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Monday, February 04, 2008

eLearning Attention Spans

Dennis Coxe posted Let me tell you about...Excuse me, what were you saying? about an article: The Post-Literate Era: Planning Around Short Attention Spans. The article is more or less summarized in the following graphic:

Dennis' point is that this points us to designing eLearning that is shorter and to the point.
The advent of shorter attention spans that successful learning events need to engage the learner, but I think this concept has often been given lip service while the focus of most learning is on how to save dollars by using software that will allow rapid development of e-learning courseware by the subject matter experts who know their materials. Unfortunately the subject matter expert may not be the best story teller.
Great points ... I also wonder if changes around reading styles (see Stop Reading - Skim Dive Skim) doesn't suggest better content presentation formats to make sure that people get the few critical items.


Anonymous said...

Automated text summarization is a technology that helps dealing with short attention span.

Summarization helps with absorbing large amount of information quickly and without being lost in unnecessary details.

The key concepts and only relevant text is presented - but always in context.

An example of a powerful summarization tool is Context Organizer from Context Discovery Inc. At a click of the button it instantly finds the most significant content on web pages, in Google search results and in office documents. It is a simple add-in to web browsers and Microsoft Office.

If you had a moment to try it out and give me your feedback that would be greatly appreciated.
Warm regards from Ottawa,
Context Discovery Inc

Joitske said...

Good point, about the attention span. It's cultural too (In Mali they like longish talks and videos). I noticed there is a downside to the short attention span too - people react to one word they read or hear, and don't bother to fully read.

Paul said...

Personally I think the short attention spans we are seeing are more a symptom of the precipitous rise of technology faster than society has had a chance to evalute the possible effects of that technology.

A permanent short attention span won't get you noticed in scientific fields. It won't produce terribly good research or work. I understand why the problem exists, and I certainly have these problems myself, but I think the answer is strategizing how to tackle the problem, rather than embracing it.

One key aspect of short attention spans is that with the availability of so much information, attention decreases to try to adjust to absorbing only the most relevant pieces. In the case of henry's Context Organizer suggestion, that is one great strategy for meeting the relevancy requirement in an efficient manner. The legacy form of a tool like that would be books by one Ms. Evelyn Wood.

I will promptly check out that tool. Thanks henry!

Maria Hlas said...

The graphic is hilarious! And a little sad. And we do have so much coming at us that you have filter the information somehow.

But also I think attention span depends on how into the subject the learner is. I was a project manager and editor on a project creating e-learning courses for pricers and pricing analysts. The material was dry, included a lot of formulas and algorithms, etc. - stuff that made the IDs want to crawl under a desk (math - egads!) But they got creative and made up challenging exercises, really hard quiz questions (not usually recommended but for this audience it was appropriate), thinking questions, etc. and the learners loved it! Some of the courses were even a bit longer than recommended and they didn't mind.

I think when it comes to a subject you like, you can go on forever and listen to just about anything. But if isn't a subject the learners like, then you have a big challenge determining how much information to include, how to present it, etc. Finding the balance between what the SMEs say you should include and what the learner's attention span will tolerate is tricky. Sometimes it is hard to convince an SME that not everyone wants to read 10 online pages about bending tubing. But that's why we get paid the big bucks - right?!

It is so hard to get people away from the linear, must-read-every-single-word idea, but I really think it helps if you can loosen up on those things and let the learner explore. Tom Kuhlman has covered this idea from the compliance standpoint in his last couple of Rapid eLearning blogs but I think the points can be applied to other types of courses.

Dave Wilkins said...

I call "bunk." The kids who are in WOW have a short attention span? Short by what measure? The months they spend playing it? And the kids who create machinima or YouTube videos? Short attention spans? Maybe they just tune out "crap" and focus instead on creating. Which requires more focus -- making something new or digesting someone else's work? And by the way, David Copperfield was "serialized" when it was first released -- as monthly installments! Which is probably why, while brilliant, it is also so damn painful to read now.

