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The Teen Brain; Growing at High Speed 0


Current research indicates that the brain is primed for rapid learning and development in Adolescence. These same conditions also make the teenage brain at higher risk of impulsive behavior, irritability and making mistakes.

While the teenage brain may be slowing down a bit from the learning curve exhibited in earlier childhood years, the rate of formation of connections (synapses) is still in high gear. More importantly, this is also the time when the “pruning” or trimming of unused cells and their connections takes place. “Use it or lose it” has never been truer.

Additionally, the development of the brain takes place at different times, According to, “The frontal lobe, the brain’s self-control and judgment center, is the last to complete development, concluding sometime in the mid- to late-20s.”

Along with this neural growth come changes in sleep patterns. The Mayo Clinic notes “Before adolescence, the circadian rhythms direct most children to naturally fall asleep around 8 or 9 p.m. But puberty changes a teen’s internal clock, delaying the time he or she starts feeling sleepy, often until 11 p.m. or later” As a result, very few teens actually get the needed 9 hour of sleep.

Another area where teenage brain growth impacts all our lives is in driving., reports that “studies suggest that unlike older drivers, who were not affected by additional passengers, younger drivers make riskier decisions in the presence of their peers. Other research shows teen brains work harder to assess whether a scenario is dangerous, showing increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This greater effort translated into longer reaction times, which could lead to trouble behind the wheel.”

In the coming week we will take a more in-depth look at the prefrontal cortex and the young adult years

Online EDUCA Berlin 0


Hi everyone. Finally back on the blog after a long hiatus getting settled in the new job. Today I am at the EDUCA conference in Berlin, what is probably the world’s largest e-learning conference. I must say, that after hearing so much of the same thing at conferences in the US year after year, it is refreshing to hear not only about new technologies in Europe, but just a subtle but palpable difference in perspective on digital learning.

One of the big differences is that I really have a several unique problems that need a technological solution. One is the need for really good lecture-capture software that also has live streaming built in. At Abu Dhabi University, we segregate the men and women (a cultural thing) but often need to teach them as one course due to enrollement size. Old style video conferencing has proven to be a very poor vehicle, and some of the major classroom capture companies are too expensive and/or need extra hardware to capture both the speaker and the other media. Enter Panopto. This one seems to have it all.

Good buy from Berlin for the moment

Sorry for the Absences 0


Hey folks, so sorry to have dissapeared there. I am in the process of moving to Abu Dhabi where I will take on the responsibility of creating one of the first Faculty Development Centers in the region for Abu Dhabi University. All that goes into wrapping up one job and starting another even before moving there has left me a bit short on time. Starting in August, I expect to be back, more regular than ever. Don’t write me off – more interesting stuff coming your way.


Males – Females and online learning 0


Working with a student of mine, we just completed a study looking at the relationship between gender and a number of variables in online learning. We were fortunate enough to have access to a large sample of high school students taking courses online via Michigan Virtual High School.

There were a number of predictable resulst such as more males than females took computer courses online, and that there were a wide range of reasons for taking online courses such as it being a required course for graduation, personal interest etc.

What was a bit more interesting was the apparent contradition between survey results and some of the established wisdom:

Established wisdom: Females have a more empathetic brain type (Simon Baron-Cohen) and that they are more collaborative by nature. Conversly, Males are more systematic and tend to divide and conquer as a work methodology.

The study revealed that while it was true that the females missed the personal contact and feedback from the professor, they rated themselves everybit as comfortable with the systematic layout of an online course including science and math courses. In fact, the women indicated that they were more likely to sign up for an online course than the males. The males annecdotally indicated that while the courses were of no particular problem content-wise, that they had trouble with the self-management required to be timely in their work.

What we can conclude from this study is that in order to make online learning more gender friendly (at least at the high school level), we need to do at least two things:

1) For Females especially: build in a higher communication constant in the course. Make sure that their are group discussions, well maintained FAQ’s, and that faculty respond quickly and personally to emails and submitted assignments. I emphasize the “personally” since the warmth of human collaboration can only be communicated in the words of an email or work product feedback. A couple of simple examples include making sure that the teacher use the student’s name in the salutation i.e., “Hi Amanda…” and commenting (even briefly) on the course discussions, showing that the teacher is reading what is being said. Again, there needs to be a personal component in the message i.e., “The comment about your uncle being a math savant…”

2) For Males especially: make sure that there is good tracking of course participation. Let them know that you are tracking their engagement. Most online learning platforms include usage statistics. Be direct with the males and let them know that it has been four days since they last logged on, or that they only read 20% of the discussion postings. This type of feedback will help the Male student self-manage their time more effectively and be more accountable.

