Educational Neuroscience Theory and Computer-mediated Learning

| The Rapid Transformative Posture of Computer-mediated Learning | Distorting Neuroscience in Online Learning | Educational Neuroscience: A Theoretical Framework | Background | Theoretical Application | Evidence for Application | References


The Rapid Transformative Posture of Computer-mediated Learning

In response to the rapid transformative posture of online learning, a number of organizations have dispensed ample resources for research and development (R&D) projects, to determine the requirements of human capital worldwide, in relation to 21st Century education. One such organization, the Organization for Education and Co-operative Development (OECD) is operating across distant global boundaries to examine present data and synthesize future initiatives, in order to advance educational opportunity and achievement for a global society. OECD research efforts brought to light, the inevitability of a global educational revolution. Therefore, in 2007, OECD formulated an R&D project named, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI). CERI joined with a myriad of nations (see "countries" tab) to track and report current educational circumstances, such as higher education enrollments, completion, and attrition rates, as well as, initiate the New Millennium Learners (NML) project. In addition, CERI purposed to base its investigative project on empirical evidence (experiment and observation) (Pedro, 2012).

At this strategic time in educational history, "Curricula and pedagogies need to be adapted to equip students with the capacity to learn and apply new skills"(Pedro, 2012), as lifelong learners. Further, Lee Rainer (2012), director of Pew Research Center and keynote speaker at //The Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning// (2012), declared from current research, that "The 5.5 million college students who currently study online are at the forefront of this rapidly evolving landscape" (para 1). Rainer added that a solid grasp of this fact, should guide concrete research and promotion of computer-mediated learning within the present digital society and beyond. Nevertheless, placing computers and information and communication technologies (ICT) at the disposal of learners does not ensure improved cognitive skills or lifelong learning via computer-mediation. Therefore, it is significant to recognize the existing, overall perceptions relating to the value of online learning (Ischinger, 2012).

Moreover, Parker, Lenhart & Moore (2011) reported that seventy-seven percent of the college and university presidents surveyed in the U.S, have adopted and added online courses to already bustling degree-program offerings, which indicate that higher learning institutions place an elevated value on online learning prospects. However, this view is disproportionate to the perceptions of the adult public sector surveyed. Only Twenty-nine percent agree that online learning is a valuable asset for higher learning institutions investment presently. These opposing views of online learning value in a digital society, create ongoing questions regarding how online learning is perceived and by whom. According to Fadel (2012), part of the perception issue plaguing online learning, is a lack of authentic media coverage reaching Middle America. Additionally, OECD (2012) emphasizes that global economy recovery and stability depends on a workforce that is knowledgeable and skilled, which is referred to as "...21st Century currency" (para 2).

CERI research has marked areas of global education and online learning that necessitate more than the proverbial Band-Aid to address education concerns globally. Leading the list is technology-rich learning environments and tools (OECD, 2013). Technology, analyzed in this context, is a vehicle to augment and advance educational opportunities and enterprises, which cultivate and mature global economies and human capital, for the potential wellbeing of a global society. Therefore, despite controversial views surrounding online learning, the trends being reported are positive and encouraging. According to Allen & Seaman (2013), "The current number of students taking at least one online course increased by over 570,000 to a new total of 6.7 million" (p. 4). This ten-year study included a conglomerate of high caliber research entities, such as Sloan Consortium, Pearson Education, The College Board, and Babson Survey Research Group. The aim of this multiple-year study was to accurately survey and report transformations in online learning at higher education institutions, in respect to program types, lengths, and designs, and how these developments affect adult learners.
In the final analysis, research findings provide data to help all interested parties understand the prerequisite to improved employment and skills, economic recovery, and sustained governments, squarely stands within the perimeters of computer-mediated learning and the workforce it produces. "The impact of digital technologies on cognitive skills" (Pedro, 2012) and learning will aid in the construction of a healthy global economy and society. From this worldview, it can be understood that cognitive skills relate to the psychological perception, reasoning, and learning within the circumstances of education, in relation to the Internet, ICT and the human brain. To facilitate an accurate grasp of the impact digital technologies have on cognitive skills and human brain function, a deeper examination of the mind, brain and education is warranted.

