With no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, distance learning or some form of hybrid education is likely going to be the norm for both young children and older students for many more months, if not longer. And while some children are doing well with online classes and interactions, many more students struggle to get a good education in that environment. Physical classrooms are designed to help students focus on the lessons at hand, free from distractions. But when looking at a computer screen, it’s a lot more difficult to focus. There are also probably lots of other activities, many of them within easy reach, that the child would rather be doing.
One of the most frequently cited reasons why children struggle with online learning is their inability to pay attention to lessons in that format. But it’s more than just forcing your child to sit up and stare at the screen during online classes. According to an article in the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, attention skills involve self-control, working memory and cognitive flexibility, all of which are known collectively as executive function skills. And it can be hard to practice those skills, though one company working with the government may have found a way using video games.
BrainLeap Technologies has been working with the National Institute of Mental Health to develop a way to improve a child’s focus using eye movements. Their idea was to design games that could be played using eye movements as the controller. It works because eye movements use the same system in your brain that controls both focus and attention. It’s not just about what you are looking at, but what you are planning to look at next that controls your attention. So while using your eyes to play games, it actually helps to strengthen both attention and focus.
Attention issues were becoming a growing challenge in the United States even before the pandemic. “Weak attention skills are a growing problem in the U.S. and around the world,” said CEO of BrainLeap Technologies Jeff Coleman. “One school principal I spoke with recently estimates that 25% of his students have attention challenges that impact their schoolwork, and at least 10% are severe.” The pandemic only exasperated that problem by forcing children into less than ideal learning environments that are ripe with distractions.
The Attention Arcade was developed with that problem in mind. It’s a suite of nine games that challenges children to grow their ability to focus and pay attention in a fun and rewarding way that ties eye movement and control to strengthening focus. The first step in getting the arcade made was to get both universities and the government involved in helping to fund, research and develop the platform.
“The research behind the Attention Arcade started at the University of California, San Diego. My co-founders, Dr. Leanne Chukoskie and Dr. Jeanne Townsend, were both interested in whether an invention could be created to train skills in children that had atypical attention skills,” Coleman said. “Together, they submitted a proposal to NIH that had scientific merit and was deemed worthy of funding. Video games can provide a closed-loop feedback system that is very powerful in training different skills.” More funding was provided by the National Science Foundation through a Small Business Innovation Research grant.
By all accounts, the study went very well.
“Focus was measured as part of a parent survey, and participants saw an average 30% improvement in reported focus. Inhibitory control, as measured by an anti-saccade task, improved by 55% on average. Fast attention shifts improved by an average of 68% for participants,” Coleman said. “However, the most notable result was that every participant that completed the training saw measurable improvements in their attention skills.”
Armed with that information, the Attention Arcade was fully developed and is now ready for either school systems or individual families to use. With the pandemic forcing more on distance learning, the skills that the games strengthen could be even more valuable.
“As anyone who has spent significant time on video calls can tell, it is exhausting. And that is largely driven by the attention requirements of a call that is not the same as being in-person. So yes, attention skills are even more important with distance learning than in-person classes,” Coleman said. “Plus, the research is pretty clear that children who are under stress have greater attention challenges. With so much upheaval in their lives, many kids could particularly benefit from attention training at this time.”
The arcade is still very new, but there are already several testimonials from children who used the arcade and found themselves doing better at their schoolwork and their online classes. They include one 13-year-old named Ella who would not have known that she was performing an educational activity if her parents hadn’t told her. She says that playing those games has helped her in measurable ways.
Coleman recommends children play the games for at least 20 minutes per day, with most noticeable results occurring after four to eight weeks of training. The Attention Arcade is available as a monthly subscription service, and the company will ship users a Toobii Eye Tracker bar to drive the games. Users can also purchase the Toobii Tracker from Amazon, and then pay less per month for the games.
However, the Toobii Tracker is expensive at $299, and the games aren’t cheap either. It’s $39 per month if the family owns the eye tracking hardware, or $49 per month if families are renting the tracker. Coleman says because of the pandemic, that might be a tough price for some families. This is why they are working with any interested school systems or groups to install the arcade with them, and then have it offered to students directly from their schools.
“When school becomes easier, maintaining focus comes more naturally, and there is less struggle. We think that the $39 per month is a fair price. However, we do recognize that is not within reach for a lot of families,” he said. “That is why we are focused on reaching children through schools as well. Some of our earliest schools to adopt the technology serve children whose families may not be able to afford the Attention Arcade. Schools have a big incentive to help their students succeed, so we have found that they really understand the value that attention training brings.”
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys