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Lasting Learning in Pasteur's Quadrant

Wednesday, February 3, 2016   (0 Comments)
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Stephan Lewandowsky

“You guys know an awful lot that could really benefit the public”—this is the motto of Lasting Learning (http://www.lastinglearning.com/), a start-up company run by Cameron Broumand, a former real estate man whom I interviewed recently about his vision for how Psychonomic knowledge can feature in a commercial enterprise.

Cameron’s story starts with his experience as a parent who is keen to see his children succeed at school but wasn’t sure how best to help them learn. It also starts with a chance encounter at a hotel pool with a young entrepreneur who left a small Turkish town near the border of Syria to turn his knowledge of spacing effects and other cognitive gems into a successful app.

One thing led to another, and now Lasting Learning has a business model (see below), a website, and a high-octane advisory board.

The basic idea is simple: Cameron believes that the Psychonomic Society conducts high-quality research that could help the public and learners. However, that research is not available in a format that is accessible to the general public. Who could disagree with those two premises?

The goal of Lasting Learning is to translate that knowledge into information that is accessible to the public, with the intention of building a brand that is trusted for providing useful knowledge to learners. To assist with this translation, Lasting Learning relies on a scientific advisory board whose members require little or no introduction: Dr. Robert Bjork, Dr. Elizabeth Bjork, Dr. Jim Stigler, Dr. Alan Castel, Dr. Fran Pirozzolo, and James Parkinson. The team also includes co-founder Clement Mok, an award-winning graphics designer, and Dr. Nicholas Soderstrom and Saskia Giebl, both of whom are currently working in the Bjork Learning & Forgetting Lab at UCLA.

It is easy to see how current cognitive research can translate into more effective learning: Consider the ubiquitous spacing effects, and the testing effects that were explored by Dr. Henry Roediger. And that’s before you turn to the use of technology and “live” cognitive modeling, which custom-designs the material presented to learners, as for example embodied in the ACT-R tutor by Dr. John Anderson.

Technology is central to the mission of Lasting Learning: The current business model eschews advertising and profiting from dispensing of knowledge to the public. To earn a living, the Lasting Learning team will instead liaise with technology developers and knowledge engineers—it helps that they are located next door to Silicon Valley—with the goal of developing better learning hardware and software.

As Cameron put it: “Ultimately we want to scale these learning fundamentals in the forms of books, videos and apps. We want to exchange ideas with these companies so that they are making honest claims to the public about learning and that their products execute on these things.”

The idea is to infuse leading-edge research into the design of software and technology that to date has been driven largely by the seat of the company’s pants.

Who might be interested in those products? In addition to parents who want to foster their children’s education, the arena with the greatest need for improved learning is corporate in-house training. According to Cameron, “corporate training uses cramming as their main means of teaching content. They generally do no know what employees know and if they have retained any of the info they read or were tested on. It’s probably worse than schools in how they teach.” Having had my share of induction to the mysteries of the latest conference-travel-booking-and-inadvertent-prevention-website, I can only agree.

Joint ventures between academia and business are nothing new. For example, Professor David Shanks of University College London, recently teamed up with another business to offer a $10,000 prize “to find the best way of tackling a memory problem faced by millions of people every day, namely how best to learn foreign language vocabulary.” He wrote about that challenge on this blog. Because of his pertinent expertise, I asked David to share his views on Lasting Learning:

“Bridging the gap between academic research and public understanding is a hugely laudable ambition, and Lasting Learning will be a valuable resource for students and others keen to reflect on and improve their study skills. As Cameron highlights, technology has a fundamentally important role to play in the translation of research into practice. One only has to think of how foreign language learning has been transformed by the internet. Only a few years ago pretty much the only assistive technology comprised pre-recorded language tapes, but now learners can join language exchange websites to practice conversation with native speakers on the other side of the world, use apps like Memrise to learn vocabulary, and do all of this via a smartphone while driving to work.

One of the big challenges for Lasting Learning will be to convey key messages to learners – be they children, parents, students, or corporations – that both have practical value and are true to the underlying research, which is often very tentative and incomplete. Take a simple question such as ‘does brain training have benefits that go beyond the particular skill that’s trained?’ The truth is that we still don’t know for sure whether becoming an expert at Sudoku or crosswords is likely to have general cognitive benefits for attention, working memory, and intelligence. We can’t even truly say that spacing is always beneficial for learning – in some circumstances, massed practice is better.

Another challenge is that people’s intuitions can often be a major hurdle to the adoption of effective learning methods. Students often firmly believe that learning method A is superior to method B, when the converse is true. In such situations, no amount of instruction about the merits of method B is likely to overcome their incorrect intuition, and it won’t be until they actually experience the effectiveness of the two methods side-by-side that their intuitions will start to change.”

Yes, there are many challenges in translating academic research into practical applications. But those challenges also present an opportunity to us as a scholarly society and community of researchers. Reaching out to the public and engaging with the private sector is likely to stimulate more research within Pasteur’s Quadrant, which the Society’s newest journal, Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications was created to address.

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