Brain Functions for Learning

Distorting Neuroscience in Online Learning

In the past ten years, there has been an increased interest pertaining to knowledge of the human brain in the field of online education. This interest has produced a great many worthwhile research projects, as well as, a number of new myths and practices in education. Generally, the term myth is perceived as a fable, an imaginary story. Nevertheless, in the context of education, a myth serves to explain the worldview or beliefs of a people, many of which are not supported by educational neuroscience (Corballis, 2012). Myths are as prevalent in education as any other contemporary discipline. Myths are conjectural ideas that are not substantiated by evidence-based research. Myths are by no means harmless, particularly in education. Educational myths play havoc with the beliefs of educators, learners, course designers, knowledge acquisition, teaching methods, as well as, entire higher learning institutions (Chudler, Ritchie & Sala, 2012).

One such online learning myth, highlighted by Corballis (2012), and Chudler, Ritchie & Sala (2012), is the "right-brain OR left-brain" (Corballis, p. 222) orientation of cognition and learning. Online learners are placed in learning situations, in which, he or she is expected to determine and operate from one explicit hemisphere of the brain throughout the learning process. In some instances, the learning institution upholds the myth, as applied, tested science. The concern about this learning situation, is that those, who regularly operate from both hemispheres of the brain (perhaps without thought), are forced into a quandary. Moving forward, the learner is expected to identify, engineer, and learn from one specific hemisphere, which promotes frustration, and stifles the hemisphere of the brain that is not being utilized, per the learner's normal operation of learning. Additionally, he or she is unable to engage fully, within the scope of his or her unique cognitive abilities.
Furthermore, contemporary digital societies are eager to popularize trends and alternative techniques before the evidence is in. Unfortunately, even the most educated populations in society, have a tendency to believe unproven distortions surrounding the human brain and online learning. For this reason, it is prudent for everyone connected to online learning to know what educational neuroscience is investigating and publishing, as conformational findings related to the brain and learning. To do less promotes distorted, time-wasting, expensive excursions that are detrimental to the learners, as well as, the institution of online learning (Fischer, 2008).

At this time, neuroscience research has no evidence that humans are unable to function from both hemispheres of the brain, particularly in relation to learning. However, recent evidence provides some insight into the myth of the right- or left-brain cognitive orientation. This how the learner is persuaded to identify and function from one hemisphere. First, learners are provided a list of characteristics, which describe explicit aspects of the right and left hemisphere of the brain. Second, the learner is encouraged to determine which hemisphere is dominate in relation to the stated hemispheric characteristics. Third, utilizing the specific characteristics, the learner is labeled a right- or left-brain learner. Most disturbing, learners are expected to function from that particular hemisphere of the brain, for learning purposes and processes (Corballis, 2012).

Although, it is factual, that neuroscience has identified characteristics explicit to each brain hemisphere, although, these studies are intended to reveal neurological differences within in the brain in order to understand the complex, fascinating workings of the organ. It is in no way intended to assign a dominate hemisphere to a learner's capacity to learn. As a matter of factual evidence, neuroscience has discovered that some learners exhibit a preference toward one hemisphere over the other in relation to learning. In other words, it is a habitual comfort zone, more than a predisposed and required learning pattern (Fischer, 2009).

