Multitasking – Does it actually benefit our students?

PBS Newshour recently did a segment that investigated the effect that multitasking has on our student’s brains. The result of the investigation might not be what you’d expect.

*Note: If the video is not working, you can watch the video or read the transcript on the PBS website.

Whether you agree with some of the conclusions from the news report or not, the new generation of students (described as digital natives in the video) are going to be entering the university scene soon. (It should be noted that I’m labeling, perhaps incorrectly, anyone born after 1994, a digital native.)

While watching the news report, I began wondering: Is it the job of the educator to make the material taught in class relevant to the new digital native student? Should the professor be burdened with trying to reach the student on their level using technology, rather than force the student to learn as they (the professor) did?

After thinking about it, I believe it is the burden of the professor because we have a responsibility to teach our students using the most effective means we can. As noted in the news report, the student of today is much different than that the student of 10, 20, or 30 years ago. These students are actually hardwired to think differently because of their use of technology. The question remains: how do you teach someone (or communicate with them) that is programmed to learn (or communicate) differently than you? Should we take the students out of their element and have them turn off their cell phones, close their laptops, and take notes on paper? If you view those devices as entertainment, then you might agree with that statement. As illustrated in the news report, however, technology is an essential part with how digital natives function, much more than just mere entertainment.

As educators, we need to accept the fact that students are changing at a rapid pace. With each passing year, we will be seeing more and more students immersed with technology. We owe our future students to do everything we can to try and integrate technology efficiently and correctly in our courses.

10 thoughts on “Multitasking – Does it actually benefit our students?

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  2. The sad attempts to measure human multitasking via Gutenberg-era preferences continue. Here’s what these “scientists” don’t know: How human brains “looked” before Gutenberg and Calvin applied straight-line information flow and “single-tasking” to our species.

    So, 10,000 years ago developing brains were wildly multitasking. Looking for food, looking for predators, watching the weather, all while, I’m quite sure, checking out and chatting up potential mates or talking about doing so.

    We have, finally, begun to pull ourselves out of the straightjacket of 500 years of the Protestant Reformation’s belief in “focus” and linearity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UXh7Vb1XL8

    I could indicate the level of ridiculous comments made by researchers in this video (“you cannot drive and talk or listen” – wow, there go passengers and radio) but it is more important to answer your question.

    And I’ll say simply, if you – no matter what age we are discussing – are not bringing your content, ideas, information to the audience you have, meeting them where they are and helping them move forward, you may be talking, but you are NOT involved in education.

    “Education” is the act of educating. It is not talking because you are impressed with yourself.

  3. I facilitated a workshop on laptops in the classroom last fall, one that examined the “ban or not to ban” question. We had about 30 faculty participants, which is a big number for us. This was clearly a hot topic. Here’s a bit of my notes on the conversation that’s relevant to the multi-tasking question:

    “I was struck by the interest many faculty had in helping students learn to pay attention in meaningful ways. For instance, one participant mentioned how important it is for the medical students he teaches to learn to focus their attention when interacting with patients, particularly when those patients are in pain. Another participant noted that many students will need to know how to block out digital distractions when they enter the work force or face early terminations. These faculty see their classrooms as places where they can teach students to focus their attention for long periods of time. Some ban laptops to achieve that goal, while others let students use laptops but engage their students in discussions about attention and focus.”

    While I tend to fall in the latter camp–allowing the use of mobile devices and engaging students in discussions about appropriate uses of them–I think the general point that teaching students about attention, focus, and multi-tasking is important. That is, it’s important that instructors be mindful of these issues and that they help students be mindful as well.

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