The future is here: New ed tech targets the brain

The future is here: New ed tech targets the brain

New products target memory, attention levels and brain's plasticity
The Nervanix Clarity is a headset that monitors EEG brainwaves to measure attention levels.

Measuring and even changing a student’s brain activity was once a science fiction concept. But technology advances are pushing to market more products that use attention levels and plasticity of the mind to raise academic achievement.

“I think it’s the direction we have to go in,” says Tom Kelchner, director of special education at Goose Creek CISD in Texas, a district of 22,000 students outside Houston. “We have to look at innovative approaches based on research to do something different for students who have reading and math deficits, and we feel these cognitive development programs are part of the answer.”

Over the summer, the district began implementing the program Cogmed Working Memory Training from Pearson in special education classrooms. The computer-based program targets attention and memory capacity with a series of games that adjust in complexity as the student completes them. For example, one game has students remember and repeat a sequence of lights. It will be implemented in all K8 classrooms this month, Kelchner says.

Measuring attention

Another product on the market is the recently launched Nervanix Clarity, a study tool with a headset that monitors brainwaves to determine how much attention a student is paying to a particular web text, video or audio recording. An algorithm translates the brainwave activity to an attention metric.

At the end of the study session, students can see where their attention was highest and lowest, and go back to the exact place where attention dropped.

“It allows you to flip back to the book or video in an intelligent way,” says Adam L. Hall, founder and CEO of Nervanix. It can also help teachers determine which educational materials students pay the most attention to, he adds.

Tapping neuroplasticity

ACTIVATE, a program from the company C8 Sciences, uses the concept of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire itself and develop new neural connections throughout life.

The program includes a combination of physical exercise activities and computerized games for students that are shown to increase brain capacity and improve executive functioning. The physical component includes team building exercises and martial arts, while the games test memory, sequencing and other processing skills.

C8 Sciences Founder Bruce Wexler and his research partner were awarded a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the program as a nonpharmacologic treatment for ADHD.

“Our brains develop from stimulation,” says Wexler, who is also professor emeritus of psychiatry and senior research scientist at Yale School of Medicine. “Many kids come to school without having that stimulation, and in school cognitive demands are made of them that they aren’t prepared to meet.” Proceed with caution

Wendy Drexler, chief innovation officer at ISTE, says schools need classroom data before adopting any product or method that claims to enhance the brain.

“The transition from research to actual application in the classroom is a long and complicated process,” Drexler says. “Often, companies and educators take a single study or recent research finding and try to immediately apply them to learning. In reality, the brain is very complex and this type of research is in its infancy.”

More insight into how the brain works and how humans learn will be gained in the coming years. “That, combined with technology, will offer powerful platforms to facilitate and accelerate the learning process,” she says.

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