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INTERVIEW

Tecnology, Neuroscience and Education

"An approach for bridging research and practice in a sustainable manner."

Marc Beardsley and Laia Albó are researchers in the Research Group on Interactive and Distributed Technologies for Education (TIDE) in the Department of Information and Communication Technologies at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona.

How does your work contribute to the learning sciences? In other words, how does it intersect research topics such as Neuroscience, Technology and Learning Design?

Marc Beardsley: We’ve mainly been able to contribute through multidisciplinary projects. In these projects, we bring together a team that consists of people from different backgrounds: neuroscientists, psychologists, technologists, educators – and work together on addressing problems in education. The project aims are pragmatic – to produce outputs that impact educators. But research is also conducted around the project activities.

The first project we ran following this model was Project Illuminated (https://www.illuminatedproject.eu/) in which we created a set of professional development workshops for school teachers that focussed on bridging neuroscience and education. The workshops introduced teachers to scientific theories on learning such as neuroplasticity, and connected the theory to evidence-based practices for the classroom such as retrieval practice, distributed practice, spaced learning, and so on.

The second project following this model, finished a couple months ago, and was called Spotligthers (http://www.spotlighters.eu/). The project focussed on the science of stress and produced lessons and materials that teachers could use to teach their students about stress, and introduce self-regulation techniques such as mindfulness and cognitive reappraisal.

More projects are underway that follow this model and integrate team-based learning design for teacher professional development. In these projects, such as Illumine (https://illumine.upf.edu/) and RemixED (started in January 2022), teachers collaborate to adapt and apply the strategies from Illuminated (Illumine) or lesson materials from Spotlighters (RemixED) with their students. After adapting, implementing, and revising as a team, the final materials are made public for other teachers to reuse as Open Educational Resources. Thus, we are creating a longer professional development programme in which teachers both learn about the theory and then work in teams to implement it in their classes and create resources for other teachers.

Laia Albó: One common point in all these projects is the need to have a framework that supports teachers in the use of the educational materials produced during our research work, and help them to find the best pedagogical strategies to effectively and efficiently integrate their recently acquired knowledge into their classrooms. Here is when Learning design comes into play.

Learning design refers to deliberate choices about what, when, where and how to teach. In our projects, we usually develop technology that facilitates the transition between research and practice.

For instance, the development of learning design platforms where teachers receive support regarding the decisions they need to make about the content, structure, timing, pedagogical strategies, sequence of learning activities, and the type and frequency of assessment in the course, as well as the nature of technology used to support learning. All of this, in the context of the use of evidence based teaching practices (e.g. based in neuroscience knowledge) that our projects provide.

In terms of digital technologies in education, what is the state of the art regarding teachers’ motivation to use them?

Marc Beardsley: As you know, at the start of the pandemic many teachers were forced to figure out how to use digital technologies to teach, to communicate with students, to communicate with each other and with parents. Laia and I did a survey research study looking at how the pandemic teaching experience influenced Spanish teacher relationships with technology (Beardsley, Albó, Aragón & Hernández‐Leo, 2021; Albó et al., 2020). The aim was to see where teachers have become more proficient and where there is still need for growth.

Not unexpectedly, Spanish teachers advanced their ability to use technologies for essential tasks – communicating via email, online meetings with each other, students, and parents. There was an increased usage of learning management systems (Google Classroom, Moodle, etc.). And for many, these were the technologies they relied on – those that focussed on communication and documentation of work. Some teachers were able to spend time discovering more interactive resources but many did not go beyond serving communication needs.

So there is room to help teachers better integrate technology that can aid them pedagogically – to engage, motivate students, to scaffold learning, to measure and track learning and so forth. And there seems to be a greater awareness among teachers that technology can support them in this manner.

Can you describe some of the learning technologies you have? created? How have teachers reacted to them?

Marc Beardsley: The main technology I’ve been working on is called ClassMood App (https://classmood.upf.edu/). I created it as part of the Spotlighters project. It’s a free online tool to help teachers develop emotion regulation capabilities in their students.

