Tech and attention spans

child-and-tvI having recently given the impact of technology on attention spans in students a little bit of thought sparked by a comment made to me.   This led me to consider the question of “does technology have a negative impact on attention span in students” a little more thought and consideration.

For me one of the big benefits of technology is its ability to provide or support responsive feedback.    Computer games aim to provide users instant feedback as to whether they are doing well or poorly.   e-Mail aims to allow us to send a message to another user such that they will receive the message and be able to reply almost instantly as opposed to having to wait for snail mail to arrive.   In the class, students can complete quizzes and tests that provide instant feedback, or they can hand in assessments which the teacher can provide instant feedback on as opposed to having to wait for their next lesson together.

Hattie and Timperley (2007) state that feedback is “one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement”.   Technologies helps to facilitate this feedback, and therefore can be viewed as also being able to have a powerful influence on learning.

We live in a world of balance therefore it is important to recognize that the suggested advantages of technology use are not without consequence.   The use of technology and resultant instant or near instant feedback leads to a need for more feedback and therefore a lack of patience or acceptance for where it is not forthcoming.   This in turn is viewed as the inattention as implied in my opening paragraph.     Students may therefore appear less capable or less willing to take on longer activities where less feedback is forthcoming.

I wonder at this point as to the prolonged activities which we are required to do.    Research for example, can now be done more quickly through the use of google without the need to pore through a long list of research texts.   Also the feedback i have referred to which is beneficial relates to learning, however often longer tasks are about application or demonstration of learning as opposed to new learning, for example being able to write a report to prove understanding of the Data Protection Act.

As such we have a strength here in techs ability to provide quick or even immediate feedback with the benefits this can have for learning however we also have an associated weakness, being the tendancy for the tech and its associated feedback to make students dependent/expectant of immediate feedback and therefore prone to display a shorter attention span.

I would suggest the key lies in a balance between learning, involving technology and regular and frequent feedback, and demonstration and application of learning, involving more focused and substantial tasks where technology may or may not be involved.


Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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