Have you ever sat down in front of your computer, expecting a lot of work to be done in a certain amount of time, only to find that you have done nothing work-related at all? Or that you’ve done a lot — just not what you planned to do?

Many people are thinking about the way we spend our time and what gets our attention in this digital age. Howard Rheingold calls it infotention and I’ve been learning a lot about it recently thanks to his challenging but rewarding online course, “Introduction to Mind Amplifiers.” It’s a five-week experience using asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter. Participation requires a serious commitment of time and attention by every member of the learning group. Believe me, the skill of staying focused on what is important certainly proves to be helpful here!

The world demands “infotention”

Infotention is a word I came up with to describe the psycho-social-techno skill/tools we all need to find our way online today, a mind-machine combination of brain-powered attention skills with computer-powered information filters. ~ Howard Rheingold

I first heard about Howard Rheingold and his fascinating history as a founding father of online communities via my PLN. I had the pleasure of hearing him present at ISTE in Denver 2010. I wrote about the presentation where he talked about “crap detection 101.” He discussed the importance of sharing best practices for Internet literacy and critical thinking with our students. He reminded us of the importance of teaching our students how to search the web skillfully and how to find trustworthy websites. (See this video on YouTube with advice to students.) He recommended triangulation, saying that by all means start your research with Wikipedia, but always check two more sources (for example, here and here!)

The course I’m taking is pointing me in many directions and the reading material list is long. I have a lot of new books in my iPad Kindle app, including several that examine the potentially detrimental effects of the Internet on human cognition and relationships, like: Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The latter wrote a much-talked-about 2008 article for The Atlantic magazine called Is Google Making Us Stupid? in which he described his own experience this way:

(W)hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Carr wrote that his friends reported similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

What are the implications for our students?

If highly educated professionals are having problems staying focused on long pieces of writing, what about students? More and more schools are going 1:1, equipping students with personal computing devices without equipping their teachers with research-based pedagogy to support its use.

It is like Clayton M. Christensen says in his book Disrupting Class: we can’t go on teaching, assuming all students should be taught the same things on the same day in the same way. When teachers are lecturing, using a PowerPoint for more than 15 minutes, students’ attention most certainly will be on content they find online! I think it is rather unfair to assume that all teachers automatically know how to deal with these distractions and how to guide their students. I know many teachers struggle with this at my school.

The solutions I read about online tend to emphasize strict time limits, interesting tasks and real life problems. I found this recent article from the Harvard Education Letter useful: “Teaching students to ask their own questions”. But even if we have a school where the core values are: inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection, (Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia), if we’re going to help our students develop the focus they need to think deeply about things — to acquire Howard Rheingold’s Infotention — then I think most schools will need some ground rules, made in collaboration with students after lots of conversations around these important topics.

Some draft guidelines

Here are some possible guidelines or ground rules that come to my mind for using computers and staying focused in school. Please add your own thoughts in the comments.

A. Make your own rules of student Netiquette.

Netiquette (short for “network etiquette” or “Internet etiquette”) is a set of social conventions that facilitate interaction over networks, whether through social media, chat, email or other means.

  1. Computer lids down when teacher is giving instructions for class.
  2. Stay on task, no gaming, Facebook, Twitter, Skype or surfing when not related to school work.
  3. Computer lids down when teachers or students are presenting, unless you are taking notes or searching online for more information.

B. Teach and discuss how to focus in the age of distraction.

  1. Close all other applications and devices when reading texts.
  2. Make a mental list of what to do and how much time you have available.
  3. Turn off the internet when you don’t need it.
  4. Leave your phone at home sometimes!

C: Teach and discuss how to find reliable information online.

  1. Teach searching skills and introduce safe search engines.
  2. Teach and discuss knowing how to ask the right questions and finding the accurate answers.
  3. Help students build personal learning networks with people they know they can trust. One way is to introduce blogging and the use of Twitter.

I’ll be spending two more virtual weeks with Howard Rheingold. If you’d like to know more about his e-course, which is characterized by many good things, including small enrollment, visit this webpage at the Social Media Classroom.

Image: Joi Ito, Creative Commons

About the author
Ann S. Michaelsen is a teacher and administrator at Sandvika High School in Oslo, Norway. A promoter of computers in schools since 2002, Ann is working at the country level to implement the Skillsoft LMS in 24 schools. Ann presented at the global Microsoft Partners in Learning Innovative Education Forums in 2010, a year after Sandvika was named Norway’s 2009 Pathfinder school. She regularly offers advice and insights to fellow educators at the blog Teaching English Using Web 2.0 and on Twitter at @annmic.