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Report: Immersive Learning – A Neuroscience Perspective

Why Immersive Learning Technology Can Enhance K-12 Education – A Neuroscience Perspective

Children around the world spend hours every day in private or public institutions of education. They learn how to read, write and perform mathematical operations. They hone these skills and expand their knowledge base to topics like history, science, culture, and the arts. Educating the next generation is a primary responsibility of society that educators take seriously.

In this report, I explore the ways in which immersive learning technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), can be used to enhance the educational mission. I examine the neuroscience foundation of these technologies and discuss the time course of brain development. I show that unlike traditional methods of educating that focus almost exclusively on cognitive learning systems in the brain, immersive technologies are advantageous because they broadly engage multiple learning and performance systems in the brain in synchrony. This is important when discussing education in children because the cognitive learning system in the brain does not fully develop until an individual is in their early 20s. Thus, we are placing a large burden on young learners when educational tools target the cognitive system exclusively.

Educating the next generation is a primary responsibility of society that educators take seriously Click To Tweet

One of the primary tools of education is the textbook. Textbooks allow an enormous amount of information to be presented in a compact, easy-to-use form. The idea is to read and study the information, and to ultimately store that information in long-term memory. Information processing is achieved by the cognitive skills learning system in the brain (see figure below). This system processes and stores knowledge and facts using working memory and attention. Critically, these are limited resources and form a bottleneck that slows learning with more information coming in and available to the learner (the green arrows) than can be processed (the red arrow). This system encompasses the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes.

Although cognitive processing may seem like a straightforward proposition that is easy to achieve, the neuroscience of learning suggests otherwise. Suppose the young student is learning about human anatomy from a textbook. The human body is a 3-dimensional structure that functions as a dynamic system, so the ultimate goal is to facilitate the formation of a 3D dynamic mental representation of the human body in the learner’s brain that perfectly mimics the actual form. To achieve this by studying a textbook, the young student must convert a series of 2D static, usually abstract images (such as text) into a 3D dynamic mental representation in the brain that accurately reflects the human form.

Although cognitive processing may seem like a straightforward proposition that is easy to achieve, the neuroscience of learning suggests otherwise Click To Tweet

Attempting to construct a 3D dynamic representation of the human body from a series of 2D static, abstract images requires a huge amount of cognitive effort. First, the student has to hold a mental representation of a series of 2D static images in short-term (working) memory. Second, the student has to hold these 2D static mental representations in working memory and combine them on the fly to construct an accurate 3D static representation. Finally, the student has to infer and impart the dynamic nature of the human form onto this 3D static representation. Each of these steps requires an enormous amount of cognitive capacity (in the form of working memory), and an enormous amount of cognitive energy (in the form of executive attention). Any time working memory load and executive attentional demands are taxed, the student is more likely to make an error and generate an inferior mental representation.

This is challenging for adults but is even more challenging for children whose cognitive skills learning system is not fully developed. Thus, we are putting children in a learning environment where they must rely on an under-developed brain system to acquire knowledge.

This is an insightful quote from Einstein that neatly sums up what we know about the neuroscience of learning, and provides the foundation for the potential of immersive learning technologies. The human brain is comprised of at least four distinct learning systems (see figure below). As Einstein so eloquently stated, experience is at the heart of learning. The experiential learning system has evolved to represent the sensory aspects of an experience, whether visual, auditory, tactile or olfactory. Every experience is unique, adds rich context to the learning and is immersive. The critical brain regions associated with experiential learning are the occipital lobes (sight), temporal lobes (sound), and parietal lobes (touch/smell).

We are putting children in a learning environment where they must rely on an under-developed brain system to acquire knowledge Click To Tweet

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Information is best learned and retained when it is accompanied by rich experience Click To Tweet

The cognitive learning system was described above. Cognitive processing of information is the “everything else” aspect of learning that Einstein alluded to. This is not to say that information is not important, it is. Rather information is best learned and retained when it is accompanied by rich experience.

The behavioral system in the brain has evolved to learn motor skills. These include drawing, building, and social interaction, to name a few. This system builds “muscle memory”. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are beyond the scope of this report but suffice it to say that the critical brain structure for behavioral learning is the striatum, and processing in the striatum is optimized when behavior is interactive and is followed in real-time (literally within milliseconds) by corrective feedback. This system links rich experiential contexts (represented by the experiential learning system) and emotions with the appropriate behavioral responses.

The emotional learning system provides the engagement and motivation to learning but also represents stress and anxiety when they are present. Emotional learning is also central to the development of interpersonal skills. More than anything, it is the emotional learning system in the brain that helps build an interpersonal understanding, awareness, and sensitivity. The critical brain regions are the amygdala and other limbic structures. The detailed processing characteristics of this system are less well understood than the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems, but emotional learning, when combined with context-rich experiences, builds rich repertoires of interpersonal understanding and behavior, and an ability to the right thing in every situation.

