Profs compete for students' attention

As a new generation of learners grows up with a multimedia, multitasking style of information processing, professors are challenged to compete for student's attention, even in their own classroom.

Amy Tiemann
Amy Tiemann, Ph.D., is the author of Mojo Mom: Nurturing Your Self While Raising a Family and creator of MojoMom.com.
Amy Tiemann
3 min read

"...Nobody is in the room. The professor is just another open browser window, 1 of 10."
--UNC graduate student on the distracted classroom experience

Smoot tariff act?" targetUrl="http://www.80s.com/saveferris/cast/stein.html"/>Immersion in online technology and media has fundamentally changed the way our minds work, the way we gather information and split our attention. It may be harder than ever for educators to avoid coming across like the monotonous economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I taught high school 10 years ago, and in many ways I am thankful that I was teaching in the era before networked laptops.

I was a talented teacher, but let's face it, when you are trying to convince 16-year-olds that they really are interested in learning chemistry at 8:30 in the morning, it helps to have a captive audience.

Now teachers face new pressures: competing for their students' attention inside the classroom, and presenting material in a way that resembles the variety of mass media that teens consume on average more than 40 hours a week.

What's going on now while college professors are lecturing? I asked my Mojo Mom Podcast co-host Sheryl Grant what she's seeing as an information and library sciences graduate student at the University of North Carolina. Sheryl says, "The most shocking part of going back to school at this point in my life (in her 30s) is looking around and realizing that nobody is in the room. The professor is just another open browser window, 1 of 10." Students work much as they would at their desks at home, multitasking like crazy, even when they happen to be in the live lecture hall. If the professor does not set standards for paying attention, students will multitask with Facebook, Gmail, watch live basketball games or YouTube videos, carry on IM conversations with many people at once, and play games like Boggle and Scrabulous on the side. Sheryl describes it as "Total ADD" that is light-years beyond doodling-in-the-margins distraction.

Professors can react in several ways, from ignoring this behavior, to calling it out and developing new etiquette, to doing their best to create their own multimedia presentations. Watching last week's Frontline episode "Growing Up Online" it was clear that some teachers relished these new challenges, using new tools like smartboards to create interactive multimedia presentations, while others seemed stunned that their old methods no longer effectively reached their students.

I have mixed emotions as I read about new "audience response" systems that can turn an AP physics class into an interactive video game:

The games had begun. In a darkened classroom at Great Neck South High School on a recent afternoon, the Advanced Placement physics students sped through a pop quiz, furiously pressing keys on hand-held clickers. A projection screen tracked their responses in real time, showing who knew what through an animated display of spaceships--individually numbered for each student--that blasted off or fell by the wayside with each right or wrong answer.

These tools will help education continue to evolve in engaging ways, but it is sad to me to think that we are heading to a world of 24-hour a day entertainment. Sheryl and I are convinced that there's a backlash on the way in the near future. We envision families looking for opportunities to unplug, to have a chance to reconnect with the here and now. In the meantime, I can only extend my sympathies to those teachers who are dancing as fast as they can to keep students engaged in the classroom.