Research

Many edtech products begin as startups, and a foundational approach to think of a startup idea is the problem-solution model: identify a problem and create a product that solves that problem. This process has produced many EdTech products used in education today—e-books, flashcard apps, learning management systems, just to name a few—that focus on solving the broader problem of efficiency, or “digitizing” education.

Because of these types of products, technology-enabled and online education are expanding access to underserved and nontraditional populations—improving the lives of countless students. These early innovations are the foundation on which modern EdTech can flourish, but the EdTech of today should seek to do more than solve problems—it must continuously improve education with products that make learning more effective and enhance core learning processes.

Core learning processes are fundamental features of how our brains evolved to learn over millions of years. Contrary to the perpetual myth of individual learning styles—that some people learn better with visual information and others with verbal information, for instance—all brains learn information the same way. (What is actually variable is individual students’ interest and motivation to learn a topic). A recently published book, How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine. . . For Now by Stanislas Dehaene, articulates with great detail exactly how it is that humans learn. Dehaene explains that core learning processes are foundational to how all humans learn—powerful information for EdTech developers.

He calls these processes the “four pillars of learning,” which are attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation. Attention is the gateway to learning: Our brains are only capable of learning information that we are attending to. Learning, therefore, requires that students are paying attention to what they are supposed to, when they are supposed to. EdTech products that incentivize students to stay on task or reduce potential distractions directly modulate the attention pillar by focusing their attention to the course material.

Once attention is focused on the relevant content, students must engage with the information. Research reliably shows that students in active learning classrooms outperform those in passive lecture classrooms. In my view, active engagement is where EdTech has the largest potential to impact student learning. Why? Because technology is particularly well suited to be engaging. Technology can be more immersive than reality, allowing students to directly interact with content in a way that is simply not possible without tech. Rather than just learning about the physics of architecture and design, for example, EdTech products can let students create virtual buildings and test hypotheses about the way things work.

Learning also requires continued adjustment of one’s knowledge, and without prompt error correction and feedback, student learning is thwarted. Social learning platforms have great potential to get students working through content to identify errors. EdTech products that can expertly facilitate social learning in an online environment (and no, I’m not talking about vanilla discussion forums) will undoubtedly have a positive impact on education given the popularity of online courses, programs, and universities.

The final pillar of learning, consolidation, requires that students continue to learn, practice, and refine their knowledge. One approach to consolidation is spacing out learning over time. EdTech products that focus on time management and keeping students regularly engaged in work, for example, have potential to be particularly useful at this final stage of the learning process.

Knowledge of core learning processes, as described by Dehaene, suggest that educators should aim to modulate the four pillars of learning to improve student outcomes. This framework of learning can—and should—be applied to EdTech product development, too. Part of my role as a Research Scientist in the EdTech industry is to scope early-stage EdTech products for investment and efficacy research. Using Dehaene’s four pillars of learning as a guide, I argue that the potential impact of EdTech products can be evaluated, in part, by assessing the extent to which the products directly modulate at least one of the four pillars of learning.

EdTech products that are focused on modulating core learning processes increase the likelihood of having a positive impact on student outcomes. By leveraging the capabilities of technology to help students learn more effectively, EdTech can be instrumental for helping all students reach their academic goals, not just for solving efficiency problems. The next phase of EdTech should be focused on enhancing the remarkable capabilities of the greatest learning machine in the known universe: our brain.

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Nicole Barbaro

As a research scientist at WGU Labs, Dr. Nicole Barbaro designs evaluation and validation studies of the education-based products at WGU Labs and their partner institutions, and is focused on improving student educational outcomes. She earned a PhD in psychology with a specialization in evolution and human development from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. In addition to her work at WGU Labs, she serves as the Communications Officer for the Human Behavior and Evolution Society and has published more than 40 scholarly articles in leading psychology journals.