Are MOOCs Killing Our Conference Presentation Attention Span?

Learning at 2X.

October 7, 2014

I’m just starting a new MOOC on Coursera, An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching.

The first week is terrific, if a bit video heavy. No worries, as I watch my MOOC video (MOOCideo?) at 2X speed.  Double speed actually works well for teaching videos.  There is something about watching the material on the screen while listening that allows for fast consumption.  

Oddly, this does not transfer over to audiobooks - as anything faster than normal speed for audiobooks makes my head hurt.  

My theory is that video can be watched at double speed because it has my full attention.  I’m not trying to do something else, like drive or wash dishes, when I watch MOOC videos.  My information intake channels can accommodate 2X consumption.  Bandwidth increases with focus.

The problem is that any presentation, particularly a conference presentation, at 1X speed now feels hopelessly slow.  I worry that my brain has reset itself to 2X single channel information intake.  At 1X information delivery speeds my brain is starving for more data. 

I don’t think that this problem, (if it is a problem), is quite analogous to becoming habituated to external stimulation.  Every generation we have a moral panic about students being unable to pay attention in class because they have become accustomed to the sensory overload. Facebook or ESPN.com or video games. Before social media and games it was music videos or pinball or Elvis or whatever.  From what I can see our students get smarter every year, so I’m not too worried about distractions.   

What I am talking about is an actual speeding up of our information delivery expectations.  MOOCs, and maybe lecture capture recordings, may be changing how we set our expectations around the pace of presented material.  I’ve noticed a disturbingly painful reaction inside my brain when I sit through a conference presentation where the information delivery is either too slow or too simple.  Presentations that in past that I could have sat through happily now cause grave mental pain.  

My solution is to multitask when the information coming through my eyes and ears is not dense enough.  I’ll listen to a conference presentation while scanning news.  I’ll listen to the conference presentation while simultaneously initiating some other secondary task that does not require full concentration, but that will increase the information flow to my brain. This does not mean reading e-mail.  Reading and responding to e-mail shuts down listening.  

This is not every conference presentation.  I’m not a complete cretin.  Both Casey Green’s and Doris Kearn Goodwin’s talks at EDUCAUSE were presentations that I gave my full attention. If you went to either talk, or have heard Casey or Doris speak in the past, you will know that they basically present at 2X speed.  

Not everyone can present like Casey Green or Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I certainly can’t.  

As I give more presentations I tend to use PowerPoint less and less, preferring to structure my presentations as conversations.  My old system of presenting information from slides has moved to using slides for visual purposes only.   The presentation takes the form of a conversation, even when I’m speaking to a large audience.  I’ll ask lots of questions, try to get the audience engaged, and alter my talking points based on where the room is going.  This is a method of presenting that I picked up from years of teaching big lecture classes.  There is no better preparation for presenting than teaching.

I wonder what sort of college student I’d make today.  I know the research about the ineffectiveness of multitasking.  I understand that concentration and retention suffer for even students that sit near another student who is surfing the web during a class.  I’m actually a big believer in laptops down and screens closed, and I think that faculty have every right to ask that electronics be turned off during class.  (As long as accommodations are made to provide lecture material for those who cannot handwrite for whatever reason).  I know all this, but I also think that I would have a hard time with the information delivery pace of many classes.

I worry that I’ve become an information addict, needing to get that constant fix of data keep my brain happy.  

Has MOOC video rewired your brain?

Do you find some conference presentations more painful than in the past?

How have you changed your presentation style as the nature of information speed and density have also changed?

Should we (should I) be worried about losing the ability to sit through some (if not all) conference presentations?


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