Moreover, another educational myth that is currently popularized by online educators and institutions alike, is known as, Learning Styles. This myth persists, because educators, in an effort to know his or her learner, supply learners with a list of learning styles characteristics, which are designed to assist learners in the learning styles discovery process. In the online learning environment, some educators develop surveys from his or her individual understanding of the myth, while others provide learners with a Web link to access a favored survey on the Internet. The learner's assignment is to respond to survey questions, for which, the survey's program will calculate the learner's unique learning styles, and present a report. Next, the learner is assigned the task of sharing the learning styles results with classmates via discussion threads. Some course designs, go as far as to, have learners write essays regarding what he or she has discovered and how this new knowledge will enhance the capacity to learn, thrive, and complete the online course (Corballis, 2012).

Similar to the right- or left-brain myth, the learner is expected to perform the learning process, utilizing questionnaire results as a guide. For example, one learner may be identified by questionnaire calculations, to have a dominating learning style of visualization, while another is identified as an auditory learner. Therefore, the learner uses the identifying learning style to perform assignment and tasks, and provide evidence of learning from the learning styles perspective. There are various problems with this myth. First, it simplifies the complexities of cognitive brain functions. Second, it convinces the uniformed learner that these styles suggest the best ways to learn and acquire knowledge in the online learning environment. Third, each learning styles questionnaire has developed diverse sets of questions with no clear pragmatic formulation (Corballis, 2012). Therefore, no two learning styles questionnaires or calculated results are precisely the same (See list of digital learning styles surveys below). Further, a variety of digital learning styles Websites suggest that taking an inventory of one's learning styles produces improved learning and higher grades (Advagony, 2013; EBI Map-Works, 2013; Dunn & Dunn Learning Styles, 2010). Therefore, educators and course designers implement the hype of myths, instead of sound neuroscience research. Care should be taken by these trusted professionals to eliminate neuroscience distortions, and provide learners with superior educational opportunities, coupled with scientific research (Fisher, 2008).

The significance of this discussion regarding the perpetuated myths about the brain and online learning is intended to encourage and empower, all those involved in online learning today to rely primarily on evidence-based, tested scientific research to promote positive, lifelong learning and learner experiences. Next, to prompt thorough investigate of any new, promising educational trends, prior to implementation into an online learning design. And finally, to stay current and abreast of genuine educational neuroscience research, in order to implement only the best practices of instructional methodologies and learning strategies in online learning environments (Corballis, 2012).

Educational Neuroscience: A Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework of this discussion with reference to computer-mediated learning is supported by emerging research among a consensus of scientific experts in the fields of neurology, biology, psychology, philosophy, and education. This impressive event of harmony between essential disciplines has never been attempted previously. The aim is to merge research data, analysis, synthesis, and investigative findings into an effective, single educational field, currently known as Mind, Brain and Education theory (MBE) (Fischer, 2008) or Educational Neuroscience (della Chiesa, 2009; OEDC, 2007; Meyer, 2004). This emerging field of study is poised to inform and influence contemporary education, in terms of improved policy and practice, in addition to innovation and computer-mediated learning. For the purposes of this discussion, MBE will be referred to as Educational Neuroscience.


It is assumed by many a casual enthusiast that the theories and concepts that make up educational neuroscience are approximately a decade old venture. However, as early as the mid-nineteenth century, there were,"... attempts at opening up paths for the application of neurobiological findings to education" (Théodoridou & Triarhou, 2009, p. 120). Henry Herbert Donaldson (1857-1938), a neurologist, and Reuben Post Halleck (1859-1936), an educator, are believed to be the fathers of the emerging field of educational neuroscience (p. 128). These innovative pioneers envisioned a valuable field of study that would cross-disciplinary barriers and produce viable research in neurology and education that would create collaborative opportunities and inter- and trans-disciplinary research. Though their work would not come to fruition for more than 140 years, their inventive research was not in vain.

