Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at some of the minuses (and pluses) of multitasking. It is from Chapter 4, Paradigm Lost, in the book, Discussion-bases Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning, Theory, Practice and Assessment, by Tisha Bender. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Turkle reminisces about the 1980s, in which students confessed to often doing homework with television and music playing, as well as some handheld video games, and feels that this now \"sound[s] almost pastoral\" (2011, p. 162) in contrast to the multiplicity of tasks that most students currently attend to almost simultaneously. When interviewed in the documentary Digital Nation (2010) Turkle said that when students multitask, \"everything is done a little worse.\" She understands that when studying becomes hard, there is a temptation to stop and check e-mail or send a few text messages, but she feels that this sort of break is not equivalent to having a walk or a cup of tea (my favorite). When walking or drinking tea, one is still thinking through the problem, even subconsciously, but when looking at an e-mail or text message this focus totally blows aside the original problem that was being considered.
Some Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors report that students are no longer writing coherent papers; rather they write in little bursts and snippets between texts or Facebook checks. They return to write the next paragraph, but by then their attention has been distracted, so that the next paragraph has no connection with the previous one. This is problematic as studying can be challenging, so it needs sustained attention, as does the process of writing a paper. As Digital Nation reported, despite MIT students saying that they felt very competent academically regardless of increased multitasking, the scores on their tests unfortunately indicate otherwise. Turkle says we should not be lured by things \"exploding on the screen,\" or by a text message, and she insists that even though a computer is attractive because of its interactive potential, she thinks that one can interact a lot with a book. Otherwise, she remarks, \"[W]e are taking human imagination out of our conversation about interactivity\" (Digital Nation, 2010).
As Richtel (2010a) profoundly asks, what should students want: immediate gratification, or an investment in their future? He is also of the opinion that multitasking can lead to a decrease in the ability to pay attention. He backs up his assertion by referring to a study done by Eyal Ophir at Stanford, in which Ophir asked subjects to look quickly at a series of red and blue rectangles, some of which rotated and some of which did not, and then try to recall which were stationary and which moved. The multitaskers did worse on this test. Another study at Stanford by Clifford Nass, as mentioned on Digital Nation, was performed to see how quickly a subject could focus on a task while many other stimuli compete for attention. Student volunteers were shown odd and even numbers, along with much distracting information. Results showed that there was a significant decrease in ability to recall the numbers precisely because switching focus takes time. Results from both of these experiments therefore show the negative impact that multitasking has on short-term memory and analytical reasoning, which by extension shows the harmful consequences of stopping focused studying every time an e-mail or text message arrives.
Stone (as quoted by Anderson, 2009) said multitasking leads to \"continuous partial attention\" (Anderson, p. 3); she feels that every interruption causes a 25-minute loss in productivity. This can be accounted for, according to Anderson, through information derived from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, which show neurons, blood surges, and oxygen flows in the brain, and indicate that if multitasking occurs, the processing of the information leaves the hippocampus-the area of the brain responsible for the creation of memories-and moves to the striatum section of the brain, which is responsible for rote tasks. And it is precisely because of this that multitasking makes it hard to learn new things or remember them.
Also, as Powers points out, even if our brain is able to cope with multitasking, perhaps our mind-as defined by our consciousness and emotions-might not be able to cope. This view is certainly also held by Aboujaoude, who says that \"mindless Web surfing, without forethought or plan, and without awareness of the passage of time or any real-life anchoring, is our era's very common version of the symptom of dissociation\" (2011, p. 36). Aboujaoude defines dissociation as \"a disruption of the normal integration of thoughts and behaviors into consciousness and memory, so that for a period of time certain information is not integrated, or 'associated,' with other information as it normally and logically would be\" (p. 36). This is not to say that all dissociation is bad, as it can actually vary by degrees. Certainly the feeling of immersion in researching or writing, with the consequent loss of recognition of the passage of time, can be wonderfully rewarding and productive, as it is in this state that creativity and synthesis of ideas can occur. But this can be contrasted with the hours wasted by \"mindless Web surfing,\" much akin to the rapid and empty switching of channels on the television.
I feel, however, that we should give at least some students more credit for being conscientious. In my own hybrid courses, some students have told me they were voluntarily making a conscious effort to limit their multitasking, as shown by the following comments:
• \"On a personal level, I found it totally feasible; during high school I would spend countless hours on a computer, trying to avoid doing that history paper that was due the next morning. Via e-mail, My-space, AIM, and among other distractions, I helped my procrastination grow to extreme lengths, Presently, [now that I am in college] in order to get work done, I have to avoid bringing my computer to places like the library; by doing so I'm left with no other alternative but to actually use my time wisely.\"
• \"I decided two weeks ago to take myself off from Facebook, simply because I was spending more time catching [up] with my friends on Internet rather than face to face. For me, technology may save us time but for sure it is taking us away from the reality.\"
• \"What I have changed, though, in the past year [now that I am in college] is that I have stopped checking my Facebook constantly. I actually only go on it like twice a week now. So overall I feel that you really just got to know when to limit yourself because technology is definitely the way to live now, but it also can take you on a path that you might just not be able to get out of.\"
Another student of mine, who was a member of the student government, was seriously considering suggesting the enforcement of No Facebook zones at certain strategic places around the campus, just as there are No Smoking areas to give students a much needed reprieve.