Emotional learning is also central to the development of interpersonal skills. More than anything, it is the emotional learning system in the brain that helps build an interpersonal understanding, awareness, and sensitivity Click To Tweet

Immersive learning approaches to education (such as VR and AR) are powerful because they broadly engage experiential, cognitive, behavioral and emotional learning centers in the brain in synchrony. Experiential, behavioral, and to a lesser degree, emotional learning systems develop quickly in children, whereas the cognitive system is much slower to develop. Thus, with immersive learning technologies you not only “spread the wealth” broadly across learning systems in the brain, but you also “spread the burden” of learning so that the learner does not have to rely on the cognitive system exclusively.

Imagine learning about famous military battles, the riots in Tiananmen Square, or the history of the Ottoman empire through immersive VR experiences where you are a participant. You can see these historical events from the perspectives of leaders, average individuals, children, adults and the victims. Names and dates can be directly linked to specific virtual experiences. Imagine learning a language through immersive virtual interaction. You can interact with others speaking the new language with native language translation. You can point to objects and the name can be presented as text and spoken. You can be presented with different dialects and slight variation in accent. Imagine learning about the lifecycle of the butterfly or the frog from its perspective. Finally, imagine how much easier chemistry might be if you could walk inside molecules and manipulation chemical bonds while observing their effects.

In all of these cases, the child is immersed in the learning scenario and is learning through experience. They are an active participant in the process to be learned and are watching history, biology, language and chemistry unfold before their eyes. Experiential, cognitive, behavioral and emotional learning centers in their brain are active and long-term memory traces are being created.

The ways in which immersive technology can supplement traditional learning topics are many, and the advantages for children, whose cognitive skills learning system is not fully developed, are clear Click To Tweet

The ways in which immersive technology can supplement traditional learning topics are many, and the advantages for children, whose cognitive skills learning system is not fully developed, are clear. That said, the advantages for other aspects of education and child development, such as social development might be even more important. One of the real challenges that children face is how to deal with complex emotional situations and social interaction. The rise of bullying and the effects of peer pressure are two examples. Although parents and educators do their best to discuss bullying and peer pressure with children, almost all of these “discussions” center around presenting cognitive information and rationale when experience would be superior.

Imagine allowing children to don a VR headset and get a chance to experience bullying from a third-person perspective with all of the sights, sounds and emotions present. They can experience different strategies that children might use like simply walking away as compared with escalating the situation. In extreme cases, children who bully, but don’t seem to understand the ramifications for other children, can experience bullying first-hand and can be presented with scenarios where a bully uses coping strategies to overcome the urge to bully. Although not guaranteed to succeed, and always under the supervision of a professional, these experience-based approaches allow children to learn through experience, and with all of the emotions that are present in real-world situations. This broad-based learning approach is likely to be more successful than simply lecturing children on the wrongs of bullying.

Imagine allowing children to don a VR headset and get a chance to experience bullying from a third-person perspective with all of the sights, sounds and emotions present Click To Tweet

Peer pressure is another excellent example. There is fascinating psychological literature on the effects of peer pressure on adolescents’ decision making. In brief, many adolescents behave very responsibly when in isolation, such as following curfews, avoiding underage drinking, or driving responsibly. However, when peers are present risky behavior tends to rise. Many have attributed this to the slow development of the prefrontal cortex and the cognitive learning system in the brain. When peer pressure is absent, adolescents can make good decisions despite the slow development of the prefrontal cortex, but when peer pressure is present, cognitive processing is reduced and bad decisions are made.

One way to address this is to put adolescents into virtual scenarios where peer pressure is either present or absent. Adolescents can be presented with different levels of peer pressure in order to learn how to cope. Adolescents can make decisions and the outcome of those decisions can be experienced. This approach provides the adolescent with rich experience to learn from so that they can learn to overcome the urge for risky behavior under peer pressure. It does this by broadly engaging experiential, emotional, cognitive and behavioral learning centers within a safe virtual environment, instead of relying exclusively on lecturing that is predominately cognitive.

This approach provides the adolescent with rich experience to learn from so that they can learn to overcome the urge for risky behavior under peer pressure Click To Tweet

To be 100% clear, my goal in writing this report is to explore ways in which immersive learning technologies can be incorporated into the K-12 educational system. The prefrontal cortex, that is the seat of cognitive learning, is not fully developed until one is in their 20s. Thus, learning technologies that engage other learning systems should be considered. It is NOT my goal to criticize the educational system. As a former educator myself, I have the utmost respect for educators and value their service to the next generation. My goal is to suggest that we explore learning technologies that can complement traditional approaches, and may be especially effective in certain domains.

 

Todd Maddox is Science, Sports and Training Correspondent at Tech Trends, and the CEO of Cognitive Design and Statistical Consulting. Follow him on Twitter @wtoddmaddox