Shortening attention span

I took part in this year’s JTEL Summer School as one of the students. The venue was organised in a beautiful city of Ohrid in Macedonia with the hotel situated directly on the deep-blue Ohrid lake. To me the place was a perfect choice for the event like this. The beautiful landscape and fresh air gave us the opportunity to relax and refresh our minds between the subsequent sessions. One of the PhD students, Ramon Ovelar, provided a nice report of the event. I’m not going to repeat that. I truly recommend Ramon’s blogpost to anyone interested in the JTEL Summer School 2010 topics, presentations and discussions.

What I want to tell you about is something that came up during the very last session of this year’s event. This was a student-led session dedicated to the engineering of the next Summer School. One of the suggestions coming from the audience and supported by many other participants was to ban laptops from some of the next year’s Summer School sessions and workshops.

Does that mean that we tend to experience social media rather as a disturbance than an enhancement of our learning during the events such as summer schools, conferences or workshops?

The common practice in the TEL community is to set up a Twitter communication channel for any conference or other events being organized. We also had one during the Summer School 2010. We also shared a Flickr channel to upload all the photos related to the event, and a collaboration space on TELeurope platform for all the activities to be accomplished prior, during and after the event. Of course, in addition to this set of media, every participant had her own set of tools, applications and services under the label of social media, which required her constant attention. As a result, and this applies not only to the JTEL Summer School 2010 but generally to the events such as conferences, workshops or even project meetings organised in the TEL area, the attention of the most of the participants was constantly split between being here and now and there and now.

I had a very interesting conversation about this issue with Ambjörn Naeve – one of the Summer School lecturers and organisers. Ambjörn said that we are living in an interrupt-driven society and what we are experiencing as a result of being a part of this society is a phenomenon of shortening attention span. He pointed out that our cognitive capacity is limited: we can either concentrate on a couple of selected issues giving them some in-depth thought and going to the core of the problem, or we can stay on the surface and know little something about everything.

We still lack successful strategies to deal with all the attention spam we are being exposed to on an everyday basis. Finding such strategies is probably going to be one of our major endeavours in the years to come.

Will we start banning laptops from the project meetings and conferences to get the full attention of the participants on the issues at the table? I don’t think so. But the simple fact that such solutions are already being suggested (what’s even more interesting, they are being suggested by the technology-savvy members of the TEL research community itself!) means that we definitely should give this issue some closer attention.


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