Surfing the Internet Boosts Aging Brains

Surfing the Internet Boosts Aging Brains. That's what an article in The New York Times said.

Well, thank goodness.

Having just marked another year myself this month, I was interested in this NY Times article. It would be nice to know that while I'm working on a blog post and searching online something good was happening to those aging cells.

The research seems to show increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain when searching the web - IF you are an experienced web surfer. That is, all the participants show increased activity, but those who were Web-savvy showed some extra activity.

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, have shown that searching the Internet triggers key centers in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning. The findings, to be published in the upcoming issue of The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, suggest that searching the Web helps to stimulate and may even improve brain function.

The U.C.L.A. researchers studied 24 healthy people between the ages of 55 and 76. Half of the study participants had experience searching the Internet, whereas the other half had no experience. Participants performed Web searches and book-reading tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, which measure the level of cerebral blood flow.

While all participants demonstrated the same brain activity during the book-reading task, the Web-savvy group also registered activity in areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning, the researchers said.

Web 2.0 must be even better for my brain - all that extra interactivity and read/write. Working on my blogs has been the most regular writing I have done in many years. It's a daily activity for me to post on one blog or another. It's a lot more than just doing Google searches. When I look at the Serendipity35 log and see that this is post #617 for me, I am a bit incredulous. Of course, the old paper/print part of me thinks that if all that blogging had been focused on a book, I would have a finished manuscript by now. But, I know that honestly I wouldn't - because there is something about writing every day on a wide variety of topics and having an immediate publication and readership that can't be duplicated by the old print/publisher model.

“Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience,” said principal investigator Dr. Gary Small, director of U.C.L.A.’s Memory and Aging Research Center. "The study results are encouraging that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults. Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”

During Web searching, the Web-savvy volunteers showed a twofold increase in brain activation when compared with those who had little Internet experience. The tiniest measurable unit of brain activity registered by the functional M.R.I. is called a voxel. During Internet searching, those with prior Web experience sparked 21,782 voxels, compared with only 8,646 voxels for those with less experience.

Hopefully, you'll even get a little boost from reading these posts - especially if you follow our links and continue the journey after the post ends. Are you feeling a little blood rush? Crank up those voxels!

Where You Live: NJCTE High School Writing Contest

A colleague and friend, Dana Maloney, is coordinating this year's NJ Council of Teachers of English High School Writing Contest. She would like to reach as many teachers and students in New Jersey as possible, so I offered to post about it on Serendipity35. Though it's an NJcentric contest, the personal essay portion sent me (and might possibly send you) back to a childhood memory.

The contest categories are: a poem, a short story (10-page max.), and a personal essay based on their prompt (5-page max.)  More contest details at the end of this post.
All personal essay submissions must respond to this year’s prompt.

Where do you live? Use descriptive language to give the reader a virtual experience of your world. As you do this, let us hear your voice. Share the thoughts, feelings, questions and concerns that arise out of your view of the world around you. Bring your space – your town, your school, your home, your room, your web - to life for your reader. Where you live can be interpreted in many ways, including both literal and metaphorical ways, and we encourage you to take liberty with interpretation.
As a model of a personal essay, Dana suggested an essay by another friend, teacher and poet BJ Ward. You might want to read his essay about his youthful home-away-from-home at his local library - it is available online. Escaping to books is probably something that many readers of this post can admit to from their youth.

"During the internet-less, video-game-less, and seemingly endless summers of my childhood, I could ride my bike to the Washington Borough Public Library and within one minute be transported to the world of Dr. Doolittle; The Hardy Boys; and Babe Ruth, All-American Hero. Each book was a planet with a spine. The librarian was an organizing star, keeping all those spheres in their places for future explorers to discover. The library itself was a universe—a macrocosm between paint-chipped walls, below a roof paid for by bake sales, sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and halfway house. It was the most fecund place I knew—a greenhouse for my imagination, where fluorescence had to do with my mind’s branches spreading. O the joyful fire in the astronaut’s skull when divination led to apprehension. "

I was one of those people who had a corner of the children's section of my public library that I considered to be mine. A big, fat, old leather chair in a corner with a dirty window and a wall of books for protection. When they built the new town library - a bigger, brighter, glass-walled version - I never found a special place there. (The modern chairs discouraged getting comfortable anyway.) Of course, by then I was out of the children's section which almost always is the more inviting part of a library anyway.


Newark Public LibraryI had ventured a few times to the "big library" in my part of New Jersey - the Newark Public Library. It was impressive. Too impressive. I felt lost. Too many echoes in the halls, though I did like seeing in pop up in books like in Phillip Roth's Goodbye Columbus that I was reading. (My own hometown, Irvington, had shown up in some stories and in Portnoy's Complaint and I rode that same bus as Roth's character.)

