on the state of modern education systems not equipping or enabling people to think (creatively) for themselves, Stella’s chapter on digital learning brings to light that the way we need to navigate digital content and “self-manage” how we use it for learning – i.e., giving ourselves breaks to digest, reflect, practice and return – could be a genuine challenge for some.

There is perhaps more support those in L&D can take to help people get the most out of digital learning. In-built prompts to go do something (and then something after that) as a result of exploring a resource or participating in an online experience are must-dos. It would be great if these were the norm!

As Stella concludes, with digital learning, “When it’s good it’s brilliant”!

Helpful lists and tips

The newly added chapter includes lots of helpful lists and tips for those who are starting out or who already work in the digital learning world. We’re not going to give them all away, as you should go read the book yourselves! But as a teaser, you can be sure to find:

  • A list of features of digital that don’t help learning – from the brain’s point of view
  • A list of features of digital that do help learning – from the brain’s point of view
  • Top trumps – a handy (solid) list of which features of digital learning trump others; e.g., “Explore vs. clicks.”

What’s missing?

Not really “missing” as much as understated, but perhaps more could be said for digital’s ability to provide targeted, personalized and adaptive learning experiences, which may “trump” some common (one-size) classroom teaching approaches.

However, if you dip into (or indeed take a deep-dive into) the other chapters in the book, there’s a clear case made for just how important personal connection, personal or intrinsic motivation and reward, and emotions (which are inherently personal) are to learning. So it’s unfair to say these points are missing – they are at the heart of the entire book – but perhaps they could be illuminated as a benefit of digital learning. (Or perhaps, like the results of Don Taylor’s Global Sentiments Surveys now show, these are no longer a high ambition but more of an accepted norm).

Other topics explored in the chapter

Here’s a quick rundown of some other themes and subjects explored in this newly added chapter.

  • Social learning – a vital ingredient for learning that comes with a handy list of suggested ways to make this happen in and around digital learning.
  • Virtual Reality – sets out some research-based areas which might have high potential for effective learning.
  • Sleep – there’s a whole new chapter on the importance and function of sleep for learning, which is a must-read. In the Digital Learning chapter, Stella briefly brings to light the fact that the blue lights of digital devices and attention-grabbing tricks of digital design are no friends of sleep, which is necessary for brain function and long-term learning.

Final thoughts

If you haven’t read Neuroscience for Learning and Development, then we’d recommend you do. If you’ve read the last edition, the new chapters are well worth a read – it’s worth reminding yourself of the key points made in other chapters before you do, so it becomes a building story of the brain and learning.

As always, Stella makes her points clearly and with evidence, and this new chapter on Digital Learning provides us with lots of fodder for reflection.

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