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The New Attention Span

by Ian Huckabee on April 7, 2014

The New Attention SpanSomeone told me recently entropy isn’t what it used to be. I haven’t been able to stop offering that up as a quip for why anything goes differently than expected. For many in the world of learning and training, things do appear to be going differently than expected. When we look at learning in the context of increased mobility, an evolving economy, and the cultural impact of generational change, we see what looks a lot like entropy at work.

Much of the change is being driven by the new attention span. Media providers compete for our attention across increasing numbers of devices and media channels by offering content that is more visual, more interactive, shorter in length, and that delivers a quicker payoff to the viewer. The impact this is having on the edifice of learning is disruptive, to say the least. But this seeming decline into disorder represents tremendous opportunities for organizational learning.

A big contributor to the new attention span is our increased mobility. Wireless mobile communication is the fastest growing form of communication in history. Never before have we been able to learn so much with such little effort wherever we are and whenever we want. According to Gartner, the number of mobile workers will likely triple in 2014, and the practice of “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) will continue to offer up new origins of those “aha” moments that are essential to learning.

As a result, as we reported earlier this year, today’s workforce is becoming more collaborative as mobile technologies allow workers to perform tasks from multiple locations. Learning solutions are beginning to reflect this collaborative work style, and in many cases are embedded within it. Mobile workers find easy ways – whether company-sanctioned or not – to access information in order to bolster creativity, enhance performance and solve problems. Easier often means faster. And faster means attention can more quickly shift elsewhere.

What is an attention span, anyway?

Virginia Heffernan, an expert on pop and digital culture and former columnist for the New York Times, writes in her piece “The Attention-Span Myth” (NYTimes, 2010) of an “unhappy attention-span conceit” that has formed, where attention spans are seen as “constituents of character that have become the digital-age equivalent of souls.” The longer the better, we have come to believe, and technology is shrinking them. But could the attention span be, as Heffernan suggests, a phantom idea? In an age when we can have whatever information we want whenever we want it, might a healthy attention span be one that is more flexible, more elastic, one that gives us the ability, through repetition and a priori experiences, to quickly filter out that which should never be allowed to constitute any part of our modern-day souls?

Advances in communications technologies have thrust us into an expected evolutionary transition, not unlike the advent of human languages some fifty thousand years ago or the development of the modern-day printing press some 560 years ago. “These cultural transitions,” Heffernan writes, “— disruptive as they are — happen all the time as society’s demands on individuals change.” It’s not that the attention span changes to the fashion of the day; it changes to meet our current needs.

The New Attention Span and Learning

In our report – “E-learning Will Never Be the Same. Hallelujah!” – one of the areas we look at is the new attention span and how to appeal to it for training purposes. And we look at the positive effects these approaches can have on today’s workplace learning.

Interactive videos, for instance, are emerging as the new learning “document” because of cost, ease, and impact in a time-poor workplace. Interactive layers within a video allow the learner to click on screen and access other destinations that contain additional learning content, including web pages, pop-up documents, and scene (or chapter) points within the video. Choose-your-own-adventure videos allow learners to make decisions during the video, each of which can lead to a different outcome.

Transmedia story telling is another approach that quickly appeals to the new attention span. Because of increases in the numbers of mobile devices and mobile workers, the ability to tell stories across multiple media is playing a greater role in engaging learning audiences. Organizations are beginning to expand narrative-centered learning environments by telling stories across multiple media in environments where those individuals are already engaged.

Personalized, adaptive, and relationship-centric learning approaches give learners the content they need, when they need it. Innovative organizations offer adaptive learning solutions and services to their learning audiences in order to fulfill learner demand for smaller, bite-sized learning, delivering to the learner only the content they need.

Even the learning management system (LMS) is changing. It’s moving from a learning-centric application to a learner- and relationship-centric platform, an ecosystem that addresses multiple generations, multiple learning modalities, multiple cultures, and multiple types of user devices. Next-generation LMSs and ecosystems are becoming inherently social and collaborative, where learners can rate and comment on “aha” moments in formal and informal learning events, and where they can contribute content that allows other team members to leverage a wider organizational knowledge base.

Tomorrow’s Workers

There are many starting points for addressing the cultural impact that increased mobility, an evolving economy, and generational change are having on organizational learning and learners’ attention spans. As lifelong learning makes renewed demands on learning services and continues to challenge traditional learning models, and as competition builds for tomorrow’s leaders and for mid- and high-skilled workers, success could very well be measured by the amount of attention organizations place on the new attention span.

Download the White Paper: E-learning Will Never Be the Same. Hallelujah! (PDF)


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