At best this is a selective argument and does not measure enough criteria to actually conclude anything meaningful. We should look at a broad picture before we make these sorts of leaps. Are we supposed to believe that the physiology of the brain has changed in just a couple hundred years? That reward mechanisms are suddenly shifting to shorter gratification stimuli? The issue is not that "attention spans are shorter;" the issue is that people have more choice over what to focus their attention on, and more often than not, it's not the stuff we "approve of." Anyway that's my two cents. Which was delivered with some level of attention and focus, though admittedly not as much as writing David Copperfield.

Tony Karrer said...

Great comments and good points.

There is so much out there that we have to make lots of choices around where we "spend our attention." And certainly, people make choices around what they spend it on and do spend a lot on topics they care about. What I think has changed is that you can't count on people caring about your topic and thus you have to expect little to no attention.

Doesn't that work out somewhat the same in practice?

And, I'm not saying that short attention is wrong - in fact, did I just argue the value of short attention in Stop Reading?

Dave Wilkins said...

Tony, I'm not sure I agree. If in fact our students ability to engage deeply with meaningful content is actually increasing (as I think it is), then I think we should be trying to figure out how to tap into that, especially for really critical business learning. Good arguments for this point of view can be found in Everything That's Bad is Good for You. It's a good read and pretty quick too.

Tony Karrer said...

Dave - I'm not sure what you disagree with? I'm not claiming that people are less able to be attentive (although some would argue because of the number of distractions), rather that they have X amount of attention to spread. The length of attention must either become shorter or narrower. Are you saying that it's narrower not shorter?

BTW, ironic that you suggest a book and include "and pretty quick too".

Joitske said...

Dave, I don't think it's about generational difference. With the information flows increasing, scanning information becomes an important skills. I think the point is that you should be able/learn to scan rapidly and at the same time you should not loose your ability to dive deep. For anybody one of the two can become a pitfall I believe

Paul said...

I see the problem not as being one that humans evolved to have shorter attention spans recently, but one that is in some ways forced upon us because society has changed faster than we've had time to compensate, partly due to technological changes. I see it in all kinds of ways. I can be talking to a friend face to face, and then his iPhone rings 5 times by 5 different people, and we're simply trying to decide where to go get some lunch. He stops for every single ring. Other technologies like IM also helps enable these things.

Is short attention span bad? It can be. Not all things are always all bad. It can also be good. I think the solution to short vs long attention spans is information literacy combined with the aforementioned scanning skills. Information literacy will help you find the information when necessary, and scanning will help you process it efficiently.

But discerning importance precedes that. Nevertheless we are learning to adapt by creating or adapting existing tools to help us through the process.

Dave Wilkins said...

Tony in re-reading the flow, I'm not sure what I disagreed with either. Maybe I should have taken my own advice and focused a bit more... ; )

Good rebuttal points by Joitske and Paul as well. I particularly like Joitske's point about needing both skills.

Joitske said...

Thanks Dave, I gave it a lot of attention.. and there it was that brilliant idea :)

Anonymous said...

"...the focus of most learning is on how to save dollars by using software that will allow rapid subject matter experts..."

I think you're overlooking the real rationale of many "learning" efforts: saving dollars by eliminating travel and by extending the effective workday by shoving job-related learning onto the employee's own time.

There are those who'd use their discretionary time that way, but I can't help thinking that an organization that values learning makes it ease to learn on the clock.

Maria's points are valid -- SMEs (as opposed to exemplary performers) are prone to think that people need to know stuff that's extraneous to the performance. (My favorite example is EEO training that requires you to say when the Civil Rights Act was passed.)

Dave's on target as well, both with the serialization of Dickens (it was a push world) and with the WoW example. Granted, it's probably more fun hunting orcs than analyzing retirement claims, but if your job is with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, you've got some work-related needs.

Rethinking ways to organize and present information is completely appropriate. At the same time, as Whitehead said, seek simplicity and distrust it.