Since the late twentieth century, consistent headway has been accomplished in the field of educational neuroscience, with new discoveries and sound applications being published consistently. Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Swiss psychologist, is herald for his work in cognitive development theory and its application for education. Like his predecessors, Piaget revolutionized the thinking of psychologist and educators, and bridged gaps in the thinking and practice of both (Patterson, 2005). Subsequent colleagues in the field, such as Kurt W. Fischer, Harvard University researcher and professor, continue to bridge disciplines and research, in order to refine the study and application of educational neuroscience. "The primary goal of the emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education is to join biology, cognitive science, development, and education in order to create a sound grounding of education in research" (Fischer, 2008). The present and future goals of educational neuroscience are to persuade and support current educational experts worldwide to join in the efforts to improve research and relevance of educational neuroscience to benefit all learners and their learning institutions.

Theoretical Application

Presently, the brain is viewed by researchers and educators similarly:
"... as a key to unlocking the mysteries of student learning, to shine some light on mysterious processes and help the teacher shine a light into student’s educational lives (Meyer, 2004, p. 3).

Particular to computer-mediated higher learning, educators are continually researching and refining best practice methods to facilitate lifelong learning experiences for diverse adult learners. Therefore, as the mysteries of the brain's biological structures and cognitive properties give way to contemporary neuroscience research findings, a growing number of online educators are formulating and stimulating learners via Brain-based Learning (Cozolino & Sprokay, 2006). In addition, particular to computer-mediated higher learning, the learners are adults with differing demographics than their younger counterparts. Educators should consider how the brains of his or her learners have been cognitively and psychologically affected by diverse backgrounds, such as cultural, educational, and professional experiences, age, and current circumstances when planning and facilitating online learning.

Stein & Fischer (2011) point out that any time a science is emerging, there is continual supplementary data added to the pool of information by which models and practices are formulated. This has been especially true in educational neuroscience. First, so many disciplines and schools of thought are involved that challenges arise in terms of bridging understanding and cooperation across centuries-old disciplines. Second, it has only been in recent years that educators have enthusiastically come on board and guided significant aspects of the research. Third, educators, as well as, his or her respective institution are sluggish, and at a times, reluctant to change their modes of educational operations.

For this reason, new models must be formulated to ensure that effective and efficient brain-based learning modalities are understood by online learning practitioners, prior to implementation and application (Stein & Fisher, 2011). In times past, emerging educational concepts and theories have suffered because practitioners and other stakeholders assume that during the emergence of an innovation, all of the dilemmas and unanswered questions will be resolved, or at least absorbed by the new theoretical applications (Pollack & Taevs, 2011). Nevertheless, there is optimistic enthusiasm on the horizon, as researchers and practitioners begin to view the evidence for applying educational neuroscience to computer-mediated learning environments by way of brain-based learning methods.

Lobes of the Human Brain

Evidence for Application

Over the past decade-plus of computer-mediated learning, concerns have arisen surrounding how adults will learn cognitively and apply learning to real-world and life experiences (McCall, 2012). New research is providing evidence that, not only do adults effectually learn in computer-mediated environments, but also, that brain function and expansion is on the rise with older adults (Tun & Lachman, 2010). . It is not surprising that digital natives adapt quite readily to computer-education, however, as investigation persists, there are indications that older adults (50-years-plus) are experiencing improvements in brain functions while learning (Hokanson & Hooper, 2010). Research and diagnostic technologies, such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Electroencephalography (EEG), and MisMatched Negativity (MMN), have the ability to detect the development of the brain during learning sessions. There is current support that cognition and the capabilities of the brain are effectively developing and expanding, as adult learners perform activities and tasks while using the Internet to search for information, or learn a new concept. Indications are that learning construction is apparent during computer-mediated learning events, even with older adults (Szűcs & Goswami, 2007).

In order to meet the ongoing needs of adult learners in computer-mediated learning environments and prepare online educational practitioners, Harvard University, has already taken the lead in providing degree programs for those who will eventually facilitate learning under the heading of educational neuroscience (Blake & Howard, 2007). These sample affirmations are just the beginning, although, they set the stage for the effectual, extensive lifespan of educational neuroscience for computer-mediated adult learning today, and tomorrow.


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