Posted on Leave a comment

Todd Maddox Ph.D.’s Top Four Scientific Observations on DevLearn 2018

If you have a passion for learning then DevLearn is for you. DevLearn 2018 was quite the event. With excellent keynote addresses, breakout sessions, numerous vendors and great demos it was action-packed. I enjoyed every minute of DevLearn 2018 and I am already looking forward to 2019.

I took a few days to gather my notes and thoughts, and I have a number of observations on DevLearn 2018. I am sure that others who attended DevLearn 2018 will highlight different topics, and acknowledging that I was only able to speak in detail with a dozen or so vendors, here are my Top Four Scientific Observations.

Whether Talent, Behavioral or Data……The Impact of Science Continues to Grow

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: Adobe, Allego, EdCast, Inkling, iSpring, Learning Tribes, LEO Learning, MPS Interactive, Mursion, OttoLearn, Rehearsal, Schoox, STRIVR, Valamis

Every vendor that I spoke with had some significant grounding in the scientific method. Whether the focus is on talent science, behavioral science or data science (see my comments on machine learning and artificial intelligence below), “science” is a major driving force behind the offering. I am also pleasantly surprised that brain science is gaining traction in the learning sector. In Learning and Development, tools and technologies are being built that battle against the brain’s natural tendency to forget and focus on presenting information within the attention span of the learner. These include microlearning, spaced training and testing. I am most excited to see that a number (albeit still a minority) of vendors are embracing the distinction between hard and soft skills learning and the fact that each are learned by distinct systems in the brain with vastly different operating characteristic. I touch on soft skills in detail in a later section. I believe that two factors are fueling this deep interest in science in L&D. First, is the inherent interest in learning and education that naturally leads one to the scientific method. Second, is the broad availability of vast amounts of user data that can be leveraged. The science of data, and the use of analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to garner actionable insights continues to grow in its use and sophistication.

From a psychological and brain science perspective, we still have a long way to go, and we need to do a better job of mapping tools onto tasks but progress is being made and vendors are listening to their clients.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Are Driving Innovation with One Significant Exception

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: Allego, EdCast, Inkling, Learning Tribes, LEO Learning, OttoLearn, Rehearsal

The plethora of useful data in L&D is driving the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to uncover actionable insights. Learning paths are being personalized, and content is being recommended to learners that derives from the content that learners engage with. Preference ratings, confidence ratings along with accuracy rates and reaction times are driving content organization, development, and facilitate optimized training paths. Measures of engagement whether ratings, time on task, completions, or dynamic gaze paths extracted from immersive environments, such as virtual reality, are driving innovation in L&D. All of these advances rely heavily on AI/ML. These data analytics tools are being applied to the rich set of data coming out of learning experiences. They are driving innovation and offer clear paths for the road ahead. Unfortunately, one critical application of AI/ML that follows from the neuroscience of learning is currently lacking.

As a cognitive neuroscientist by training, I focus on the brain basis of learning. It is well established from over 30 years of research that different tasks are learned by different learning systems in the brain. Critically, each of these learning systems in the brain has very different operating characteristics and thus requires very different content and delivery tools for optimal training. Briefly, hard skills learning is mediated by the cognitive learning system in the brain that encompasses the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes and relies heavily on working memory and attention. People (aka soft) skills learning, on the other hand, is mediated by the behavioral learning system in the brain that encompasses the basal ganglia and relies heavily on real-time interactive feedback. Finally, emotional learning (e.g., situational awareness) is mediated by the amygdala and other limbic structures and serves to up or down regulate processing in the cognitive and behavioral skills learning systems.

