Cognitive Science

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Dec 242015

Cognitive Science

The Misappropriation of Cognitive Science Principles in EdTech

Cognitive Science –Barbara Kurshan , CONTRIBUTOR, DEC 15, 2015 @ 07:49 AM 

I write on edtech, OER, ecosystems and investing in education.

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.


Bob Burgin

Bob Burgin is the CEO of Knowledge Factor and is a seasoned entrepreneur.


Cognitive Science -Funding to edtech startups from venture capital firms has grown 503% over the past five years, according to CB insights. In total, the edtech market will receive about $2 billion in venture funding this year.  As in any other field, edtech entrepreneurs are interested in addressing critical issues in education while building a sustainable business.  To date, new edtech products and services have impacted some of these issues, but incorporating research from cognitive science offers edtech companies the opportunity to increase their impact.

In the last 20 years, scientific understanding of human learning and memory has significantly advanced.  Research in psychology and neuroscience has identified specific techniques that can help students encode, store and retrieve information; this research is just beginning to inform the work of edtech entrepreneurs.  There are a handful of learning technologies that are currently on the market that incorporate principles of cognitive science to support student achievement across multiple measures of learning efficacy, including knowledge creation, subject mastery, memory duration and study time reduction. However, there is also significant noise in the edtech market from companies who claim to be “science-based,” but whose products/services do not effectively use research-based strategies or tools.

These misleading claims are related to venture capital investment. Investor demand for quick return has launched a foot race of companies who feel pressure to prioritize speed over substance in securing market share.Sometimes these edtech companies make claims about “robust” scientific foundations that aren’t fully supported by the literature, if at all. These claims are based on three forms of misunderstanding, which have different roots.

Partial understanding of the science

In some cases, learning technologies rely on discrete, marketable scientific insights that do not embrace the depth of complexity of the research literature. The brain performs billions of tasks a day as part of learning and memory production.  Given this complexity, there is not a single scientific insight that will improve learning on its own.  For example, consider Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, which calculates a generalized rate of forgetting over time and is often used to determine when students should review what they have learned.  Several educational technologies refer to this 100-year-old principle, but basing a technology on a single forgetting curve is overly simplistic. Moreover, the research in cognitive science during the past century has greatly advanced our understanding of how memory functions.  Current research indicates that there is not just one forgetting curve, but multiple forgetting curves that are predictive for individual learners.  In fact, modern software powered by data analytics and scientific rigor can predict forgetting curves for different types of information in an individual learner’s brain. For example, Cerego’s learning algorithms draw on principles of learning, memory and performance to generate dynamic data about student learning.  Teachers receive information about when students might forget content they have learned and how to increase retention based on individual student’s cognitive data.  In addition, amplifire has designed a  learning platform that uses data analytics to adapt to individual learners.  The software provides the content that needs to be reviewed to ensure mastery based on the individual learner’s needs.  Ceregos and amplifire’s solutions are powerful examples of what is possible in the field.  Edtech companies that develop products or services not grounded in current research in the learning services may limit the efficacy of their offerings on teaching and learning.

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