Area9: Leveraging Brain and Computer Science to Build an Effective Adaptive Learning Platform

I recently received an analyst briefing from Nick Howe, the Chief Learning Officer at Area9 Learning who offer an adaptive learning solution. Although Area9 Learning was founded in 2006, I have known about area 9 since the 1980s and it was first “discovered” in 1909. How is that possible?

In 1909, the German anatomist Korbinian Brodmann developed a numbering system for mapping the cerebral cortex based on the organization of cells (called cytoarchitecture). Brodmann area 9, or BA9, includes the prefrontal cortex (a region of brain right behind the forehead) which is a critical structure in the cognitive skills learning system in the brain and functionally serves working memory and attention.

The cognitive skills learning system, prefrontal cortex (BA9), working memory and attention are critical for many aspects of learning, especially hard skills learning.

An Elegant Mix of Brain and Computer Science

As the Learning Scientist and Research Fellow at Amalgam Insights, I have researched or received briefings on nearly 100 L&D platforms. Many of these platforms utilize tools and technologies that effectively target the cognitive skills learning system and prefrontal cortex (BA9) to facilitate hard skills learning. From a learning science perspective — the marriage of psychology and brain science — I view Area9 Learning as one of the leaders in this sector because of its unique blending of brain science and computer science in the interest of speeding learning and reducing the time to proficiency. Although this blend affects many aspects of Area9’s offering, in this brief report, I focus on two that particularly stand out from a learning science perspective. It is important to note that this report is brief and not meant to offer a detailed description of the platform. Details can be found on the Area9 Learning website.

Adaptive (Personalized) Learning: Many L&D platforms incorporate tools that fight against the brain’s natural tendency to forget. These include microlearning, spaced training and periodic testing. Where Area9 Learning stands out is in its application of cognitive models and algorithms to construct the forgetting curve on an individual-by-individual basis using estimates of the learner’s knowledge (accuracy and response time), experience and confidence. This drives personalized refresher training that avoids teaching what is well known and focuses instead on information that is not known. It also drives personalized refresher training that focuses on what the platform predicts that the learner has forgotten or is about to forget.

Targeting “Unconscious Incompetence”: A major challenge facing society at large, and the workplace in particular, is situations in which an individual is confident that they have some knowledge, when in fact they do not. This is referred to as unconscious incompetence because the individual is unaware (not conscious) of their lack of knowledge or reliance on incorrect knowledge (incompetence). These are some of the hardest learning situations to address because the learner does not recognize the need for additional training. Area9 Learning addresses this issue by supplementing “probe” questions with a self-assessed confidence rating. For example, a learner might be presented with a question, they choose one of multiple possible answers, and then are asked to assess their confidence in the answer by choosing one of four confidence statements (I know it, I think so, I am unsure, I have no idea). It is the content areas in which the learner is confident but incorrect (i.e., unconscious incompetence) that are then targeted for subsequent training.

Taken together, these two aspects of the platform speed learning, reduce the time to proficiency and improve self-awareness for learners. The learning science foundation of Area9’s offering is strong. I look forward to following their evolution as they grow and begin to incorporate tools that target other systems in the brain such as those directly associated with behavioral skills learning.

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