Is Attention Important in Learning?

A recent CNET article noted that the typical office worker is interrupted every three minutes by an e-mail, IM, phone call, etc. If you are working on something creative, it takes about 8 minutes for our brains to get into that state. With all these distractions how is anyone able to get anything done? The result, says Carl Honore, journalist and author of “In Praise of Slowness,” is a situation where the digital communications that were supposed to make working lives run more smoothly are actually preventing people from getting critical tasks accomplished. Chris Caposella a VP in the Microsoft Information Worker Business Unit says that “People are ultra connected. And you know what? Now they are starting to realize, ‘Wow, I want to actually stop getting interrupted.'” Dan Russell, a researcher at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, turns off the instant notification of e-mail and only looks at e-mail 2X a day and has cut the time he spends with e-mail in half. Other organizations, like Veritas Software have implemented “no e-mail Fridays.” Employees can’t e-mail one another on Friday, but they are allowed to e-mail customers or other parts of the storage company if they have to. The result? Workers spend more time connecting face to face. A study by Hewlett-Packard earlier this year found that 62 percent of British adults are addicted to their e-mail–checking messages during meetings, after working hours and on vacation. Half of workers felt a need to respond to e-mails immediately or within an hour, and one in five people reported being “happy” to interrupt a business or social gathering to respond to an e-mail or phone message. Even airlines are starting to offer broadband Internet access. So how will we be able to deal with this tidal wave of communications? “With Office 12, we will do things to make it a lot easier for people to be more effective in the way they manage all of these communication mechanisms,” Capossela said. IBM also is looking at solutions to manage scheduling for the next version of Lotus Workplace, part of IBM’s collection of software that rivals Office. But technology may not be the solution. Like many issues in collaboration it is the “people and process issues” that are the crux of the problem. “The problem, Russell said, is that there are only certain types of tasks that humans are good at doing simultaneously. Cooking and talking on the phone go together fine, as does walking and chewing gum (for most people). But try and do three math problems at once, and you are sure to end up in frustration.” Attention Management I have written a lot about what I call “attention management” and what everyone else calls “Continuous Partial Attention (term coined by Linda Stone).” Stowe has been blogging about this for months, and he and I have had a few discussions on the subject. Basically, he believes that your social networks are your filter for information overload. If A likes it and I like and trust A, then I should like it. I agree with Stowe to a point, in that social networks only deal with part of the problem. I do not believe that you will be able to filter enough through these networks to stop the overwhelming of your bandwidth for both information and attention. I believe that the problem needs to be attached also from the other direction. That is to augment a person’s ability to “attend” to content and events. In my view of the future there are a variety of technology solutions that might help. But I don’t think the scheduling tools that Microsoft and Lotus are building are it. I believe that you will need to multiply your bandwidth and attention by multiplying your self. Some type of virtual agent that not only knows where you are, what you are doing and what collaboration programs or devices you have, but it also has a subset of your personality and is assigned to deal with specific types of tasks demanding your attention. For example, this virtual agent or avatar can deal with lower-level requests for attention and decisions around what to pick up at the grocery store. It knows your likes and dislikes, what is in the refrigerator and what is not, and you have empowered it to make those shopping decisions, and have the groceries delivered to your house at 6:00 pm (it knows your schedule and that you are due to have dinner with your family by 7:00 pm). This leaves you free to deal with critical requests for your attention from your family, your boss, negotiating with a client, dealing with a crisis, etc. Since many fewer items fall into these “critical” categories your bandwidth and attention are on overwhelmed, and yet all of these other demands on your attention are also being satisfied. Blue Sky or Tomorrows Solution? I realize that I lot of what I have written about is theoretical. The the days of intelligent agents that can augment my attention may be far off, but the tsunami of information and demands for my attention are here today. One of the biggest issues I had in school was paying attention to the teacher, especially if I was bored or had already done the work. I don’t see online learning, or virtual classrooms (the way they are today) as a good solution to that problem. What do you think?

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