Smart Apps, Distributed Learning and the Brain By: David Chandross, Ph.D., Ryerson University and ARC Business Solutions Inc

Designing the Way That People Actually Think


Chess players fail to see bad moves. Cognitive apprenticeship. Hebbian potentiation. Whew! These are key neuroscience concepts that we use in the design of the new generation of “smart” learning applications. In this post we will talk about “smart” training apps and how to leverage their use in Maximo services delivery.

First, on chess players. They do not see good moves at expert level. They simply fail to see bad moves. This means effective training consists of having learners not see incorrect paths to solving a problem but immediately seeing the right path. Second, on cognitive apprenticeship, a term coined by William Clancey, a programmer who worked on problems of replicating intelligence in computers. Basically, a cognitive apprenticeship is having the learner rehearse training materials looking for patterns. Pattern recognition is the key to powerful learning. The employee thinks, “hey, the last time I saw this problem I did X to correct it”. So good learning software apps use this pattern recognition system to train.

Training apps need to be designed according to how the human nervous system processes data. This is what we mean by “smart training apps”. They anticipate real world learning and are designed to enable mastery of content using a variety of responsive training tools. Responsive is the key word here.

Lastly, Hebbian potentiation means that the more often we stimulate neurons, brain cells, the more likely they are to fire in specific patterns. The neurobiological term for what we call learning is potentiation. Smart systems are built to maximize potentiation through rehearsal. The picture below depicts one neuron talking to another through a gap. The more we rehearse something, the more easily the neuron on the top makes the one on the bottom fire.

In our training platform we design both a Training Mode and a Certification Mode. Training Mode permits employees to solve problems, review knowledge and test their skills in a consequence-free environment. Training Mode might consist of branching questions, real world simulations, links to PDF files, youtube or privately hosted content, MP3s or other media. All of these are scored and timed so that the learner has a chance to review Maximo material in an engaging way, and receive immediate feedback on their performance. When the learner feels they have mastered the content in Training Mode, they can now enter Certification/Learning Mode, and their results will now show up on an analytics dashboard so that trainers can track progress. This is used for both formative and summative assessment, ie, feedback to help learners and results of the certification drills to enable trainers to “pass” or “fail” a given person.


However, the power of analytics in either training or certification mode are not to be underestimated. The trainer can view the analytic profile of any employee using Maximo to see where the learning has been sub-standard, or where many employees might be encountering problems. Given that the training and certification modes are always accessible on the handheld device, learners can practise their knowledge application on the go, waiting for a bus, during a TV commercial, anywhere they want. And they can, when ready, enter certification mode to complete modules to demonstrate their proficiency on the system. Meanwhile, all these data are going to the trainer who now knows which users are learning, what they are struggling with, what they excel at and can plan to provide solutions.


One of these solutions is micro-learning. The trainer, if they see that many students are struggling with something in the software, can provide a “push training notification” at any time. This is very cool. A little red button comes on your training app for Maximo and it says “new content available!”. A little red button push notification is like an itch that has to be scratched, it’s human nature just to hit that button to see what’s up. It might say “enter Training Mode and click on the new one minute video called XYZ, and then answer some short questions. Or you can have them enter a new branching series of questions like the diagram below, to really upgrade their core knowledge about using the system.

Voila! Now the trainer has reliable data on where learners are stumbling, can produce a short, one-minute video on how to deal with this problem, broadcast it to users, have them re-take the training mode content and then see how well they are doing now. Talk about ease of use and responsive training. This kind of process is called “just-in-time” training and permits it to be responsive and dynamic, rather than a static document. Much more engaging, and more in line with how we really function in learning.

Smart training apps are the new standard and they provide the end-user with a much more engaging, helpful and expendable set of skills. A long way from some chalk and a board.


David Chandross is a gamification and training professional working with ARC Business Solutions Inc. in Toronto, Ontario. He also engages in research and new program development in training at Ryerson University, where he holds the position of Outreach Coordinator for the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education. Dr. Chandross holds a Doctorate in higher education and a Master’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Toronto.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *