Preparing Students for the Supertasking Real World

April 17th, 2011
There are a number of studies that show that students learn moor poorly while multitasking (see hereherehereherehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, etc.). These studies, however, do not really change my view on this topic for one simple reason. The question is not whether multitasking helps or hinders students from learning; Educators must recognize the changed world we live in. Laptops and multitasking, whether you like it or not, are here to stay. Efforts to ban their usage will eventually be met with more and more resistance and pushback. Rather, the question for educators to answer is how this sea change should be embraced in the classroom. This challenge–how to break the digital divide between you, and your students–will help to define the future of education at all levels.

All of these studies that compare a person’s capacity to learn by focusing on one task at a time with learning while multitasking suffer from a simple flaw–they assume that a pure state of equilibrium, where all outside stimuli and interferences, is possible. Perhaps in a controlled laboratory experiment this is possible. Perhaps if a student buries herself in a quiet library with a book, and eschews digital devices, this is possible. For students that are able to achieve such peace and zen, more power to them. But most students, frankly, will never be able to seclude themselves to that extent. I would wager that most professionals in the workplace today–educators included–seldom enter such a secluded state. Who can spend an entire day at any job without being interrupted by a phone call, or an e-mail, random meetings, last-minute projects, or a colleague knocking on a door, etc. Rather, we are always inundated with different flows of data, and to one degree or another, must multitask.

Imagine a day in the life of a law firm associate. At various points, an associate will be on a conference call, scanning her blackberry, flipping through some doc review, perhaps proofing a document, checking her schedule, prepping for a depo, etc. Of course if an associate could spend 8 straight hours working on a brief, it would certainly be better than a few minutes here, a few hours there, and some time in between meetings late at night. But who can pull off 8 straight hours of doing something? If someone has that focus, and a work environment that permits it, great. But this, frankly, is a bit unrealistic. We are all inundated with stuff.

To the extent that educators transform the classroom into a controlled experiment, attempting to eliminate all distractions, they are frankly creating a false sense of reality (a charge quite common for academia). Educators in such classes are attempting to prepare students for an environment they will never, ever experience in the real world. This is misguided to say the least.

If higher education aims to prepare students for careers (a goal I would hope most agree with), then educators should prepare students for how careers work.

While there is certainly value in training students to learn in a quiet, focused environment, is there not value in teaching students to learn efficiently in a fast-paced, multi-tasked, technology-driven world? Is this not where our students will live and work in the world of tomorrow? This, in part, is one of my goals as an educator.