by Alice Bonasio

Using technology to educate our minds

Sep 28, 2016
IT SkillsTechnology Industry

We are all increasingly engaged with our technology. Some would argue too much so. But can we harness this powerful engagement for self-improvement?

 A recent study found that on average we check our phones 85 times a day, and most of us don’t even realise we’re doing it. Researchers at Nottingham Trent University asked participants aged between 18 and 33 to estimate how often they checked their devices, then compared it with the data gathered through a monitoring app installed on the phones. The results, published in in the journal PLOS ONE, show that most people checked twice as often as they thought.

The addictiveness of digital technology has long been an issue of concern for many people, yet it is that very addictive nature that makes it such a powerful tool for education. The reinforcement and habit-forming mechanisms which make you repeatedly check your apps – the property called “stickiness” by online marketers – can also be harnessed to help us learn and retain information, as well as to train our brain in all sorts of ways.

Increasingly we see a blurring of the lines between work and play, as educators recognize the power of gamification in learning. Since children are starting to habitually use technology at an ever-earlier age, parents and teachers need to find creative ways of incorporating technology into their education.

Play My Way, a recently launched company supported by the UK Lebanon Tech Hub, uses a carrot-plus-stick approach to tackle the issue of children spending “too much time” on their devices by allowing parents to specify how often the app will interrupt their children’s use of the device, locking it until they answer an educational question in a subject such as Languages, Arts, Math or Science.

Companies like Lumosity also rely on this blending of work, play and reward, exploring the intersection of science and design to create gamified cognitive exercises that – if played daily – work to develop different areas of your brain. The principles behind what they do are nothing new in themselves – scientists and researchers have used tasks to measure cognitive abilities for many decades – yet the way they offer these as bite-size casual games is highly effective. So much so that they now boast over 70 million users in over 182 countries.

On a similar vein, apps such as Calm and Headspace use daily tasks, delivered through digital technology, to help users learn and practice mindfulness techniques and manage their stress levels. In fact, Headspace claims that as you continue to meditate, your brain actually reshapes itself, bringing long-term health benefits to its users – thus presumably justifying the subscription fees.

These concepts are also being explored in immersive Virtual Reality technology, with some interesting early results. LUMEN is one such experience, a collaboration between Framestore’s award-winning VR studio and Walter Greenleaf, a dresearcher from Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Describing itself as a “self-guided, nonlinear meditation experience rooted at the intersection of virtual reality and wellness. The experience uses eye-tracking to allow the viewer’s gaze to works as a cursor and simulate tree growth in an interactive bioluminescent forest. Here again we see researchers working hand-in-hand with software developers, bringing a scientific approach to design.

“We wanted to reward the user for allowing their focus to put them into a meditative state,” says Framestore’s Executive Creative Director Aron Hjartarson. “Wherever you put your attention something positive happens to the world around you. The cyclical aspect of existence is in there, from birth to regeneration.”

There are even companies integrating these self-help meditation techniques and exercises into a more traditional therapeutic framework. Sympaticus, for example, is another Lebanese start-up offering a subscription-based, 6-step therapy program targeted specifically to women and supported by qualified female therapists. These personalized programs help users define their goals and then leverage technology to track and monitor progress, as well as teaching and reinforcing coping techniques.

What all these technologies have in common is that they turn tasks into pleasurable games, blending work, study, and leisure in a seamless way. In order to be successful, however, it is crucial for scientists, researchers, educators and designers to work hand-in-hand to fuse these elements together from the very start. In other words, It’s not about sugar-coating the medicine, but using creative design to come up with a deliciously healthy sweet that we want to eat.