You may have already experienced Brainscape as a mobile education tool that helps you study things more efficiently using intelligent flashcards. If so, thanks for being one of our “early adopters!” Brainscape’s adaptive study algorithm has already helped over one million people like you do things like ace a test or learn a foreign language faster than you ever thought possible.
Yet there’s so much more innovation left to be done in education. Intelligent flashcards can cover only a small part of the knowledge and skills you want to acquire. People deserve a world where any bite-sized learning experience can be made available at their fingertips and delivered seamlessly into their brain. Until Apple invents the iBrain to embed knowledge into our skulls in the year 2025, people deserve to know that every moment of learning time is used as efficiently as possible!
Putting on our science fiction hats for a moment, let’s design a future Personal Learning System that truly optimizes learning.
CORE PLATFORM PRINCIPLES
The first step in the design of an optimal learning experience is to ensure that the core platform adheres to three basic requirements and technical specifications:
- Content Comprehensiveness. All the best instructional exercises should be accessible through a single, comprehensive, worldwide database. Top subject-matter experts should curate this database to ensure that it has the best learning experiences from the world’s best educators and software engineers. Indeed, without a complete set of the best learning tools for every purpose, the system could not be sufficiently adaptive. (Imagine trying to Google something if the whole web weren’t indexed first.)
- Adaptivity. Modules should always begin at exactly the right level for a given learner, then advance the complexity of the exercises at exactly the right pace based on the learner’s progress. Difficult concepts should also be repeated / reviewed at increasingly longer intervals of time until they are firmly ingrained in the brain. Cognitive science shows that the pattern of repetition is the single most important factor in your likelihood of retaining a skill or concept.
- Ubiquity. The “curriculum” should be accessible wherever the learner is. Currently, the likely media of distribution would consist of computers and mobile devices, but in the future this may include devices like virtual reality goggles, screens on every wall that “recognize” us, or any number of implementations that we can’t even dream of yet. Such ubiquity will also allow us to easily turn any experience (e.g. watching a movie for entertainment) into a potential learning experience, by blurring the lines between living and learning.
LEARNING SCIENCES PRINCIPLES
Once the core technology platform has been built and populated with initial content, it can begin to expand functionality to incorporate all our other cognitive science concerns. The following are the learning sciences principles that the optimal educational platform would support:
- Constructivist Foundations. Rather than simply “teaching” new concepts to students, the system should ideally allow the learner herself to create her own questions and explore the possible answers. Instructional exercises should merely provide a “problem space” in which the learner can fill in gaps by seeking her own knowledge, with some guidance from a real or virtual educator. (Only after the knowledge is initially acquired should it be reviewed using behaviorist “drills” that are geared toward maintaining and strengthening it.)
- Personalization. Wherever possible, learning exercises should be based on examples that the learner actually cares about, and should be presented in such a way that is best tailored to the learner’s activity preferences. (e.g. A social, basketball-loving student’s algebra lesson on parabolas would likely involve a group project that uses examples about the trajectory of a jump-shot.) The higher the level of personalization of learning experiences, the higher the student engagement, and the greater the learning and retention.
- Multi-modal Learning. The curriculum should only include exercises in which every mode of delivery has been scientifically optimized for education. The colors, sounds, text formatting, and elicitation of emotional experiences should all be integrated in a way that is proven to boost learning and retention – for each particular learner.
- Scaffolding. New concepts should always be introduced in small, incremental chunks, building on the learner’s previous progress. Also, the mode of evaluation should usually begin with encouraging exercises and then become more intimidating (although some learners might still thrive with a bit of initial “shock and awe” to instill some pressure to learn quickly).
- “Biological” Sensitivity. Non-intrusive sensors should monitor the learner’s internal and external environment, allowing the the system to suggest breaks, foods/vitamins, stretching/exercise, meditation, and background noise, in the perfect amount for maximum learning results.
- Collaboration. Since the real world will always be about people working together successfully, the system should strive to connect students to work on projects in groups (either online or in person), as long as it makes sense for optimal learning. Also, group activities should always have a clear student leader appointed (on a rotating basis by project), in order to help learners develop project management skills and a sense of accountability.
