The Neuroscience of E-learning

The digital age has revolutionised many aspects of our lives, and education has not been immune to change. From schools and universities teaching computer skills and even using computer games like Minecraft in the classroom, to businesses shifting corporate training to digital education platforms, training and learning has undergone huge shifts. But as these technologies develop, researchers are looking at developing more scientifically robust guidance for how e-learning is useful and how it can develop, even delving into the challenging areas of trying to understand what happens in the brain during training using digital education resources.

The burgeoning field of educational neuroscience (or neuroeducation) is especially interested in combining our growing understanding of learners’ brains with the increase in digital materials used in teaching and training.

How do we get audiences to engage with e-learning?

One challenge with e-learning and digital resources, as well as education in general, is engaging the audience. A recent educational neuroscience study looked at the effects that ‘gamifying’ digital education can have on learning outcomes. Students were given a few minutes to read up on a topic and then take a test on it, giving points for every correct answer – with the twist that students were allowed to “bet” with their points. For a given question, students had the option of selecting to “double or nothing” their points. Then, rather than immediately finding out whether their bet paid off and they were correct, the answer was explained in detail.

Neuroscientists found that the students showed higher levels of dopamine – a brain chemical associated with attention and happiness – while waiting to find out the result of their bet. These higher levels of dopamine meant they paid better attention and were more able to learn from the detailed answer that was given to them.

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E-learning is about developing critical thinking, not just memorising the facts

Other research has looked at how to use digital teaching and training methods to help students learn facts more efficiently – but some researchers worry that this focus on learning facts might lead to educational paradigms that emphasise “rote learning” over other important skills, such as critical thinking. Anna Carlile, a sociologist and lecturer in educational studies at Goldsmiths College in London, fears that this view of learners as “empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge” leads to students and employees who can recite a list of facts but struggle to challenge things they are told. This can be dangerous for society, in the case of learning in schools.

It has been shown in study after study that developing creative and critical thinking skills makes people better thinkers and more competent across the board – talk to a university-level mathematician and they well tell you that creativity is one of the most important aspects of their work, as logical and analytical as it may seem. As well as these benefits of creative elements of intelligence, do we really want a population more susceptible to advertising, granting ever greater power to the media and those who control it, with less ability to question what’s going on and respond creatively to it?

This is an issue too in the corporate context. E-training for your employees is not about getting them to pass a test just to tick boxes; it’s about making them more effective employees who will do the best possible job for your company. By including aspects of critical thinking and creativity in your digital learning materials, you can encourage the development of these vital skills which will help your employees be ready to respond to whatever work challenges come their way.

What does the future hold?

Looking to the future, it is clear that neuroeducation suggests both the massive advantages of good e-learning tools and digital learning approaches, as well as the challenges that must be kept in mind when designing and developing these. If you are running an e-training platform in your digital workplace, now is a good time to start paying attention to developments in the theory and science behind these approaches.

Remember that engaging the people taking your courses with challenging and interesting content means that what they learn will stick with them in the longer term, as well as making the training more effective in how your employees can apply what they learn to their actual work. But you don’t need to subject all your employees to a brain scan to learn the advantages and disadvantages of the digital training systems you put in place. Good old fashioned methods such as talking to your employees about their experiences, as well as monitoring performance before and after the completion of such courses, are great ways to help craft your training to the particular needs and requirements of your company and your employees.

By employing these techniques thoughtfully you will get the most out of them and help keep them engaging and enjoyable for your employees who take these e-courses.

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