Perhaps, some student will write an essay for the contest about some private place of escape in their world. Do kids still escape to the library? My office is within a college library and it seems to be the place to study and use computers, but escape...?

BJ Ward's poem "Filling in the New Address Book" was featured on National Public Radio’s The Writer’s Almanac. (listen to Garrison Keillor reading it). His latest collection of poetry is Gravedigger's Birthday. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Warren County Community College in New Jersey.


  • Each participating teacher may submit up to 10 entries in each category. Submissions must be accompanied by a signed entry form.

  • Entrants must submit four paper copies and one electronic copy of each submission.

  • Download the entry form which contains information on where to submit the entry.

  • The student’s name must not appear on the submission itself – only on the entry form.

  • Postmark and Electronic Submission Deadline: December 15, 2008

  • At least one student from every participating school will receive an award. Award categories are “Outstanding,” “Prize-worthy” or “Certificate of Merit.” Students in grades 10, 11 or 12 who are named “Outstanding” winners may be eligible for a New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education.

  • Winners will be announced by April 15, 2009.


Coworking is an emerging trend in the evolving nature of what we call the workplace. The term is new to me, but not all that new. It's an idea that first found favor with work-at-home professionals, independent contractors and people who travel frequently and so end up working in relative isolation. Let's say I run an consulting business from my home. Total freedom, right? Work when I want to, office in the basement, choose my start and stop time... Yes, telecommuting was going to be all the rage. We worked on some seminars and continuing education courses about it when I was at NJIT.

Coworking space (via Flickr where there are plenty of coworking photos)

But, sometimes, you need to get out of the house. Have you seen those business people who seem to have set up an office in a coffee shop, Internet cafe or bookstore? Well, some entrepreneurs have decided there is a market for temporary office space. Enter coworking and the creation of workspaces where those people can go to work.

It seems more co-op, BarCamp and open source than business incubator or executive suite. These spaces offer both business hardware (desk, file cabinets, copiers, Internet etc.) and the softerware of the social, collaborative, and informal aspects of the workplace.

I first learned about all this from a Jumping Monkeys podcast which Megan Morrone does (with Leo Laporte) about parenting in this digital age.

They talked with Felicity Chapman, founder of Cubes&Crayons. That's a coworking company that has found a niche by offering both flexible office space (cubes) and onsite childcare (crayons). You can get office space and childcare services during regular business hours on a full–time, part–time or drop–in basis.

Chapman talks about providing infrastructure, but also a sense of community. Not everyone needs the childcare. Sometimes a small startup needs conference room space for a few days to get coworking employees together. A consultant might need an office for only 2 days each week. Right now Cubes&Crayons is only in Menlo Park, California, but they are looking to open other spaces in places like Austin and San Francisco. And they are not alone.

from "Redefining Coworking" by Dusty Reagan

 "...coworking is not a noun but a verb. So, coworking is not a space, a community, a set of values, a business model, or any combination of those things. It's an activity like swimming is an activity. Coworking is two or more individuals working independently or collaboratively who are socially interacting while they work....As a verb you can cowork with people, you can be coworking, or you may have coworked. You may even go to a designated coworking space."

If you're interested in creating or sharing space or want to learn more about this trend, check out this coworking community blog and this coworking wiki. Take a look at this video with some coworking folks.

So what effect might this have on education? The quick answer is to tap into any training this workforce might need as we tried with telecommuters. It might take a bit more imagination to see schools offering their own learning spaces as coworking spaces when classes are not in session. The larger idea might be envisioning what kind of education a workforce of coworkers (that doesn't work too well as a term - too close to co-worker) might demand in the coming years if this trend continues to grow.

Of course, a Coworking Institute has already emerged, so get started on your business plan.

OpenLearn From The Open University

Following last week's post about Peer2Peer University, I thought I should also write a bit about the OpenLearn website which gives free access to course materials from The Open University. P2PU is a really interesting project, but there are other sources of quality materials online. Different concept, different mission, but related in an Open Everything way. OpenLearn is a member of the Open Courseware Consortium (OCW)

The LearningSpace is open to learners anywhere in the world and was launched by the Open University back in in October 2006 to provide free access to its educational materials. The publication of such structured learning materials, designed for distance learning, is unique in the field of open educational resources.

What does this Open Education movement make possible?

  • making new knowledge available to all, not just those who can pay for it
  • allowing users to download, modify, translate, and adapt materials
  • providing the opportunity for people to generate a cycle of continuous improvement
  • using technology to remove access barriers to knowledge and educational opportunities around the world.

