Posted by: elightkeeper | April 18, 2011

Learner, Interrupted – The Presentation

Below is a hacked script that loosely parallels my presentation at the Digital Learning Spring Conference 2011 this past week. For those of you who attended or listened live, I’ve tossed in a few items of enrichment for you – things I actually didn’t have time (or the presence of mind) to include. I have left out much of the presentation repartee and on-the-spot amusements. As the saying goes, you had to be there.

Who are the interrupted learners?

First of all, we need to widen the traditional definition of learners. When I refer to learners, I’m thinking bigger than students learning in a classroom. In fact, I’m thinking bigger than students anywhere. All of us are learners: kids, teachers, parents and community.  As educators, if we acknowledge that we, too, are learners – that we cannot know everything, cannot possibly master all the tools and don’t need to – we will position ourselves to effectively facilitate 21st century learning.

So we’ve established who are the learners. Now what does it mean to be “interrupted”?

Much concern has been expressed lately about distracted learners, learners “off task” in the classroom, and the irreparable damage we may be doing to our brains by continual media multitasking.  Research suggests that there is no such thing as multi-tasking, but rather, a toggling of focus between one or more things. To read more about distraction and the notion of toggling perception, see an earlier blog post on this topic here.

In my view, it is possible to “share” focus, but not on all tasks and not always evenly. (My theory is based on observing my own changing cognitive function over the past two decades, so take all of this as more of a thesis than a research conclusion drawn from a sample of one, and arguably,  less than typical brain.) In some circumstances, it may be that divided focus results in a greater outcome than the sum of the parts. Just ask any parent or teacher.

I mentioned in my “Sequel” post that I composed this presentation and recorded a rough version while taking a 20 minute drive. The act of driving allowed me to achieve “flow” which enabled me to prepare the talk I was to give without getting bogged down in process or content details. I should point out that talking to oneself while driving is perfectly legal.  It isn’t even considered strange anymore. I could easily attend to the responsibilities of the road; however, I must point out that texting is out, marking English papers is out – in short, doing anything that causes interference in the visual field while driving – is out. Certain sensory tasks compete. This is an important concept to understand while remaining open to the notion of media multi-tasks that may co-exist or even complement each other.

Bear with me while I provide you with an account of the interactive segment that came next in my presentation. About ten minutes in, I did a little survey of communication devices that workshop participants had with them in the room.

“Who in the room has at least one communication device on their person?” I asked.

In a room of about 60 people, about 50 put up their hands. (I made them keep their hands up, with the empty promise of earning Daily Physical Activity credit for the exercise.)

I then asked, “Who in the room has two or more communication devices on their person? Very few hands went down.

“Three or more devices?” Suddenly, most hands dropped, leaving only about ten people with blood running into their armpits.

My informal conclusions from this exercise were as follows:  Most people in the room were in the possession of a cell phone, and a laptop or iPad.  I didn’t ask what the hard core group with three or more devices had brought along. If you happen to be from that group of ten, please feel free to leave a comment with details of your additional gear. In the meantime, we might suppose they had brought along popular items such as digital cameras, iPods, e-readers or thumb drives. One guy was lugging a printer he’d won in the prize draw. Let’s call him an exception. As for the ten people who didn’t vote, we might suggest this is a Canada-wide problem and leave it at that.

We are still in a place where we require multiple items to meet our communication needs. The promise of mobile communications lies in the future consolidation of the tools. But it is a very tall order to fill as integrating the tasks is extremely complex. I may always require two devices . The eyestrain of following the Twitter backchannel on my handheld for the duration of the conference has left me seeing ddoouuubbllee.

Following the survey, I invited participants to use their devices freely and openly during the session, particularly if they found themselves trapped in the middle of the room, uninterested in what I had to say, yet unable to make a discrete exit.

Back to the presentation.

Here are three very simple guidelines I’ve come up with for self-regulating the use of social media:

1. Relevance: Barring an emergency, will this communication advance my personal learning and growth at this moment?

2. Balance: Is this communication coming from a place of balance and personal control? (Or am I responding out of addiction, habit, or mindless action?)

3. Respect: Is this communication respectful of me, the person I’m communicating with, and those who are in the physical space around me? And, to raise the bar even further, is the communication ethical?

RBR. Really Basic Rules.

I won’t wade into a debate on banning phones in classrooms or the merits of social media. I’ll go on record as saying I’m in favor of access, with the caveat that it is our responsibility as educators to learn self-filter behaviours so we can help students make mindful choices that are based on Relevance, Balance and Respect.  RBR.  Really Basic Rules.

So let’s go into the classroom for a moment where we see the Flatliners trying to sneak a text message off to a friend when the instructor is not looking. (Flatliners are the uninspired, disengaged learners.) What makes a flatliner? When a relevant connection cannot be established, it is easy (and possibly even necessary) to divert attention elsewhere. Distracted learners did not come with technology, by the way.   Attention abhors a vacuum and it will go anywhere to escape one.

I was at a meeting not that long ago where the person seated beside me suggested I put my Blackberry away and stop checking email. I had been taking notes. I could have been offended by the remark, but instead I was struck by the misperception that I was not paying attention. This raises many questions for me:

Are we assuming all use of technology that we have not prescribed, or do not control, is off task?

Are students distracted and not engaged because we are failing to link what we are asking them to learn to personal relevance?

Is a new kind of cognitive ability emerging, but we don’t understand it because it flies in the face of all we have been told about focus and attention?

Here are two final notions:

  1. We are all learners. If we approach education from that perspective, we will find ourselves open to change, less stressed about the burden to teaching to what the system says kids need to know, and we will all inherit relevance, balance and respect in our education and work.
  2. We need to look carefully at media multi-tasking and what we may wrongly assume are interruptions and distractions. A differentiated, less singular goal-focused kind of learning is emerging. As educators, we can help learners make sense of the strengths, responsibilities and pitfalls of this new paradigm.

Photo credits: “Cyberlife” by benhollingsworth/”Boredom 2″ by Roobee -Flickr Creative Commons

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