- Cascading Apprenticeship. Whenever a student has a problem, the system should pair her with an older student “mentor” that is 1-2 years further advanced in the curriculum. This helps both to alleviate the strain on limited teacher help resources, while helping the older students cement their knowledge of previous concepts. (It is often said that teaching something is the best way to fully learn it.)
- Stakeholder Micro-communities. Mentors, teachers, administrators, and parents should be able to track learners’ progress in real-time, using a centralized management “dashboard”, in order to know when/where they most need help. This is not just “report cards” but is a community of real-time feedback and support that makes sure all stakeholders have just enough information they need to make the right decisions.
In short, the world needs a web/mobile Wikipedia of bite-sized learning modules, with the quality of crowd-curated lessons found on BetterLesson, made as fun and addicting as Angry Birds, absorbed into the brain as efficiently as plugging into the Matrix, delivered in the efficiency of Twitter, using the playlist algorithm precision of Pandora, and connecting learners together as closely as Edmodo. The world needs some serious consolidation in education!
Done correctly, the right kind of scalable, global, cognitive science-based education platform could fundamentally change the game for all learners, from cradle to grave. It would guarantee an affordable education to every child and adult on the planet, while freeing resources to help humankind achieve more, reach further, and innovate faster toward solving the many other fundamental problems we face.
The question is where would someone start in order to build such a unifying platform? In other words, if you wanted to lay the foundations of a future “educational singularity” that met all three of the important core specifications of Comprehensiveness, Adaptivity, and Ubiquity, then what would be your minimum viable product?
After thinking about this question for as many years as we have, I bet you’d arrive at the same conclusion we did: “intelligent flashcards.” That’s right. Web/mobile flashcards, available for a huge range of subjects, accessible from any device, and studied using a machine learning algorithm that knows exactly when to drill you on each one. While studying & memorizing knowledge using flashcards is only a fraction of what is needed for a complete learning experience, the fact is that a lightweight, easy-to-use flashcard system could serve as the perfect foundation upon which to build additional learning management functionality. Here’s why:
- An adaptive learning engine cannot even begin to be “adaptive” unless concepts are broken down into their smallest chunks. Starting with just flashcards forces us to adopt the culture of concise learning experiences as early as possible
- Hundreds of millions of students are already using flashcards for subjects ranging from Telling Time and Learning the ABCs, to Medical School and Law School, while literally thousands of flashcard applications already exist on the web and mobile marketplaces. This is evidence that people of all demographics desperately want a flashcard experience that is easy, convenient, comprehensive, and awesome.
- A well-made flashcard system could be lean enough to “plug in” as a complement to any larger curriculum, thereby making it easy to reach these millions of students.
- Knowledge of bite-sized facts and concepts (e.g. language vocabulary, medical diagrams, etc.) will always be a strong part of learning, no matter how amazing on-demand search technology becomes. A scientifically optimized Q&A drill system has to be a tool in the ideal Personal Learning System of the future.
This is why Brainscape has begun with an adaptive flashcard ecosystem. Our web/mobile platform already lays the foundation for an efficient, unified future Personal Learning System by providing (1) an easy way to create great flashcards for your specific study needs, (2) a marketplace of premium flashcards created by top subject-matter experts, and (3) an uber-efficient adaptive algorithm to help you study those great flashcards on either the web or your mobile Brainscape app. We have assembled a team of cognitive scientists and education industry executives to ensure that every part of the Brainscape study experience is rooted in sound learning science foundations.
Over four decades of cognitive science research shows that our application of metacognitive exercises (e.g. assessing your own knowledge confidence) and expanding repetition (assessing at increasingly longer intervals of time) are the most important determinants of how strongly your brain will encode knowledge for when you need it later. Brainscape has supplemented this research with thousands of our own micro-experiments – and a growing amount of data – to refine our instructional tools and make concepts stick as deeply as possible.
And people are already seeing results. Brainscape’s early users have been reporting 200-300% faster learning speeds in subjects like Spanish and GRE verbal prep, using only our core flashcard study platform alone. Based on these early successes, we’ll be continuing to expand our content via the Learning Genome Project - our pursuit of the best learning experiences to fit every imaginable educational need – by partnering with top educators all over the world.
So keep an eye on Brainscape. Be sure to follow uson Twitter for updates on our progress and tips about improving your brain power. And remember that we will never stop innovating until we have made the learning process as painless and efficient as possible.