IN DEPTH: Defying the odds

IN DEPTH: Defying the odds

The incredible - and inspiring - story of neuroscientist and chief science of education officer, Ramona Pierson

Ramona Pierson (centre) working with children

Ramona Pierson (centre) working with children

Neuroscientist and chief science of education officer with education vendor, Promethean, Ramona Pierson, visited Australia recently. In 1984, Pierson was struck by a drunk driver and put into coma for 18 months. The accident broke 104 bones, caused multiple forms of brain trauma and required nearly 100 surgeries. She spoke to ARN about how her accident led her to what she is doing today in areas of education and how technology can help.

What brings you to Australia?

Ramona Pierson (RP): I was invited to speak at the Leading a Digital School conference in Melbourne. I came out to talk to them about mass customisation and personalised learning. I’ve also had the opportunity to meet with people from the Federal Government and education.

Tell us about yourself and how you got started in what you’re practising today?

RP: I entered into education unbeknown to myself, I didn’t plan on it. I had been in the marine corp as a kid, used to run marathons and was struck by drunk driver in 1984. I lived in a hospital for about three years because of the intensity of the accident where I had the car bumper go through my throat, had brain trauma and had to have most of my face put back on and half my foot reconstructed - half my leg is now titanium. I was also blind for 10 years.

After putting me back together, I ended up living in a senior home, because nobody thought I would survive and I would end up dying. It was interesting because the senior citizens took me on as their granddaughter and helped to re-educate me so I could be independent. Once I ended up with a guide dog, I truly had my independence because she allowed me to go back to college. I ended up getting my doctrine in neuroscience selfishly thinking I would be able to help myself, but one thing led to another and 10 years later I was able to get vision back in my left eye.

What was your experience like as a blind person in college?

RP: I was living for 10 years as a blind person and my experience was interesting in college because professors are used to throwing things up on a chalk board assuming everyone can see it, will read books and always show up prepared. I guessed I shocked them all because they had to re-think how they were going to present information so that it was consumable for someone blind.

What was interesting was when I finished college a professor looked at all the data and found that because the professors had to personalise the learning for me and customise the presentation of the material so I could consume it, everyone in my group, even though they were sighted, their scores all went up significantly. They realised there was something in this - on how we change learning and classrooms can effect all students whether they’re differently-abled or challenged in some way. That stuck with me a bit.

I also worked at the Palo Alto brain centre in the US, working around building neuro assessments and found myself back in education. I was building assessments for soldiers that were wounded in Iraq, and I thought about what were our educators doing around assessments. I was confronted with the reality that our educators are trying to differentiate education for all their kids and they may see up to 130 kids per day. With the tools they had, that was absolutely impossible and it became my quest to try to solve that.

What did you do?

RP: I ended up getting my teaching certificate so I can speak the same language as our teachers and really support their work. I went to Seattle and became a district administrator working for Seattle schools, built a lot of solutions for them. I integrated all the data in the district and built an integrated learning management system, social network and parent communication tools. All those things integrated into one platform and I found that teachers which were resistant to change, really fell in love with this tool because it gave them an opportunity to have different conversations with students and their parents.

I started my own company, SynapticMash, and really wanted to bring the neuro and cognitive sciences into education. We built a very interesting platform that would allow us to collect data so we can start working towards my end goal of bringing in neuro and cognitive sciences. Promethean bought my company about a year ago.

That has allowed me to do some interesting things in augmented reality, immersive learning environments, personalised learning and building algorithms with University of Denver.

My work there was in building out the learning progression for students and teachers, building the algorithms that allow us to personalise instructions for our students and teachers and deliver content based on the data and basically uncap learning for kids. Instead of just getting them to pass a test, we’re really looking at the potential of learning beyond passing a test.

Where do you see technology in education heading?

RP: Now that we have all this technology driven into the classrooms, now is the time to synchronise our platforms and take advantage of the technology so we can create personalised learning for all our students. Because we have all this data, we need to put context to the data and not just have it sitting in our report, but using it drive instruction and professional development.

We have a pilot in the American state of Indiana, called the Power of You, and students are assessed every day and receive curriculum and content in different modalities and they’re scheduled to different teachers based on how they teach. What’s interesting is in this pilot, we used kids that hadn’t progressed for three years and in six weeks were able to bring them up to their peers in maths. I believe we have an opportunity to help kids master content, but also uncap the categories of learning that we’ve pre-defined.

Do you think governments need to do more to encourage the progress of technology in the education environment?

RP: I think at this point, they’re trying to figure out what are the tools that they need to pull together and how do they create this eco system of learning because not one person has the answer.

What are some of the projects you’re working on at the moment?

RP: With the University of Denver, I’m working on the learning progression for teachers and students, and the algorithm that will drive learning. I’m working on a Gates-funded project around augmented reality in the Colorado school district.

There are some cool things happening in the augmented reality space and that’s becoming an area of growth. I’ve started conversations with gaming companies because you can do some interesting things. Not just getting kids on a cool platform, but what if you could build a model so you provide cognitive coaches in potential problematic areas where kids are going to fail or have problems, you have a cognitive coach to get them through that area.

I’m also working on a project - a content tagging scheme, involving partnerships between Google, Bing and Yahoo, so we can better expose open content that we can pool into school districts, states and countries to be able to use. 

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