Designing Games to Help Boys Reading: 0


Let’s start this conversation by dispelling a common myth that women speak three times more words everyday than men do. According to Matthias Mehl of the University of Arizona, after placing digital recorders on 400 college students, the differences in verbalizations was minimal. In fact, he contends that the gaps throughout life are there, but minimal. However, the U.S. Department of Education concludes that after several decades of collecting data, that boys are 12 percent behind girls in reading skills when they begin Kindergarten and that by 12th grade 47 percent less boys graduate as proficient readers than girls. Researchers attribute only 3 percent of a toddler’s language ability to gender and genetics whereas they attribute at least 50 percent to their environment and language exposure.
I think we would all agree that reading is the single most important skill in school achievement. Students who do not read well struggle in almost all subjects.

Ask any elementary or middle school teacher and they will tell you that boys are much more likely to read subject matter that interests them. No doubt that boys have a wider range of interests, but one area that we know belongs almost exclusively to boys is first person shooter games. According to the Pew Research Center 50% of teenage boys play mature first person shooter games like Halo where only 14% of teenage girls play this type of game. So what if minor modifications to first person shooter games (FPSG) could enhance the reading skills of school age boys?

Think for a moment about the last FPSG that you saw or played. How much reading was required? Now think for a moment about real world military mission planning. My friends in the military tell me that mission planners and leaders read intelligence reports, fitness reports, cultural background information, weapon specifications, and situation reports. Often this work involves acquiring passing familiarity with another language when deployed to war zones overseas. Can game designers embed these types of written materials in the game? Of course they can. Written materials may be the easiest form of material to include. Let’s take the traditional tiered level of game design. Players start out mastering the basic movement and/or fire commands. They begin to practice those skills, getting killed quickly at the beginning, but quickly gaining skill and knowledge about the operational controls. As they progress, their characters, gain weaponry, strategic advantages until they become proficient at defeating the enemy. Levels of difficulty increase, the enemy becomes more adept, better equipped and the player has to respond.

Now switch to real-world combat. Units and individuals who are deployed to hostile lands adapt, gain skill, become better at using their weaponry and hopefully survive their first firefights. The big difference lies in mission intelligence. Safety lies in the ability to know what enemy they face and what the conditions are. Mission planners spend considerable effort and resource trying to gain meaningful intelligence on the enemy’s movements, armament, strategies, location etc. This information is transmitted in great part in written form to the mission planners who then brief the field commanders who then pass this on to their troops in verbal form.

I would suggest that in a typical FPSG that as the player progresses through the levels that continued success increasingly demand higher and more complex reading skills. Readability level tools are available on the web to ascertain reading level (i.e., 4th grade, or 7th grade etc). A good one can be found at For more information on readability scores check out Wikipedia at:
It has long been known that we get good at what we do. Practice makes us better at anything. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers claims that to be truly great at anything, a person needs innate ability, dedication, perseverance and drive. But above all, they need approximately 10,000 hours of practice. If we want our boys to be proficient readers they probably need at least 5,000 hours of reading practice before graduation from high school. Do the math. 5,000 / 10 years of school (let’s take out grades 1 and 2) this means 500 hours of practice reading a year. Divide that by 365 days and we see that children need about 1 ½ hours of reading a day, every day, for ten years to reach half the number required to be an “expert”. And all this assumes that there are no learning disabilities.

Clearly adding reading to FPSG will not provide 1 ½ hours a day of reading, but every little bit adds up. Besides, the kind of reading that these games could contain could be fairly high level reading driving the motivated player to engage reading material well above their grade level in order to survive in the war zone.

What do you think?

The Digital Snake Oil Salesman 0


The Washington Post recently reported that a growing number of devices (BabyPlus, Lullabelly, BellySonic) that claim to enrich a baby’s long term learning potential, reduce developmental delays, absorb more of their environment etc. Could this be possible? I guess anything could be possible.

Before I go any further, I need to let you know that I have not yet gotten my hands on the original research from a Rene Van de Carr in 1986 or Brent Logan’s reearch in 1987-88 which the BabyPlus claims are the scientific foundation of the prenatal enrichment devices, but I confess that I am sceptical that there is some scientific way to prove it works. Think about it a moment. The testimonials from parents on the website are all glowing accounts of how well their children did after they were born. So… most children do really well after they are born. How does the parent know that the child would have done less well without the classical music. It’s not like you could do a twin study where one twin got it and the other didn’t. I was especially fascinated by the parents who claimed that their child was born prematurely and came home from the hospital right away and had no problems. Could I have a little more data please? How premature for example. Or another mom who claims that her second child, with whom she used the stimulator, was so much different than her first child. Really! No kidding! I’ve never heard of such a thing as two children being different without this developmental accelerator. (sarcasm intended).

In fact, I have nothing against the idea. We know that music activates areas across the brain, and that as plastic as the brain is, it is totally possible that in-utero music could improve cortical connections across the brain. But without any real science to back this up, it just sounds to me like overachieving parents trying to push their children at even earlier ages, kind of like they did during the big 1980 – 90 fancy preschool boom – that turned to bust.

What do you think?

and Women are from Venus… 0


Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have provided a bit more information in the continuing discussion of brain differences between men and women.  Books like MEN ARE FROM MARS- WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS or THE FEMALE BRAIN have long detailed behavioral differences, but the biological basis for these behaviors has been elusive.
This study of 32 men and women shows that under moderate stress, “Men responded with increased blood flow to the right prefrontal cortex, responsible for “fight or flight.” Women had increased blood flow to the limbic system, which is also associated with a more nurturing and friendly response.”
The research also showed that the changes to the blood flow in women’s brains lasted much longer than men. Perhaps this gives a biological cause for the observation that women tend to remember emotional episodes for much longer than men?
While interesting, what does this have to do with technology design and use? Given the using technology is inherently stressful for some people, especially when confronted with a problem, one place to apply this information in is the customer service arena. Based on this, men are more likely to engage in solving the problem in a “fight” mode (i.e., problem solving) and will have worked the problem much more extensively before calling technical support. Women on the other hand are likely to be emotionally engaged in their problem with their computers and will need a customer service representative that is alert and empathetic to the emotional implications of having to face this somewhat stressful situation. In this case it is possible that solving the problem wiill need to be secondary to establishing an empathetic (not sympathetic!) connection before moving on to the actual problem. Maybe the company will loose a little in efficiency, but remember that women are more likely to remember the experience, bad or good, for longer.

“Brain Based…” a Meaningless Buzz Word 0


1083011_thinking_out_of_the_box_2Today’s educational marketplace is full of products and theories and methodologies that claim to be “brain based”. This overused term is much like “Green” in the environmental movement. It can mean almost anything. Consumers have been taught to believe that if we say something is brain based, then it works in harmony with the brain and therefore produces better results than something that is not brain based. (Don’t we use the brain in everything we do?)
Studies by MCCabe and Castel (2008) and Weisberg, Keil et al (2008) show that an image of a brain or the mention of irrelevant neuroscientific jargon boosts sales and can sway reader judgement. The old… “if I can’t understand it, it must be true” type of consumer thinking.
Sylvan and Christodoulou (2010) suggest a new system of categorizing this nebulous “Brain Based” phenomemon to provide clarity and meaningfulness.

Brain Supported:  Products that have used neuroimaging (PET scans etc) to demonstrate the impact of the product or method on brain structure or functions along with behavioral improvement.

Brain Derived:  Products or methods that are taken from neuroscience theories.  Start with the theory and create the product based on that specific theory. 

Brain Driven: Products that manipulate brain activity to change behavior.  An example is biofeedback where a machine monitoring brain waves gives you visual feedback on your mental state in order to improve performance.

Brain Inspired:  Products or methods directly inspired by general brain principles, which in truth are most often more traditional behavioral or cognitive science.  This is something like using the principle that a small anxiety increses attention and performance, but a lot of anxiety degrades performance.

In short – using a more authentic classification system like this could help consumers discern what, if any, real roots the product or method has in current neuroscience.