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Dec 4 / Justin

Reflection on Online Educa

Flynn Effect

Flynn Effect

From November 29th – December 2nd I attended the Online Educa conference in Berlin. Online Educa is a educational technology conference with a focus on eLearning. It covers the education, government and corporate sectors.

The conference is interesting in that it brings together a wide variety of different groups. In doing so it provides a window into learning outside K-12, particularly K-12 international schools.

Two things stood out for me as trends in educational technology in the higher ed and corporate sectors. The first is games-based learning and second experiential learning via simulations and virtual worlds. In both of these cases rather than traditional print or even digital text materials coordinated by instructors there are companies and schools developing the expertise to build digital simulations that enable students to “do” what they are learning and get instant feedback on performance, for instance, a courtroom simulation for a law student or a hospital for a nurse. For now the adoption of these types of simulations is constrained by their high development cost which limits their use to the higher education and corporate sectors. However, in time, the costs to produce these will come down making it feasible for their use at the K-12 level.

Aside from this what were the big picture trends and ideas?

This is one area of the conference that I felt didn’t come together. However, there was one idea raised in a keynote session that I did find thought provoking.

That is that human beings, over time are getting smarter. This is the so-called Flynn effect. The Flynn effect postulates that general human intelligence overall as measured by IQ tends to increase over time. One speaker in the keynote session posited that this may be in part to due technological effects on how we use our brain.

It all has to do with what is referred to in neuroscience as transitive memory. Transactive memory is when you off-load some memory function out of your own brain –  today this is something we certainly do with computers. However, this was true even without computers. For example in a relationship between a husband and a wife each will tend to take on specific memory functions for the combined unit.  The wife might, when traveling, be responsible for remembering flight numbers and times, whilst the husband might be responsible for remembering what bills need paying and when. We do this as it helps keeps the number of things we need to worry about in our head to a manageable minimum. If you need to find out when a flight leaves, or how much rent is, consult your partner.

In a large sense this is what we have done with almost everything in the age of Google.

This has been empirically proven – In a Columbia experiment scientists recorded brain patterns whilst asking students to remember facts and later recall them. When quizzed on the facts they had been asked to remember  the students immediately thought of Google. In other words if the student believed that later they could easily look up the information their brains learned to not remember the facts.

Roddy Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University, told Science, “Why remember something if I know I can look it up again? In some sense, with Google and other search engines, we can offload some of our memory demands onto machines.”

Our transactive memory now has instant access to so much more than ever before. In this way our brains are left for cognitive processing rather than data retention. Thus, it is more important that we are able to effectively use our transactive memory than actually remember factual information. And in the age of digitization our transactive memory is huge! Google has scanned all books you can get a picture of this with the Ngram experiment which reveals the frequency of certain words in all books over time.

More practically? The world’s classrooms are going digital.

In South Korea all classrooms will be paperless by 2015. There is a push for all citizens in Europe to have an electronic portfolio. These are seen as national or regional priorities in an increasingly globalized world.

Where does that leave international schools that are simultaneously blessed but also perhaps hurt by not being captive to legislative and regulatory obligations? The answer is not inaction. We can see where technology for learning is heading by looking at what is being adopted in corporate and higher education. The impetus at the government level is towards increased engagement with digital learning. Why? Because it is physically altering the way we remember and access information – the way we think.