Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Role of Attention in a Knowledge Society & eLearning

Although formal learning is often segmented into courses and “opportunities,” knowledge seems to know no boundaries. This semester, I am taking two courses, Policies and Planning for eLearning Programs and Instructional Message Design. Knowingly or unknowingly, the instructors for both courses provided their students with readings on the role of attention and perception in learning. While both the authors of these papers and my instructors varied in their approaches to the topic, there were some distinct commonalities that factor into my dual role as both student and instructional designer.

One of the first points that caught my eye was the role attention plays in a “knowledge society,” a term that is bandied about by scholars and the media alike. In their 2004 paper “Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning,” Suzanne de Castell and Jennifer Jenson wrote:

"The primary currency of an information society—that is, a society, in which information is designated as the main commodity produced, marketed and consumed—is necessarily attention. And education, which has always sought, however imperfectly, to cultivate a “knowledge society,” has therefore always had attention as it’s primary currency."

If that is true, why has much of our formal education taken place in the classroom setting where the transmission of knowledge primarily flows one way—from teacher to student? Why is a lecture format the preferred method for both secondary and post-secondary schools?

Apparently, I’m not the only one with these questions. In his paper, “Attention – an Information Design Perspective,” Rune Peterson delved into the origins of the lecture. Here is a brief excerpt from that paper:

"Many teachers spend most of their time in the classrooms talking to their classes. It appears that teachers generally teach the way they were taught, following the traditional approach to education, providing prepackaged information to students. No doubt, the lecture method has been the most common method of instruction in western education for centuries. In its early forms, the lecture method was a practised art form, a form of theatrical performance designed to grab and to hold the attention of the students. Until the advent of low-cost books, the lecture method was actually the most economical method of transmitting information. However, modern teachers are usually not selected for their lecturing and theatrical skills."

Having sat through more than one horrendously boring lecture during my undergrad days and when I was working on an MBA, I would agree that a number of professors are not skilled in the fine art of oratory. However, the dullness of a lecture is not just limited to the physical classroom environment. Unfortunately, it can also be transmitted to the online environment where the equivalent of a lecture is pages and pages of dense copy.

There are certainly online cures for this malady, including discussions, group projects, simulations, games and learner-centered projects. However, as I’ve learned in previous courses, implementing these strategies is more difficult than it seems. My quest as both an elearner and one who currently designs live and online professional development opportunities is to learn how to create effective and engaging learning environments. After all, knowledge is boundless, and, I should also say, boundary less.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress!


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