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Brain friendly technology: What is it? And why do we need it?

By Itiel Dror / August 2011

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Excerpted with permission from Technology Enhanced Learning and Cognition, edited By Itiel E. Dror, 1-7. London: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011.

Technology is so widespread and used that it is an integral part of people's lives and learning. However, too often technology is driving the development and its usage, and in many ways it is detached and even isolated from the human user. The human user, who the technology is supposed to serve, is subservient to the technology, rather than the other way around. The technology needs to be "brain friendly" so it fits and complements the cognitive processes of the human user. This is critical if technology is going to be used, and if it is going to be efficient and effective. If technology is not brain friendly, it may not be used, or its use may be detrimental; or at least cumbersome on the human who should be benefiting from it.

Technology enhanced learning (TEL), should be built to maximize the learning for the learners. That means that the learning needs to drive the technology and that it needs to make life easy for the learner to focus on the actual learning, so they acquire the information, remember it, and use it. How can technology be made brain friendly? For example, consider navigation. Many eLearning modules make navigation complex and cognitively demanding, thus taxing brain resources for navigation through the learning module rather than focusing on the learning content. A specific example for this would be that sometimes the "next" button is on the bottom left of the screen, sometimes it is on the top right of the screen, and sometimes there is no "next" button at all as the next screen automatically appears. TEL requires flexibility to use different navigation tools as appropriate, but one should strive to minimize the cognitive load on the learner so they can focus on the learning and not on figuring out the navigation. This can be achieved by cognitive consistency that sets up top-down expectations where the "next" button appears on the screen.

By setting up expectations, via consistency, the technology is guiding and helping the brain figure things out, and hence reducing cognitive load. Of course, we want to engage the brain and make learning interesting and interactive (e.g., Cairncross and Mannion, 2007). Boring eLearning technology is not good; but we want the cognitive attention and engagement to focus on the learning materials (as will be illustrated below). Another issue that relates to consistency and lack of clarity for the brain is the use of sound. Many TEL have some auditory components, but it is far from clear when text is read out aloud and when it is just displayed as text. The use of auditory components in eLearning is many times also confusing and taxing on the brain because it is hard to follow what is being read. The lack of correspondence between two sensory streams (the visual text and the auditory sounds) is confusing and requires the brain to spend resources figuring it out. A simple and practical solution is to be clear when auditory sounds are going to be used, and when used, to have the technology itself (rather than the user) match and unify the two (e.g., by using "karaoke" that bold the text that is being read, as it is read).

Moving up to more complex ways of making eLearning more brain friendly is by having the technology do a lot of the work for the brain, and thus releasing cognitive resources. Take for example training people to code information into a database using certain rules and syntax. As you provide the learning examples, some information is more important than others (the syntax, for example, of when a semicolon or a comma should be used, etc.). This information should be highlighted and emphasised during learning, by making it bold, a different color, or size. This helps the brain pick up and focus on the important information. If you do not do that, then the brain will figure it out, but that will require it to spend some of its limited cognitive resources; why not help the brain learn by directing it to the important information?

This can be applied to almost any learning; if you are training how to use computers, then you can emphasize and exaggerate the important keys, menus, and functions; if you are training to understand and compare different machines or procedures, then you can over emphasize the distinct components; if you are training on new regulations, software, or machines, then you can emphasize where the new is different from the old (rather than just give all the information about the new in the same manner and letting the learners figure it out).

Using technology in such a brain friendly way helps the cognitive system learn. Research into aircraft identification has shown that if you want to train people to identify different aircraft, then you can use such brain friendly TEL. It will not only enable quicker learning, but the learners will remember it better and are more likely to use it. In aircraft identification, for example, one highlights and exaggerates the unique and distinct components of each aircraft, and thus helps and guides the learners' cognitive system to pick up the information it needs. This takes the load off the brain of the learners, and makes the learning technology much more brain friendly. The article "Helping the Cognitive System Learn: Exaggerating Distinctiveness and Uniqueness" (Dror, Stevenage, and Ashworth, 2008) details how to construct such technology, and provides experimental data comparing between learning using such brain friendly exaggerations and learning which does not use exaggerated examples.

