Research: Can We Learn Digitially?

Language Learning in Babies

Nobody wants digital learning techniques (software, games etc.) to succeed more than me. I was formally trained in computer science and video game design, and readers of the blog know that neuroscience, human learning and foreign languages are all amongst my primary interests. I’ve even created a few iPhone apps aimed at helping students of foreign languages using SRS Techniques.





Yet, I have remained skeptical about using video games (and related techniques) to teach new material due to the research I have read. A new study, reposted on Engadget today, threatens to prove it possible.


Love learning languages? Have you ever wanted to think in a foreign language, or read a book? You can find all my research and experiments on how to learn better in the languages section of this site.


Here’s why I think the study is bogus.



The Claim

The study (direct link to Medical XPress) claims the following:

Our results indeed show that mammals can learn equally well when they passively view information on a computer screen compared to actively exploring the environment for new information.


If this were true, it would have huge implications. From the headline (“active exploration is not required for learning“) you’d be tempted to believe that “sit in front of a computer and learn” type of software is just around the corner. Many digital learning startups would be poised to make a pretty penny, and that should be one of our first hints that something might be amiss (actually, the first hint was the use of the word “mammals” in the quotation above… or maybe the first hint was that the link to the actual research paper is broken).


Previous Research

Humans are social creatures. There’s no getting around this. Anecdotally, some of the most well-respected polyglots know that you need to be interacting with other humans to really progress in your studies. In this case, the science is really on their side.

Really, if you want to be convinced that humans need active engagement with other humans to learn, you need to look no further than this video (the really interesting bit is at 7:10):


If you take nothing more out of this post, at least have a look at the graph at the beginning of the post – which definitively shows that babies cannot effectively learn from TV or audio based sources. It represents data showing that babies exposed to a Mandarin-speaking tutor (despite living in an English speaking society) learned the fundamentals of the language, while babies exposed to TV/audio did not. In the words of the presenter:


It takes a human being for babies to [learn]. The social brain is controlling when babies [learn].


She then goes on to show the results of placing these same babies in a brain imaging machine while they learn a language. I’ve watched this video several times, and each time it blows my mind.


Comparing the Two

Clearly there are a number of differences between these two studies. Most notably:

  1. The new (“passive learning”) study was on mice, not humans
  2. The old (“active learning”) study was on language acquisition, not a spacial task

Clearly, the study on active learning was much more relevant to the types of learning we wish to accomplish in a classroom (aka “Declarative Memories“). Furthermore, from what I can gather, the study on the mice still allowed them to explore the environment (they were still placed in a maze, albeit digital). To me, this still constitutes active learning because there is a certain feedback loop (and activity!) in place.

Now, the one thing worth noting about my much-toted brain study of babies learning foreign languages is that it does not consider intent. I would hypothesize that older humans learning a foreign language from software, television, audio and more would fare significantly better (thus the success of the Rosetta Stone, the Pimsleur method, and countless other products). Yet, if we follow the money and look at the situation realistically, we inevitably come to the conclusion that these are not ideal methods. I highly doubt anybody (even Rosetta Stone product reps) would ever make the claim that their product was better than interacting with a real human being.

The value of the above baby study, then, is to show that removing the active/social components of learning are against the grain of how the human brain was designed to learn.


But, I Hope I am Proved Wrong

I really do. The minute someone convinces me that they can achieve effective human learning through purely software techniques, I’ll be tossing my resume at the nearest gaming/learning company.

Until then, though, I remain skeptical.


Love learning languages? Have you ever wanted to think in a foreign language, or read a book? You can find all my research and experiments on how to learn better in the languages section of this site.

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