Using the latest research in cognitive science to develop learning materials

My job at Cambridge University Press has me developing textbooks and online courses daily. Most of what we do is curriculum-led, i.e. we develop a new book or course from a curriculum released by a ministry of education. Using the curriculum as the starting point, we plan the modules and topics, selecting the features of the course (e.g. activities, assessment, case studies, etc.) based on what is required by the curriculum. We then decide on additional features based on the traditional approaches to textbook development, i.e. let’s start each chapter with a list of objectives and end with a summary. In online course development, these choices are made based on what is available in the learning management system, e.g. can we efficiently use an interactive multiple-choice component or user forum section. Most of this is standard (and in some cases required) for the project. What happens, though, if we were also to include features that responded to the latest cognitive science research

Luckily this research is available, and some of it fits directly into existing practices around learning material development. The aim with this research is to move new knowledge and skill from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Here’s a high-level overview of my top four learning strategies and how we can incorporate into learning material development.

Interleaving 

So what exactly is interleaving? It’s the simultaneous learning of more than one concept at once. This process could see you alternating between two topics in a learning session or mixing up the content in one block of learning content. The reason this works is that it trains your brain to discriminate between problem types or specimens. That is, instead of rote learning something you rather learn to identify unique characteristics or identifiers of a problem which can then be applied to another type of problem or used to identify a similar situation in a different context.

In a textbook or course, we structure the content in chapters or modules that focus on one topic or skill at a time. One strategy to bring interleaving into textbook development is to add a feature which consists of content from another chapter, either looking forward to content still to cover or looking back at content already learnt. In an online course, we can intersperse regular hyperlinks to other material in a content block. When it comes to assessment, questions can cover both the material in the previous module as well as topics or skills from the rest of the course (see Quizzing below). 

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Yizani – resources for teaching isiXhosa as an additional language

The Incremental Implementation of African Languages (IIAL) is a programme by South Africa’s Department of Basic Education to introduce the learning of an African language as a second or third language for pupils at schools. This programme will start learning-language in grade 1 and then follow it through to the end of schooling in grade 12 – that’s where the incremental implementation part comes in. While a laudable initiative, there are not enough trained African languages teachers in schools currently. The public broadcaster SABC has attempted to assist with a terrifying puppet-show series, but it fails to provide adequate support to teachers and guidance on how to structure a lesson. With Yizani, we’ve attempted to bridge this gap.

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Pressbooks – a user review

Let me paint you a picture of book production in the 21st Century – in most cases, it’s very similar to book production in the 20th Century. Cambridge, for example, still uses a linear workflow where the editor works on the manuscript and then, once ready, passes it on to the typesetter to lay the book out. A series of back and forths then ensure between typesetter and editor, who marks up a PDF with corrections and changes for the typesetter to implement. Once the editor and publisher are happy with the product, the typesetter produces a print-ready PDF, and your book is published. Oh wait, you wanted an e-book as well. Let’s start a whole new process where we convert the print PDF to epub, with an added round of checking and proof-reading to see that the conversion process didn’t drop any content (it happens!). Now you want to edit or change something? Let’s go back to the editor and typesetter to fix this and back to the digital producer to make the change in the e-book. It’s (very) exhausting.

Which is why I was so excited to test out O’Reilly Media’s online publishing platform a few years back, developed in-house and used to manage their book production. The platform had a dashboard where you could create a new project and import a manuscript, stored in a database. The editor and author would both have accounts on the platform and could work simultaneously on the document. While editing, changes are saved in real-time, with a record of all changes kept. The editor can reverse these changes if needed. Any images could be uploaded directly to the platform and inserted in the book. The book designer (in this case, someone with web technology skills) would design a template for the book using CSS. This CSS would have options for the print version of the book as well as the e-book. At the end of the process, a printable PDF or epub file would be exported, for printing and distribution. If there were any changes needed, the editor could log into the platform, make the edit and export the files could quickly and easily. For me, this seemed like an ideal workflow for book production. Unfortunately, Cambridge, like other traditional publishers, has legacy systems in place, and the effort to switch over to this type of platform was more than the perceived benefit. This experience did, however, get me excited about alternative ways of producing a book and I set about exploring some of them, one of which is Pressbooks.

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Computational thinking in African schools

At the recent Innovation Africa conference, many African educational ministries were talking about ‘readying’ their learners for the much-hyped 4th Industrial Revolution and developing 21st Century Skills to advance their economies. These skills are an undefined issue, which many education ministries are attempting to solve through providing digital content and devices in the hope that these skills are acquired as a side effect of technology usage. In Botswana, the MOBE initiated a pilot of digital devices and content, with Microsoft and partners, to foster these skills. In Zimbabwe, a new curriculum is rolling out with a subject Internet Communication Technology, including basic digital literacy as well as sections on digital citizenship and coding skills. The recent curriculum reform in Ghana sees a strong focus on ICT-integration as well as a new subject Computing, which covers ICT (operating a computer, word processing, databases, etc.) as well as internet skills. Nigeria is a tech-aspirational market with a keen interest in internet technology and the entrepreneurial opportunities it offers. In South Africa, the message around the 4th Industrial Revolution is consistently reiterated through government as well as party political communication channels as well as ongoing communication from the Department of Basic Education.

South African Coding and Robotics Curriculum

The South African government is developing curricula for coding and robotics for grades R to 9, in order, according to the basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, to create sustainable industrialisation and keep pace with the world.

Computation thinking in South Africa – driven by coding and robotics

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Blended Learning for maths

Using print and digital resources to teach mathematics in South Africa

South Africa has an ongoing issue with the teaching and learning of mathematics. A University of Stellenbosch study in 2012 found that only 58% of grade 6 learners were functionally numerate, stating “at least a quarter of children have learnt so little in six years of formal full-time schooling that they have not even mastered functional literacy or numeracy”. The Department of Basic Education’s statistics shows that only 3% of grade nine learners got over a 50% average in mathematics. The problem is complex; factors include a poor grounding in numeracy in the Foundation Phase years, coupled with some teachers who are not comfortable with the subject. While in no ways a maths expert, I’ve been working on a digital and print blended maths product for the past year, which I hope could add to the resources teachers can draw on to assist learners understanding mathematical concepts. 

The Study & Master Maths Online Workbooks integrate a print book with targeted practice exercise and an online mathematics teaching and learning platform to improve understanding of critical mathematical topics. A recent report by the UNESCO Working Group on Education states that blending traditional off-line education approaches with digital applications appears to be a more successful approach to digital learning, with activities that involve engaging with physical resources proving effective in a wide variety of contexts.

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