Advances in Computing, Neuroscience Will Change How Students Learn

Virtual reality and intelligent tutors could be the future of learning.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Advances in the science of how the brain learns and in computerized models of human thought processes will not just make their way into education, but will change the way learning happens.

That's the word on the street from Satya Nitta, program director of cognitive computing for education at IBM Research, who shared his thoughts in a session at the annual Educause higher education IT conference in Anaheim on Wednesday, Oct. 26. 

"At the intersection of neuroscience and computing, we will transform learning,” he said.

Neuroscience research has shown that young children learn rapidly under the age of six and constantly make new neural connections in their brains. That's why it's so important to teach these children well at a young age and intervene early with children who have autism and dyslexia. With proper interventions, the areas of the brain that previously didn't show that much activity when they were supposed to be learning will show more activity, Nitta said. IBM is currently working with Sesame Workshop on experiments with a literacy tutor powered by cognitive computing to help young students whose parents may not be as involved in their education.

On the other end of the spectrum, adults can still increase their brain activity and flexibility in certain areas so they can learn different things. Stanford psychology professor Russell Poldrack scanned his own brain routinely for a year and made the data openly available so that others could learn from it. It showed that his brain did become more flexible over time and was not stuck with the same level and type of activity. 

By combining neuroscience research like this with cognitive computing, researchers can help machines learn how to assist students as they learn. For example, intelligent tutors can be trained to analyze data to see how students are learning and answer their questions. In fact, a Georgia Tech professor introduced a virtual teaching assistant running on the IBM Watson technology platform into his artificial intelligence class in spring 2016 to answer students' questions. They couldn't tell the difference. 

IBM Watson will also be embedded in Pearson's courseware as an intelligent tutor in higher education over the next 1.5 years, as the company announced on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Watson will answer students' questions and assess their responses. 

Along with neuroscience and cognitive computing, Nitta put in a plug for virtual reality, which is full digital immersion into an experience. Similarly, augmented reality that overlays digital experiences onto real life will help change the way students learn. Augmented reality will likely have more of an impact, but virtual reality has already shone promise to make learning stick, Nitta said.

"To marry education and virtual reality is the new frontier.”