ITS ALL IN THE MINDDavid Wortley playing mind games with his Second Life alter ego Hobson HoggardHow important is concentration or level of attention in the learning process ? When thinking aboutmy school days and trying to understand how some of the emerging interface technologies couldtransform teaching practices by a better monitoring/understanding of the learner’s attention levels,my mind wandered back to the teachers who were most vivid in my memory. Teachers like MissDerbyshire at Boston Staniland primary school in the 1950’s would inspire an interest in the Englishlanguage by reading extracts from adventure stories like Biggles or the Famous Five. The memoriesof sitting in a circle at Miss Derbyshire’s feet waiting for the next weekly episode to begin are stillwith me today. Her method of teaching grabbed my attention but was it the subject material or herability to hold an audience captive by her gifted storytelling ?In later years, there was a Latin teacher called Joe Gledhill whose method of capturing attention wassomewhat different. He had an uncanny ability to sense minds drifting in a sea of latin declensionsand bring them rapidly into focus by a deft and uncannily accurate launch of a board rubber,followed by a slow walk to the offending desk occupant, a lift out of the seat by your sideburns, anda withering comment such as “Is that clear Clay ? (the boy in question was often Clayton) – clear asmud Clay ?”. In Joe’s case attention was grabbed by FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) as you didn’tdare show any telltale signs of not being riveted by Amo, amas, amat or stories of the mad emperorCalligula’s alleged last words “Vae, vae, concacavi me puto !”Both teachers left their mark in my consciousness and it is almost certainly related to the level ofattention they were able to generate in their different ways, and it is that ability of a teacher tosense and respond to attention levels which technology is beginning to address in albeit embryonicand pioneering ways.
The Serious Games Institute (SGI) is exploring the use of devices such as Neurosky which are able toresolve and filter the brainwaves associated with our levels of attention/concentration andmeditation/relaxation. These types of devices, which are now almost at the level of consumerpricing (likely to be about £40 per headset), use electrodes on the forehead and neck to capture theelectrical signals associated with these brain activities and use algorithms to translate these signalstrengths into the user’s level of attention and/or meditation.To make these devices seriously practical in learning applications, they need to be able todemonstrate :- • Affordability (Under £50) • Reliability and repeatability of results (To get consistent benefits) • Auto-calibration (No need for different set-ups for individual users) • Wearability (Don’t make you look like a geek) • Useful applications (Demonstrable benefits in learning applications)With Neurosky and other similar devices, we are getting very close to these technologies having amajor impact on learning environments and the functionality of technology enhanced learningapplications such as serious games.Companies such as Games for Life (www.gamesforlife.co.uk) already have a commercial product foruse with pupils who have ADHD and the Serious Games Institute Applied Research team led byProfessor Sara de Freitas and Artificial Intelligence researcher Genaro Robolledo-Mendez is workingwith Neurosky and companies like Rolling Sound (http://www.rollingsound.co.uk/) to develop gamesbased learning targeted at young people with anger management problems.Researcher Genaro Robolledo-Mendez demonstrates prototype Neurosky
The work that has been done so far has focused on using levels of attention to control serious gameswhich reward the player for high levels of attention and/or relaxation. This technique could helplearners with ADHD to bring some control over their attention levels and people with high stresslevels to relax, but I believe that the really exciting future applications will come from the use ofthese devices to create personalised self-directed learning applications in which the learning contentis dynamically selected according to the learner’s attention levels. For some time, the Holy Grail ofcomputer-assisted learning has been an environment which supports self-directed learning andtesting by recognising the ability and interest of the learner and controlling the pace and direction ofthe learning experience to gain maximum interest and motivation.In the meantime, interface technologies like Neurosky, Nintendo Wii, Guitar Hero and others areproviding much more engaging connections between learners and the technologies which supportlearning professionals. Devices capable of measuring levels of attention through brainwaves will finda place in the usability labs of Applied Research organisations such as the Serious Games Institute atCoventry University, and all without the aid of a well-directed board rubber !!