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Multitasking in the Digital Age

Posted by jturner56 on February 9, 2014

Multitasking has become a bit of a target of interest of late by academics, psychologists and columnists. At times juxtaposing the term with distraction and other negative connectations, in an effort to simplify the term by reference to single variable learning, multitasking has been laid open to misinterpretations. In the end not dissimilar to how concept of digital natives has been over-simplified.

I am not saying that digital cannot distract, no more than television or comics stood accused in previous times.We should not be surprised if school study for the sake of busyness elicits little of no strong focus. Disengagement from repetitive undemanding tasks is not limited to the young.

What I do say is that time management and focus in the Digital Age requires deeper thinking and willingness to embrace changing paradigms. Blackening digital to harken back to a golden age, when the individual student sat transfixed in their school chair to a single learning objectives, is romanticism that never was. The potential of digital as mental prosthesis, as noted by Daniel Goleman in Focus: The Hidden Driver of Focus, highlights the need for education to rethink the mental models it is charged with developing; not to throw out those still needed, but to ensure those learning attributes needed for the 21st Century are truly valued and supported.

The Digital Age requires an understanding of learning across three perspectives. Firstly, deep learning requires not only focus, but a capacity to apply in meaningful ways. This can be boosted by the cognitive enhancement capacity of digital through collective intelligence. Teaching students how to learn to learn would help them balance single focus requirements with collective enterprise. Secondly, the Digital Age requires new dynamics in information handling that goes beyond single focus truth. Supertaskers may well show us attributes that we can embed into our educational programs to support our students and workers. Thirdly, each student’s individual relationship with their digital device(s) requires a social and emotional educational agenda.

There are changes going on in attention, memory, focus and even knowledge judgement. This will affect an increasing array of jobs and social structures.  What we don’t need is a cognitive dark ages marked by rear-view mirror perspectives.

What is needed in education is goals, tasks and teachers who look beyond the closed box.  Evidence of digitally empowered focus have been there for over 30 years. I was reminded of this recently when Gary Stager (again) showed how a grade level of 120+ middle years students in one room could be transfixed by learning through a relatively simple (yet powerful) Turtle Art learning opportunity. It was no different to what I saw in the mid-80s and have used as a barometer of teaching in digital domains.

It is time to move beyond the Traditional versus Progressive education choice to a new paradigm that recognizes the increasing complexity of digital choice and opportunity. Handling cognitive overload and risks to self-control through developing willpower and emotional strength. If we are to take on the wicked problems that increasingly take up our political and social time then we need new ways of looking. This should include educating to learn in focused ways relevant to digital times. Research such as by Lui and Wong on use of digital media may help point the way.

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes (Marcel Proust).


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