Technology can also be brain friendly in terms of how it engages the users, making sure cognitive resources and attention are properly used and focused. This can be achieved by using technology to make proper interactions, involvement, participation, and engagement of the learners (e.g., Cairncross and Mannion, 2007; Shephard, 2003; Laurillard, 2002). However, a word of caution: Too much "fun" and interactions, such as often occurs in gaming, although well intended to engage the learners, sometimes results in decreased learning. The detriment in such cases is that the entertainment component is not used properly to embed the learning, and it takes over the cognitive system while the learning is sidelined. One must remember that technology offers great opportunities to create interactive learning, but that should be with the goal of increasing learning, through brain friendly technology. In other words, interaction is not the goal, it is a tool, a means, to help maximize the goal of learning, enhanced performance, and outcomes. It is not the technological or the visual fidelity that is important, as much as the "cognitive fidelity" in terms of how it all fits and works with the human cognitive system of the learners.

An innovative use of technology that makes it cognitively engaging, and thus brain friendly, is interactive videos. Such technology takes the commonly used standard video, which is passive, and makes it interactive (see Laurillard, 2002; Shephard, 2003). Hence, rather than learners watching a video to discuss later, the video is interactive. The interactions entail "hot spots" that the viewer has to click on, answering multiple choice questions, competing with other learners, and so forth. The paper, "Making Training More Cognitively Effective: Making Videos Interactive" (Cherrett, Wills, Price, Maynard, and Dror, 2009; see also Dror, 2011-b) provides concrete and practical examples of how to create such interactive videos. The use of technology in a brain friendly way provides further opportunities to increase learning, both in terms of performance and outcomes.

These were only illustrative examples of what brain friendly technology is, and why we need it. The complexity of the brain gives a huge scope of how we can further make technology brain friendly. Clearly, taking traditional training and transcribing it to technological medium is not what eLearning should be all about. The potential for TEL is huge, but if all it entails is putting lectures on podcasts, making a PowerPoint to a flash eLearning module, and putting paper text on the Web, then we have not really used the technology to fulfill its potential. If we take advantage of what technology offers, and use it in a brain friendly way, learning can (and will) be transformed.

Sometimes making learning brain friendly is intuitive and self-evident, but other times it is not. For example, much attention and effort is placed on visual fidelity and realism. However, training can often be more effective when it intentionally distort certain elements in a way that enhances the learning outcomes, such as artificially exaggerate and make salient the critical learning knowledge (Dror et al., 2008). This entails distorting the realism, but eLearning is often promoted as providing "realistic and real life experience" (similarly, animation, video, and gaming often emphasizes visual fidelity). However, from a brain-cognitive perspective, such things may not be needed for effective training. Sometimes, the visually distorted, less realism and visual fidelity, provide better and more enhanced learning (for details, see Dror, 2011). Therefore, understanding and being guided by the cognitive system can give counter-intuitive insights how to make learning brain friendly.

About the Author

Dr. Itiel Dror serves on the faculty of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University College London, where he specializes in cognition and technology. He is also Principal Consultant and Researcher at Cognitive Consultants International. A list of his publications on cognition and technology is availalbe online. Dr. Dror can be reached at [email protected].


  • Mon, 12 Sep 2011
    Post by sharonlin

    Very inspiring article. Thanks for the enlightenment. Totally agree that if technology could not serve eLearning as real tools, it will actually hinder the way of learning. I've seen cases that students just focus on interesting technologies and forgot the learning content which is supposed to be delivered by the technology. Also witness the technology became so tedious that learners couldn't reach the learning materials at all! That's quite extreme but as said in the article, 'The human user, who the technology is supposed to serve, is subservient to the technology, rather than the other way around.' Maybe some people now really get confused about how technology should play its role in eLearning.

    Looking forward to more awesome articles from you, Dr. Itiel Dror.