It works to help students notice and label their emotions and learn techniques that can be used to change their moods to ones that are more beneficial – techniques such as mindful breathing or simple energizers that involve movement.

Teachers have shown a lot of interest in the tool – especially those that have learned more about the science of stress – and we’re hoping to do more substantial testing with students in the near future.

Laia Albó: I’ve been working mainly in learning design community platforms for teachers. One of the outputs of my doctoral thesis was the design and development of the tool edCrumble (https://ilde2.upf.edu/edcrumble/), a social lesson planning tool for educators. It allows you to plan your lessons taking into account the alignment of educational resources and activities when combining online and offline learning sessions, known as blended learning.

Recently, I’ve been working on a community platform called BLENDI (https://ildeplus.upf.edu/BLENDI/), that facilitates the co-design of blended learning lessons between teachers and students with the intention of taking into account students’ voices during the design process, an approach known as voice inclusive pedagogy. Teachers have demonstrated a lot of interest in both tools, especially in the current times that they had to adopt online or blended learning due to the pandemic. Both platforms (freely available online) have received a best demo award in different editions of a well-known European conference about Technology Enhanced Learning and we are expecting to keep working on their advancement during next year.

In your opinion, what are the next steps for a regular and welcomed use of digital technologies in the teaching practice?

Marc Beardsley: I think the first step is determining whether regular use of digital technologies is beneficial to teaching practices and learning practices and, if so, in what contexts. There seem to be lots of situations in which digital technologies can support teaching and learning. What’s not always as clear is what are the costs of increased usage of technology at school – for example, having a better grasp on how wellbeing is affected in addition to learning.

My impression is that many teachers of older children (high school) are eager to integrate more technology into their practices. They see benefits related to student motivation and engagement which can be a challenge with teenagers. On the other hand, teachers of younger children (preschool/primary) are much more hesitant to introduce new technologies into the classroom. They are more concerned about the costs or harms that may result from increasing technology usage.

Laia Albó: I agree with what Marc says. I would add that I think that technology is advancing so quickly that it is really urgent to ensure that teachers and students have good digital skills. Only by having these skills, one is informed and able to be critical to, for instance, select the best digital technology options to be used in each teaching/learning situation.

Artificial intelligence is starting to touch the educational sector and we will need educators to be part of the board who shape these advanced technologies to be sure that they ethically serve and benefit educational purposes and not other interests.

Considering the research areas of neuroscience, technology and learning design, what are the future research paths we wish to explore to better support the teaching practice?

Marc Beardsley: There are so many areas that can be explored. For me, I’m looking to put more effort toward social and emotional learning, more specifically, toward developing programmes that can improve health literacy and mental health literacy of students and teachers. Some of this work will involve extending ClassMood App and the work of Spotlighters.

The other aspect, that Laia and I are both working on, is the previously mentioned team-based learning design. Again, we frame this a professional development approach for teachers – teams of teachers work together to design or redesign learning activities. To incorporate the theory introduced in continuing professional development workshops into activities for their students. In a sense it’s a teacher-driven continuing development approach. Teachers identify a problem to address. Researchers help with the theory, and teachers use learning design as the mechanism for exploring how to apply that theory in the classroom. A benefit of this approach is that the end output of the collaborating teachers are resources that can be used by other teachers.

This is one of the core tenets of learning design – creating and sharing reusable resources to improve teaching for all.

So I think there is great promise in team-based learning design as an approach for bridging research and practice in a sustainable manner.

Know these and other digital resources for educational purposes from the team TIDE-UPF here!

Explore recent studies from the authors by reading the following articles:

Beardsley, M., Albó, L., Aragón, P., & Hernández‐Leo, D. (2021). Emergency education effects on teacher abilities and motivation to use digital technologies. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52(4), 1455-1477.

Albó, L., Beardsley, M., Martínez-Moreno, J., Santos, P., & Hernández-Leo, D. (2020, September). Emergency remote teaching: Capturing teacher experiences in Spain with SELFIE. In European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning (pp. 318-331). Springer, Cham.

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