I often return to the subject of attention, often because I have a problem with it myself. I have great difficulty switching off both digital and physical distractors when I'm working and could get much more done if I could resist the sirens' call. I don't believe this is a new phenomenon but the lure of social media has certainly exacerbated the problem. It has a lot to do with where your motivation comes from and the fact that if you want to be distracted you will be. If you have a task you are extremely committed to then it is much less likely that you'll bother checking e-mails, Facebook, Twitter or news feeds. If it's a task you have to do but are not particularly interested in then it's hard to focus and the task takes at least double the necessary time.
Online learning offers great flexibility and is often the only form of education available to people with full-time jobs as well as family and other commitments. However it demands high levels of self-discipline and the ability to focus and many are simply not good at that. Even when you sit down and try to focus on your studies, say a recorded lecture or an article to read, the distractions are always temptingly close and work that could easily be done in one concentrated hour can easily take two or three.
So when designing an online course are there methods for helping the student to focus on the task in hand? This area has been the subject of research by Daniel Schacter and Karl Szpunar of Harvard University and summarised in an article in Harvard Science, Online learning: It's different. The idea of breaking up lectures into small digestible segments is commonplace today but their research shows that it is not enough. You need to have regular tests of some sort between the chunks of information, not too challenging but tricky enough to make them focus.
“At the very least, what this says is that it’s not enough to break up lectures into smaller segments, or to fill that break with some activity,” he said. “What we really need to do is instill in students the expectation that they will need to express what they’ve learned at some later point. I think it’s going to be a very sobering thought for a lot of people to think that students aren’t paying attention almost half the time, but this is one way we can help them get more out of these online lectures.”
This approach applies just as well to classroom as online learning and although it doesn't sound particularly surprising they claim there is very little research in this area so far. It seems a rather primitive behaviourist carrot and stick method but we need only look to the world of gaming to see how motivating small rewards can be and the total concentration and immersion that gamers experience. Khan Academy for one has been built around this principle with short input films, tests and a system of badges and levels to show progress. Although these are important considerations I still think the article focuses on only one aspect of online learning and misses the big picture.
This article seems to focus too much on the need to force students to focus and see the testing as a form of stick rather than carrot. I think there is enormous potential to adapt the reward principles of gaming in an educational context but the focus in the article is on traditional knowledge transmission and does not deal with learning as an interactive process. The online learning focused on in the article is the traditional self-study linear model rather than collaborative networked learning arenas where digital skills, source criticism, networking and peer review are essential. The challenge is to move from external motivation where students are forced/encouraged to focus to instilling internal motivation where they actually want to focus and the distractions simply evaporate.