This week in my Higher Education in the Digital Age class we read, listened to, and watched several articles, blogs, interviews, and presentations on the topic of multitasking. We were asked to respond to this information in the following writing prompt:
What are the most compelling arguments for and against multitasking? How does technology change our ability and/or inclination to multitask? What are the implications for higher education?
The case against media multitasking was laid out most clearly by Clifford Nass, the recently deceased professor of communication at Stanford University who studied the effects of media multitasking on information processing ability. His published paper is available here. In an interview with Science Friday's Ira Flatow, titled The Myth of Multitasking, he said that,
"The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science,
and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range
of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive
tasks, including multitasking."
Professor Nass's words resonated with me. I've found myself talking a lot lately with both my students and my colleagues about how to handle the ubiquitous smart phones that almost all of my students have and by which many of them seem to be perpetually distracted. The task of learning mathematics requires sustained focus on a single activity. Having unrelated media available only distracts students and limits their ability to learn.
Nothing in our readings contradicted Professor Nass. Instead, there were several arguments in favor of using 21st century media like smart phones to access and share information. In "Once Sideshows, Colleges' Mobile Apps Move to Center Stage", Megan O'Neil describes how Georgetown, Duke, and other universities are integrating smart phone apps into their business operations, doing things like having students register for classes and soon pay their bills from their phones. Other articles reported on how teachers are using social media, with Pearson's "Social Media for Teaching and Learning" reporting on how faculty used social media at home, in professional communication, and in their classrooms. Non of these publications claimed that increased media multitasking helped students learn more or learn better.
My sense as a classroom teacher is that to help students navigate the multimedia bombardment in which they are now immersed, we will have to find ways to teach them how to limit their multitasking when the task at hand requires it in order to achieve the focus needed for sustained concentration of thought. Self awareness of how media multitasking effects a student's learning may very well become a critical tool for student success. Teaching students how not to multitask may be the real skill necessary for achieving in the 21st century.
University of Washington Professor David M. Levy is working on this very idea. The Chronical of Higher Education article, Your Distracted, This Professor Can Help,
describes how Professor Levy runs a class called "Information and
Contemplation" that specifically focuses on teaching students how to
still their mind and focus their attention as a way to gain mastery over
the distractions caused by media multitasking.