New media, attention span, and engagement

“RSS is a technology that will change your life, if you let it,” says Will Richardson in his new book, Blogs, wikis, and podcasts. Richardson says over the last couple of years, he’s tracked about 150 RSS feeds of news and information every day, from bloggers, newspapers, and search engines. He likes news feeds because they let him quickly skim tens of thousands of posts, and he has developed “a fairly keen eye for quickly spotting the most relevant and interesting information.”

That’s another one of those skills that our students, the knowledge workers of the future, are going to have to develop to flourish, he says.

My friend Dan Karleen (Syndication for Higher Education) has long been an evangelist for using RSS technology in education. I told him about Richardson’s shared enthusiasm.

Dan says, yes, up to a point. Dan himself tracks about 400 news feeds but can no longer get to all of them every day. “I’ve tried to improve my ability to skim for the important kernels, but doing so has come at a price–difficulty in concentrating reading books.”

I thought is was just me. I find that my concentration is abbreviated of late. All day long I skim emails and web pages and blogs and RSS feeds and react quickly to text. So when I get home and go through print newspapers and magazines and (gasp!) books, I find I’m still in skimming mode. It’s difficult to discipline myself to slow down, follow the thought of an extended sentence, of a well-constructed paragraph, of a thoughtful chapter. Not good, for a former English major accustomed to novels.

Does anyone know of any recent studies on how new media affect attention span. . . ?

And isn’t this something that educators deal with every day?

Dan doesn’t profess to be a learning sciences theorist but he does know when he feels engaged. What seems to engage him the most is preparing to explain or present something to someone. “I guess this is learning by teaching. So the question is, how to create more opportunities for this. I don’t learn nearly as much sitting in the classroom as I do presenting or leading a discussion.”

Do you think that teachers need to engage students, or teach them how to get engaged in something, or teach them how to learn?” Dan asks. “Curiously, I’ve never had a class that taught me how to learn.”

Dan says he’ll remember maybe 2.5 of the several dozen teachers he’s had. “They were spellbinding, (one of them only half of the time). “In the end it will be the passion and the pursuit that I will remember from them, only incidentally the content. Everything else I have learned by doing or explaining.”

The opportunities the new tools are creating in the education/learning space lie not in bending them to the conventional classroom, Dan points out, but in the opportunity that these tools present for kids to learn by doing and creating.


One Response to New media, attention span, and engagement

  1. […] Many of you know my thoughts on the idea of learning through creating and presenting. One of the best ways to learn new material is to teach it. Russell Ackoff often says that because of this, teachers learn more than students, and I tend to agree with him. I feel strongly that new communications tools–blogs, podcasts, vlogs, etc., represent a key opportunity for learners in early part of the 21st century. If we can teach kids to use these tools, we have given them a dynamic, low-cost tool that they can use to present and interact in any educational setting–whether it’s learning to give speeches or sharing a lesson on local history or politics. For example, a class learning about local politics may ask students to go out and use video cameras to interview local politicians for their perspective on a given issue and then post video to a class vlog. The act of presenting and re-presenting ideas in a coherent way requires students to learn about their subject, and the video aspect brings a dynamic element simply not present in past media. We have to get beyond thinking of vlogging in education as relating to teaching film majors how to vlog, and we have to begin to think of teaching kids to vlog because vlogging is a tool that can help them learn anything. […]

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