Interestingly, Anderson (2009) defends the benefits of some degree of distraction. Anderson quotes the economist, Herbert A. Simon, who wrote in the pre-Internet days of 1971, \"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of informational sources that might consume it\" (p. 1). Anderson demonstrates that he is familiar with the fears that people have about information overload. He goes on to say that many feel that having the Internet as the hub of our work, play, and business is equivalent to a national diet of corn syrup that is making us obsess. But he pushes these ideas aside with reassurances that there are benefits to be gained from the digital technologies. After all, he says, if we only focus excessively and exclusively on one thing, this could lead to being obsessive or compulsive, and ideally in life we need a balance between attention, which is derived from Latin and means \"to stretch out or reach toward,\" and distraction, which is also from the Latin and means \"a pulling apart.\" He states categorically, \"Focus is a paradox-it has distraction built into it\" (Anderson, 2009, p. 7).
And so, in answer to the argument that if Einstein were alive today he would never have discovered the theory of relativity because he would've been too distracted, he says that Einstein was brilliant precisely because he indulged in lateral thinking (as opposed to sharply focused thinking) by associating Newton's ideas about gravity with particle physics. In much the same way, Anderson hopes that the iGeneration, through the neuroplasticity of their brains that will enable them to cope efficiently with large amounts of information, will be able to synthesize this great amount of data and possibly come up with some innovative discovers of their own. Henry Jenkins, quoted in Digital Nation (2010), shares this opinion, arguing that distraction is not new; we have felt overloaded by excessive amounts of information before and we have coped. He believes that we are better off as a society if we can embrace information with an open, inquisitive, and exploring mind.
This indeed could be plausible when we consider that our minds rarely stay focused on one thing for long. Those of us who meditate can see that this is true; even as we try to focus on one thought or mantra, generally a host of other thoughts come flooding in. This could be an evolutionary trait, as suggested by Gallager in her book Rapt (as referred to by Anderson, 2009, pp. 3-4) in which she mentions that even as we are focused on one task, we have an involuntary awareness of things going on around us, such as a sudden noise or smell or movement, and that peripheral awareness of these events serves to protect us from dangers or heightens the possibilities of reaping rewards, as in a tasty dinner. But, says Richtel (2010a), just as this awareness of what is happening on the periphery could have alerted our ancient ancestors to a prowling lion coming dangerously close, now it seems that many of us are alert to the chime of a newly arrived e-mail or text message, and this often distracts us from the task we have been focusing on. Gallager concludes that because we mostly cannot ignore distractions, we need to make a conscious choice as to what to focus on. Anderson quotes William James as saying, \"My experience is what I agree to attend to\" (2009, p. 4). But even as we focus, we need to be aware of the complexity of stimuli swirling around us, and as Anderson says, \"The truly wise mind will harness, rather than abandon, the power of distraction\" (p. 7). Anderson feels that one needs free, associative thinking to produce the spark for creativity.
I wonder, however, if Anderson would be wise to consider specifically the impact of different kinds of distractions. I agree that hopping around between Web sites with a defined mission to hunt out sources relating to a particular research topic could lead to a rich abundance of information that could, in turn, be synthesized in interesting ways and might lead to a new and exciting realization and advancement of knowledge. The problem might only manifest itself if someone switches rapidly from studying, to Facebook, to texts, and more.
David Meyer, interviewed by Anderson (2009, p. 3), reinforces this view by saying that each task we carry out involves different channels of the brain, and if we rapidly switch between tasks, there is a loss of information and inefficiency, which increases the likelihood of making mistakes. He says we can only multitask successfully if each task involves completely separate channels of the brain, such as listening to music while reading. But if two tasks involve the same channel, such as the visual channel as exemplified by driving and texting at the same time, it might prove impossible to do both successfully.
So, whereas multitasking between entirely different activities could impede concentration and hinder sustained engagement in studying, there would definitely be some activities that at the very least might offer a needed change in pace and some relaxation, and at best might further enhance the learning and discovery process.
• Digital Nation: Growing Up Online. 2010. PBS Frontline Documentary. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/ (February).
• Anderson, S. 2009. \"In Defense of Distraction.\" New York Magazine (May 17). Retrieved from http://nymag.com/news/features/56793
• Richtel, M. 2010a. \"Attached to Technology and Paying a Price.\" New York Times: Business Day Technology, (June 6).