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.
- Computer lids down when teacher is giving instructions for class.
- Stay on task, no gaming, Facebook, Twitter, Skype or surfing when not related to school work.
- 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.
- Close all other applications and devices when reading texts.
- Make a mental list of what to do and how much time you have available.
- Turn off the internet when you don’t need it.
- Leave your phone at home sometimes!
C: Teach and discuss how to find reliable information online.
- Teach searching skills and introduce safe search engines.
- Teach and discuss knowing how to ask the right questions and finding the accurate answers.
- 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
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It sounds as if this course is intense and yet you sound energized by the challenge of it.
Challenge and energized. They shouldn’t go together right? But they do. It’s also why I think people find games so engaging and can even become obsessed. The carrot is just so slightly out of reach and to get it, you really have to try.
It’s one of the things that I think will be the answer to improving focus in digital arenas. How can we learn to put the task just out of reach of a student, require them to work together (trading tips and “cheats”)in a collaborative context so they can reach that goal only if they TRY.
That’s a big thing I’m thinking is important. The intrinsic need to try. When our tasks are mundane and don’t really require that much effort, students respond in kind.
Do you think that these ideas fit within what you’re studying?
Marsha I agree with you. The tasks need to be interesting enough to keep the students focused and on task. Working collaborately is certainly a way to go. I like the idea of the students asking their own questions too. Making it worth the while. Thank you for commenting, I just finished a great weekend at Educon. That kept me busy and focused!
What a timely piece for me. I require my students to bring their laptops to class, we are not a 1 to 1 school though 90% of students have their own laptops. My students who don’t have a laptop stop by the library to borrow one on the way to class. Now that I have them “trained” to think of their laptop as a tool like paper or a pencil, we are going to debrief where we are and what we need to do going forward to make better use of this tool, including how to not have it interfere with our classroom discussions–the heart of what happens. I liked your suggestions about guidelines. I think I will begin with my students there.
I know that I made a rule for myself last year, that when I am talking to someone in my office, I always shut my computer and put my phone in my desk drawer.
Thank you Margaret, I’m glad you found something you could use here. The guidelines are a great start. I recently discussed with my students how their use of Facebook in class reflects on me as a teacher. All our classrooms have windows in the hallway and everyone can see what we are doing. I don’t think they had ever thought about that much. Your rules are good, I try to shut down my screen too when someone is in my office.
My friend Nancy Flanagan, who blogs at “Teacher in a Strange Land” tweeted this NYT Magazine story this morning, with a note intended to spark some discussion about implications for educators and learning. It’s a pretty good companion to Ann’s post and her wonderings about the effects of the internet and constant connectedness on students — and on teachers who fail to be proactive.
The article is titled “The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg.” http://nyti.ms/wUhjej
Yes that article ties nicely to what I have been learning in my course. Tools like the iPhone are becoming an extension of our brain, storing information we used to know by heart. Like phone numbers and the way we find our way around using gps. A question to ask in school is; if these tools are becoming an extension of our brain, why are students not allowed to use these during exams?
You’re right on. I especially like what you say about needing to talk openly with students about potential distractions and help them make decisions on how they can personally stay focused (we’re not all distracted by the same things).
I just wrote a post about Keeping Students Engaged in a 1:1 project-based classroom. My students are becoming deeper thinkers – but it begins by learning habits to stay engaged. http://wp.me/p1Dq2f-oE
Janet | expateducator.com
Janet, thanks for leaving a comment and sharing the link to your post about this topic. Hope many teachers read it, you offer practical advice on how to adress this. And if the teacher sits behind the desk instead of walking around, mentoring, guiding and giving advice, the students will drop out for sure! Loved the planning with post-it notes too!
I’d like to add that rich mathematics problems – which typically take at least 20 minutes to solve and which regrettably are not part of the curricula in North America or Western Europe – have an even more important concentration-fostering role to play nowadays.