While L&D is embracing the use of AI/ML to analyze learners’ data and to personalize learning paths, curate effective content, and attempt to better engage learners, what L&D has failed to embrace is the application of AI/ML to model each of these distinct systems and their interactions. Current applications of AI/ML treat learning as a unitary process when, in fact, distinct learning systems in the brain exist. Disruption will follow when distinct AI/ML systems are developed to model cognitive learning (hard skills), behavioral learning (people skills) and emotional learning (situational awareness) and these are then leveraged to personalize learning paths, curate effective content, and attempt to better engage learners. To anticipate, AI/ML architectures such as decision trees or random forests will be the best candidates to model cognitive learning, whereas deep learning and multi-layer neural networks will be the best candidates to model behavioral learning. Modeling emotional learning will require excitatory and inhibitory connections that accentuate and attenuate processing in the cognitive and behavioral systems. I am currently writing a more detailed report on this topic, but the implications are clear: learning data scientists who embrace and use AI/ML to model distinct learning systems in the brain will find that optimized content curation, learning paths, engagement, and delivery will differ substantially across systems and tasks to be learned. Disruption will follow.

The Growing Importance of People Skills, Empathy and Leadership Training

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: Allego, Learning Tribes, LEO Learning, MPS Interactive, Mursion, Rehearsal, STRIVR

I have and continue to discuss the important differences between hard skills and people (aka soft) skills, the psychological processes and brain systems relevant to each, and the fact that very different tools are needed. Although often it seems as if people “hear but don’t listen” that feeling is less and less frequent and was especially absent at DevLearn. L&D specialists (vendors and customers) are embracing the importance of people skills. Whether it is growing concerns with automation, the extensive data suggesting that diversity increased revenue and workplace harmony, the #metoo movement, or more likely the combination of all three, L&D is embracing the need for effective people skills training in organizations large and small. Where vendors and customers are struggling is in a deep understanding of the neuroscience of behavioral versus cognitive learning. As outlined above, each is learned by different systems. At DevLearn I spoke with a number of vendors who have developed effective video or virtual reality people skills training tools. Although each is effective, what one learns from a deep understanding of neuroscience, is that the “devil is in the details”, and “what seems intuitively effective, may not be effective”. I spoke with many of these vendors and customers about what to look for and what small differences between offerings can have a huge effect on performance. I am excited to see the people skills sector growing and companies iterating to optimal solutions. I look forward to continuing to stay deeply embedded in this topic as neuroscience provides the necessary guidance.

The growing emphasis on empathy and leadership training is also exciting, and people skills are central to this mission. I visited numerous vendors from small, innovative startups to much larger companies who are working to tackle the empathy and leadership development problem head-on. Although more work is needed, some of these offerings are truly remarkable.

Immersive Technologies are Here to Stay

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: Adobe, Learning Tribes, MPS Interactive, Mursion, STRIVR

As an expert in the brain basis of learning, I have been excited about the potential of immersive technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, in learning for quite some time. From a neuroscience perspective, it is clear that this technology is highly effective at engaging multiple learning centers in the brain simultaneously. Until recently, the barrier to entry was cost and convenience. For example, a year or so ago, a good virtual reality system cost several thousand dollars and required both a laptop and a tethered cable connected to the head-mounted display. Recently, Oculus released the Go which is a stand-alone head-mounted display for $199. A game changer!

I recently attended HR Tech. There were a small handful of companies offering immersive technologies. At DevLearn, at least three, maybe four, times as many vendors that offered immersive technologies for training. Clearly, this is a sector that embraces this technology and sees its value for learning. The buzz around this technology is loud, and some key players are driving engagement. The quality of the offerings is impressive and I am very excited to continue to be a part of this movement. These technologies have come so far in just the past 2 or 3 years. I believe that they are poised to dominate this sector in the very near future. At the very least, they offer a diversity of training tools that is needed in learning. I am very excited to see this sector grow in 2019, and I fully expect the number of offerings at DevLearn 2019 to be higher.


There is no more exciting time than now to be a player in L&D. That sentiment was shared by all at DevLearn and was clearly reflected in the enthusiasm, innovation and quality of the offerings. Scientific methods are being leveraged like never before. Innovation abounds with the application of AI/ML. Both of these will grow in importance, use, and actionable insights. Skills that have often been given lip service (e.g., people skills) are getting the attention that they deserve. New, and exciting technologies such as augmented and virtual reality are being introduced for more than gaming. The future of L&D is bright and DevLearn is the place to see it.

Leave a Reply