Multi-Tasking Addiction

I watched Digital Nation on PBS last night and found it troubling and enlightening. One of the key points was that we are not as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. We feel that we are in control of all of the information that is flowing over us, but  a study done with MIT students showed that while they believed that they worked as well when doing multiple tasks – reading, answering their phone, sending a Tweet – they really weren’t. There was a measurable difference in their ability to perform the tasks they were given.

After having spent the weekend at Educon, where everyone had a phone or computer in their hand at all times, it made me wonder. Did we each take away as much from this fabulous conference as we could have? Did our gadgets get in the way of our learning without our knowing it? We were working on the presumption that the tools were adding to our experience, when in fact they may not have been.

I went to a workshop on Back-Channeling, the practice of carrying on conversations on Twitter or through other tools, while listening to a lecture. There are clearly some uses that  totally support a student’s learning, such as using Edmodo to have students post their reactions to a movie as it is showing or providing a means for the shyer students to express an opinion. I wonder though if carrying on multiple conversations actually adds to the learning.

Just because we can have multiple conversations, does that mean that we should? Should we be encouraging our students to multi-task? Or should we be training them to focus their brains in a single direction?

Given how devoted to multi-tasking all of us are, the task of maintaining focus may be the next great challenge for our students, both in their work and in their social lives. There is no benefit in supporting them being like hummingbirds who flit from one flower to the next. They need to develop the tools to be creative and to think deeply.

8 responses to “Multi-Tasking Addiction

  1. As soon as I read the title to the post I knew it was one that I was going to read. I am torn at whether I agree or not thus it is making me form an opinion, think deeply on a topic that pops in my head when I am usually doing something else. 🙂 Personally I hate watching people that I know multitask during presentations or conversations with or near me when they are multitasking on something that does NOT correspond with what they are listening to or doing. I feel that they think that they are getting more done and being more efficient, but does that show respect to whom they are communicating with, focus on what is going on in the NOW? But multitasking on the subject or topic works for me. For example backchanneling at conferences or in classes. I think the people Twittering, online communicating, multitasking on the topic where 100% focused on that topic more so than sitting quietly listening trying to keep their brain from thinking of all the to do’s that are on their plate. I feel that it makes the person take an active voice and prove their understanding. But corresponding with others, surfing web that is off task takes your brain off of the main focal point. I get my kids ready in the morning with the TV on, thinking it will wake them in a “nicer mood” if they want to wake up to see the tv program versus me begging them to “GET UP!” (I know bad parenting). It takes me 10 minutes longer on those mornings though because my kids are focused more on the show than putting on their clothes! I turn off things like Twitter or turn on just instrumental, mellow music to read or complete tasks that require me to really focus or a task that I need to get finished soon. I think teaching children how and when to multitask appropriately is just one more skill that we are going to have to add to the curriculum. 24-7 connectivity is here to stay. We just need to teach and model how to handle it while getting the job done.

  2. Great points, Hadley.

    I am totally guilty of multitasking and missing parts of presentations at Educon. Not huge chunks, but every once in a while I’d realize I’d missed what a presenter or attendee was saying. At the same time, I found my Google Doc notes to be priceless when doing a post-conference review and reflection. It seems we as individuals need to monitor our own use and model this for our students and children.

  3. I agree that I, for one, cannot multitask successfully. Although I occasionally took out my itouch or laptop at educon this past weekend, I found myself shutting off my electronics most of the time in order to pay attention to what was being said around me. I needed to focus my attention on the speakers and my colleagues and found that I could not tweet or follow back channels and pay attention at the same time.

    However, if I am at home, following a session in elluminate or edtech talk, etc… the backchannel is part of the learning for me. It made a difference at Educon, being f2f with a room full of interesting, smart people- an opportunity not to be squandered by splitting my attention. However, it also meant missing out on learning from all my friends who were attending virtually, and not being able to contribute to those conversations.

    Although I agree that multitasking means less than full attention to any one piece, the success varies with the situation for me. There are many meetings that I can attend f2f, do other tasks and not miss a beat. Educon was not one of these mundane meetings and demanded more of my attention.

  4. I am torn on this issue because I can see the advantages of the backchannel while at the same time see the disadvantages as it pertains to my attention to the speaker. participated in educon thru elluminate and took online courses using a similar program and found it impossible to truly multitask. Many times the chat session became the “front channel” and the presenter/teacher went to the back of my attention. Like others have mentioned before, I missed what the presenter said while participating in the chats. But I also find that I learn greatly from that part of the experience as well.

    I am reminded of this each time I ask a student to respond to a question in my own class who I know has missed the question because of his own distraction. At that point it becomes a lesson in attention and respect for the student. But it also serves as a reminder to me of my own learning and participation in events. It’s a balance I need to figure out.

    • Tom,

      I too have experienced the back channel becoming front channel, often because it was more interesting. If the goal was simply to engage with the topic, then whichever channel works is good. At something like Educon, that is clearly the case. We were all there to learn and were all working to build a thoughtful conversation. It is in moving it to the classroom that I have questions. If we don’t actually learn as much as we would otherwise when we are multi-tasking, then when is it appropriate? I need to learn more.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. You need to move to New Zealand, where we actively don’t multi-task! 🙂

  6. I was in the same Back Channeling workshop.
    You state; “I wonder though if carrying on multiple conversations actually adds to the learning.”

    I think your question is focused on the instructor as the assessor of the learning ie. in the instructor’s mind what is “learning”, what activities increase “learning” and what activities detract from the “learning”. However if you look at it from the perspective of learning being an organic process that grows differently in the mind of each participant, then back channeling is another useful tool in the tool bag of teachers to grow the learning for each student.

    • Joe,

      I see your point, and I love to put tools in my students’ hands. I am not sure, however, that every tool works for every lesson or learning opportunity. I think that there are times for the Twitter background, and there are times when I am still not convinced it adds to the learning. I am less worried about the assessment aspect and more focused on how to enable the organic process that you speak of.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s