How Brain Scanning Could Become A New Education Tool

Researchers want to give new meaning to the idea of 'plugging in' students to maximize their performance.

Puzzling thoughts
Puzzling thoughts
Ofir Dor

TEL AVIV — Imagine an education environment where, on the first day of school, each pupil is given a sticker — a transparent, almost invisible adhesive with wireless electrodes — to put on their foreheads. It would measure the children’s brain activity during class and help adjust the learning process to their particular skills and needs.

Assessing their brain activity, it would help determine when a pupil is not attentive, and adapt accordingly, choosing when to offer more or less information. It would be able to find out whether students might learn better through a story, a comic or a video, and whether they need memory exercises.

Tel Aviv University brain scientist Nathan Intrator, a technology entrepreneur and an expert in brain calculative capacities, says this scenario is likely to become reality within a few years.

“We’re moving towards a situation where pupils have a computer rather than a human teacher in front of them,” Intrator says. “It would enable children with fewer resources to enjoy a higher level of teaching and advanced education methodologies.”

He acknowledges a key concern: that if the computer is unable to identify what’s going on with the student, the pupil might get lost. So Intrator believes that tailor-made teaching is the key to student success.

“Two pupils sitting in front of a computer are unlikely to understand the same materials at the same pace. Individual teaching enables amazing achievements,” he says. “We want to get to a stage where the computer is like a good private teacher who knows both what to teach and how.”

Not just for the classroom

In fact, Intrator is confident that brain activity monitoring can benefit a host of areas. “Such monitoring can help identify dementia at an early stage, or attention deficit disorders,” he says. “Today, diabetic patients’ glucose levels can be monitored continuously.” A company that Intrator advises has already developed a sensor that can identify asthma attacks at home.

Intrator was introduced to the field of education by a friend, Guy Levi, director of innovation at the Center for Educational Technology. Levi too believes that scanning brain activity is the next level in the emerging field of adaptive learning.

“Let’s say a student comes to class out of focus and fails to correctly answer a number of questions,” Levi says. “A system that works on successes and failures would automatically take him back, under the assumption he didn’t understand the material. It wouldn’t know that it’s actually better to give him a task that could help him refocus, such as screening a video. The added value of brain-sensing tools is in their ability to adjust the learning to the student’s current state.”

The joint project is currently at the stage of data gathering in a bid to identify those areas in the brain that are active in making conclusions, activating learning, and other strategies.

Yet Intrator thinks that beyond determining a student’s level of attentiveness, tools of this kind can identify students’ trouble areas and urge more focused work.

He rejects the idea that this kind of intervention would be overly invasive. “You can always focus on the shortcomings and say it’s better to let the student do what they want, but I think that time at class should be used for learning, and breaks for resting. When a student is at a private lesson, for instance, the tutor knows whether they’re attentive or not, and brain activity monitoring basically does the same.

“If we can harness technology to improve humans’ cognitive capacities, I have no doubt their life quality would better. Today there's a significant difference between wealthy regions, where pupils get private lessons, and weaker regions where children have fewer tools. There is no reason why a computer connected to the Internet can’t offer a student in the periphery the same level of teaching.”

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