OpenLearn uses a Moodle-based virtual learning environment to offer 400+ structured media-rich study units, supported by a number of learning and communication tools in the LearningSpace.

There's a Web 2.0 approach to this open and collaborative site - LearningSpace is primarily for learners. It can be complemented by the LabSpace, an area for experimentation, where educational practitioners are encouraged to download, amend and adapt both current and archived course materials.

By the end of the first phase of funding, 30/04/08, OpenLearn was hosting over five thousand hours of core OU materials and additional user generated content in the LabSpace area of the site.

Here are some sample units:

Play, learning and the brain (E500_10)  This unit examines the area of the brain-based learning with a particular focus on the development of the young child's brain and is of particular relevance to those who work with young children. We begin by looking at the structure and functions of the brain, and the impact that sensory deprivation can have on these. We consider the implications of current understandings of brain development for teaching and learning, particularly in an early years setting, and finish by exploring the value of play (particularly outdoor play) in children's learning and the development of their brains. Time: 15 hours Level: Intermediate Topic: Education

Using visualisation in maths teaching (TL_MATHT9) This unit looks at visualisation as it relates to mathematics, focusing upon how it can be used to improve learning. It will also identify ways in which to make more use of visualisation within the classroom.

Business - Planning a project (B713_2)
Gantt charts, critical path analysis, SMART objectives and estimation skills are just some of the topics covered in this unit to help you understand how to plan for a project. You will gain an appreciation of the range of planning techniques available and the situations in which it is appropriate to use them.

There are also accompanying learning objects and tools in each area. For example, there is a business forum.

Peer To Peer University

The Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) campus is being built as an online community of open study groups for short university-level courses. It's not a university. It is designed to help you navigate the wealth of open education materials that are out there, but also to create small groups of learners, and to support the design and facilitation of courses.According to the information online, the plan is ultimately for students and tutors to get "recognition" for their work with credit a future possibility.

From their current concept document:

The Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU) fills a gap! It isn't a "real" university and it doesn't want to be. The traditional university is structured around historical constraints (campus space, books, etc.) - the P2PU is a response to the gradual disappearance of some of these constraints.

The P2PU is a vibrant community in which groups of self-learners and tutors work together to emulate some of the functions of an academic institution, in a peer-to-peer fashion. It supports informal learning communities, provides structure and incentives to participate in openly designed and facilitated courses, and creates alternative mechanisms for accreditation - both linking to formal credit, and providing recognition through portfolios of completed work and reputation within the community.

And from Jan Phillip Schmidt, one of the leaders, on his own blog:

At the moment, is just a basic site with a few pages that explain what the P2PU is and how to get involved. We are currently confirming tutors and sense-makers (kind of like Professors, but they don’t have to have a PhD or a title, they just need to know their fields really well) and are hoping that the press coverage will encourage more people to join. It’s an open community project in the true sense, so anyone with a good idea, and some time on their hands to help is welcome!

P2PU will offer scheduled "courses" that run for 6 weeks and cover university-level topics. Learning takes place in small groups of 8-14 students. Each course package contains the syllabus, study materials and a schedule.

P2PU courses experiment with a variety of methods in learning, depending on the preference and style of the tutor and the topic that is being learned. Most materials are stored on other servers and linked to since the P2PU does not want to become a content repository. Once they have been designed, course packages can easily be duplicated. This way, one structured set of materials can spawn many learning communities.

Who is driving this effort? The people involved include Delia Browne (National Copyright Director for Educational Materials in Australia), Stian Håklev (MA student in Higher Education at University of Toronto), Neeru Paharia (Previous Director of Creative Commons, and currently PhD student at Harvard Business School), Jan Philipp Schmidt (video manager of the free-courseware project at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa) and Joel Thierstein, (executive director of Rice University's Connexions project - a free online collection of scholarly materials). The P2PU advisory group currently includes Ahrash Bissell, Executive Director, ccLearn, Leslie Chan, Senior Lecturer, Department of Social Sciences at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. Associate Director of Bioline International, Christine Geith, Assistant Provost and Executive Director of Michigan, State University's MSU Global, Mark Surman, Executive Director, Mozilla Foundation, David Wiley, Associate Professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University, Chief Openness Officer at the Open High School Utah.

Right now, they are putting together the first 10 courses and plan to announce the course abstracts and details in December 2008. Courses will include Open Economics,Media in Developing Countries, Non-Fiction Writing, Music Theory, Data Visualization, Alternative Energy.

Ready to investigate creating your own course?

More info at the OpenCourseWare Blog