Professors Vie With Web for Class's Attention

posted Jan 02, 2003

Universities are rushing toward a wireless future... But professors say the technology poses a growing challenge for them: retaining their students' attention.

Eh, ignore the computers, and if the student flunks, the student flunks. Schools are supposed to have standards anyhow. The only angle I sympathize with the professor on this one is the part where they express concern about the laptops bothering other students, which is justifiable, but should be handled like any other anti-social behavior in a classroom; just because it involves a computer doesn't make it any different then flinging a paper airplane across the room.

But what I wanted to talk about was this:

Professor Ayres tried to prohibit all Internet use in his classroom. The students "went ballistic," he said, and insisted that their multitasking ways made them more productive and even more alert in class.

Uh, no. You basically only have so much "attention" you can spend, and it's virtually impossible to increase it. You "multitask" in the "walk, talk, and chew gum" sense by decreasing the amount of attention those tasks take through practice... but when you are walking "on autopilot", you really are walking "on autopilot". The "autopilot" is not capable of performing as well as your full self, and if something like a sudden unexpected obstacle comes up, the "auto pilot" kicks out and suddenly your whole attention is focused on the potentially tricky task of not falling down.

You can reduce the attention necessary in the common cases, but it's never as good as paying full attention. Fortunately in the real world, you don't generally need your full brain and it's just fine to walk around with a "program" in your brain that is 99.999% accurate. (99.999% sounds about right; one thing that requires your actual attention every three hours of walking around.) Unfortunately, unless you are in a class you don't belong in due to a failure of the educational system placing you either above or below your skills, the classroom environment is not one of the things that you can make do with an approximation. Listen with "half of your brain" and you will do far, far worse then get half the info out of the class then you would have if you were fully paying attention.

If you are paying attention to class, IM, and an article you're reading, you're only paying one third attention to class, period. You are not and can not be paying 100% to all three, it's impossible.

Humans do multitask, but it looks nothing like computer multitasking; we have horrible "context switch" costs, a complicated cognitive architecture that prefers only one task per capability (you can walk and talk without any problem, but talking and typing which both engage the part of your brain that decides what to say is much, much harder), and the ability to relegate common tasks to lower-level processing. It's virtually impossible to split what we call "attention" much more then two ways without extreme loss vs. paying attention to the three+ things in sequence.

My favored technique for getting through classes that are a little slow is to do something I think of like doing a tight orbit around the class's topic. Consider the way the Moon orbits the Earth; both are in effectively the same orbit around the sun, but the Moon covers more distance because it's orbiting the Earth, where the Earth just goes straight. The 'down time' in class is better spent pondering the implications of what the teacher said, checking for errors, asking yourself if you agree, etc. I've tried this with a computer on hand, armed with Google, and it can actually enhance working this way, rather then being a distraction. Does mean I occasionally pop out with some odd-seeming questions, but they usually end up with very good answers.

As a side note, while I'm not much into IM, I find most people underutilize the medium. In high school, most of the time if we went into a chat on a BBS, we would always end up carrying two conversations on at once, with one person talking in A and the other in B at the same time, then trading roles. Usually one was the business at hand, and the other would be purely social; in fact, the more disconnected the conversation topics are, the better, both for identification purposes and for the previously mentioned preference the brain has for activating different parts of the brain for different tasks. Both people are basically continuously typing and you almost end up at parity in communication with face-to-face speech with two good typers. The downside is it tends to carry over into real life speech patterns sometimes. Seems like most people online substitute by conversing with multiple people at a time, instead.


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