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Attention and distraction

Educators and trainers face competition for attention from mobile devices and social networking services. Of course, prior to the development of these technologies, we faced a similar challenge of attention – but day dreaming is far hard to detect than someone posting comments on Facebook or Twitter.
Designing Choreographies for the “New Economy of Attention” is an interesting discussion of attention and distraction. You may not agree with their core argument – that we need to choreograph technologies that are under the control of learners (such as back channels) in a manner similar to how we organize more traditional classroom components – but the approach of blocking software and banning mobiles/laptops in classrooms is simply not sustainable. Today’s reality of connectedness is dramatically different from what existed even ten years ago. Banning is at best a short term solution that will isolate and agitate the very group education is expected to serve. The battle for control of information and interaction has already been won by “the individual”. Organizations, governments, and universities that have not yet recognized this may continue to limp along for a while…but their current stance is not tenable.

Laptops and wireless devices are increasingly present in academic settings. Rather than assuming that their presence “takes away” from an established order of attention, we are seeking to understand how they reconfigure that order in ways that might allow for new methods of engagement. In practice, with the introduction of networked technologies into the traditional academic setting, the attention of individual audience members is redirected from a single stream of speech to the presence of other audience members interacting with a global network of ideas.


  1. Curt Madison wrote:

    Sure control has shifted to the owners and users of private communication technology in an educational setting, but how about the obligation for delivery of service? Does this not throw out the requirement for verifiable outcomes of education lesson design? If the attention is a legitimate variable controlled by the learner, then can’t we say the outcome of the experience is also the responsibility of the learner? This will be an uphill climb for the accreditation agencies.

    Monday, June 22, 2009 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  2. John Soares wrote:

    I think much of what students do in the classroom with laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices is not related to the topic under discussion/investigation in the classroom and thus detracts from learning.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  3. Virginia Yonkers wrote:

    I try to integrate the technology into my teaching. There are times when they will not be allowed access to those technologies (as they need to learn that there are times in the work world when the technologies cannot be used) by making sure they turn off their cell phones for those classes and putting them away.

    However, there are other times, such as when they are looking for information in group work in which I encourage them to use their cell phones or the class computer to find information they may be lacking.

    I also find having a variety of tools to match the student’s learning style makes them more engaged in the learning (rather than distracting them). I use a ning, but also have handouts, and resources on delicious for them to access. They can choose which is more relevant for their own learning needs.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  4. I agree that the ban can’t be so blanket anymore. In my own presentations (typically the longer ones) I find myself having more conversations with participants about what we need to do together in order to have a great learning experience that gets them what they need. We talk about a bit about how using technology during the session could enhance/impede their experience or that of those around them.

    Friday, June 26, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Eric Gordon wrote:

    In the article we suggest that in fact we shouldn’t leave the development of backchannels up to the learners. That these channels are in need of design, they are in need of consideration as part of the overall learning environment. When they are designed well, they can be integrated into learning as opposed to standing outside.

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink