Our Collective Attention Span Has Fallen

Quick followup to my previous post about very brief presentations of research

The average human attention span has fallen to eight seconds — below the average attention span of a goldfish. At least, so said a recent wave of debunked press coverage from outlets including The New York Times and, uh, us. The factoid, which had no clear source, felt true. New research suggests this may be because a different attention span has shrunk recently — not the individual's, but the collective's.

Collective attention span is meant to mean how long a topic stays popular (or hot or trending). It is about public conversations.   

Homer Simpson too many optionsPeople study the how long of news stories, movies, hashtags etc. to see when it loses its appeal. Looking at the 2013-2016 hashtags trending on Twitter (one of the things that gets blamed for reduced attention spans) they found that the top 50 hashtags fell from 17.5 hours of trending to 11.9 hours. There was similar shrinkage on Reddit, Google Books and in movie ticket sales. 

Things don't hold our attention as long. At least online and with media. Is anyone studying attention span for real world things, like reading a book, looking at a painting, watching a sporting event?

The researchers say that this is part of "a more general development termed social acceleration, the impact of these changes on the social sphere has more recently been discussed within sociology. In the literature there have been hints of acceleration in different contexts, but so far, the phenomenon lacks a strong empirical foundation."

They created a model that suggests that our collective attention span shrunk due to growing competition. There is just too much media out there competing for our attention. "Our analysis suggests increasing rates of content production and consumption as the most important driving force for the accelerating dynamics of collective attention."

This isn't all that new. Overchoice or choice overload is a cognitive process in which people have a difficult time making a decision when faced with many options. The term was first introduced by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book, Future Shock.

The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less is a 2004 book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz that argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers.

"Decision Paralysis" is another term to put into this mix. 

I wonder that if we were simply presented with fewer choices, our attention span would increase. Though it is unlikely that we can roll the media content snowball back up the hill, perhaps we can individually limit our choices and improve our personal attention span. I don't have much hope of lengthening our collective attention span.

Jumping Through the Dissertation Hoop

jumping through hoops
"Jumping through hoops at Arabian Nights" by Experience Kissimmee, Florida is licensed under CC BY 2.0 CC BY 2.0

Ah, the dissertation. That mammoth writing task that a student needs to complete in order to get that terminal degree. ("Terminal" - interesting term to use)

If you work in higher education, then you have stories to tell about people trying to jump through that academic hoop. I have lots of tales of friends and colleagues who struggled to write, finish and make it through their defense. (Isn't "defense" an interesting word to use for that part of the process?)

One friend of mine was being pushed to extend his writing for an additional semester because his supervising professor needed him to justify not teaching an additional class. The professor actually told him that. When he reacted negatively, the prof replied that "We had to jump through these hoops to get our doctorate, so now we get to make you jump."  Wow. It's the academic equivalent of fraternity hazing.

I could also write a post on "NOT Writing the Dissertation" since that was my own experience. I enrolled in a Ed.D program in "pedagogy" but lost interest when I was required to take courses on topics such as "school law." I continued to take classes - just not the right ones. Since at that time I was teaching in a public school, when I had amassed 32 credits beyond my MA degree, I "advanced" on the salary guide. Not as far as if I had the Ed.D, but pretty close.

So, I was close to being ABD (All But Dissertation) but really closer to being ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

Through my LLC with my wife, we have done editing for academic writing, including some dissertations. When I saw an article by Leonard Cassuto in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the "Value of Dissertation-Writing Groups," it was a good reminder that although we seem to value the solitary work of writing a dissertation, it is - and should be - more of a collaborative writing task.

Cassuto says, "The glorification of solitary labor permeates the imaginary ideal of scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Your dissertation is your own work of expertise, your own plot in the great intellectual firmament. And you write it by yourself. Here’s the trouble: It just ain’t so."

The dissertation is supposed to be part of the process of making a student into a scholar and getting research out into the world. Scholarly and academic writing outside of dissertations is especially collaborative. As the article says: "Academic writing done by those who already have the doctorate is very collaborative, as is obvious if you look at all those acknowledgements in scholarly books. There are other academics, librarians, archivists, proofreaders, but also — and crucially — the people who have been reading drafts all along, making suggestions, editing, shaping. The person whose name is on the spine does the largest part of the work, but others share in the labor."

It seems to me that working with graduate students who are doing writing (dissertation or otherwise), you should certainly address the collaborative element. One way to do that is to have a dissertation group. The students we worked with on dissertations all had formed a group on their own with classmates, mostly ones who were on a similar path. That is a part of the process that should be formalized, encouraged and - perhaps most importantly - accepted by academia. 

Content Curation

butterfly collection
   Curating a butterfly collection
archive
or curating an archive

Probably your first association with the word “curator” is a person at a museum. The word comes from Latin: cura, meaning “to take care.” The curator of a gallery, museum, library, or archive usually is in charge of an institution’s collections. Those collections are probably tangible objects like artwork or historic items. But the term “content curation” is a more recent variation.

Content curation has become a term associated with the online world. Though some people might do this as a job, such as a social media manager, many of us do it for no pay. If you have a Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Facebook or other social account, you probably retweet and repost/share content. Curation means that someone has seen value in content and so is sharing it with friends and followers – and potentially with the entire online world.

I think that everyone would agree that some people do this curation with more though and skill than others. A thoughtful curator gathers from a variety of sources, sometimes around a specific topic, and shares the best of what they find. For example, I might follow someone online because they post good information (original or shared) about poetry.

A poor curator probably isn’t a curator at all. You probably have come across people who share silly things, inappropriate links and who may not even vet (make a careful and critical examination of) a link or article before they share it. You might unfriend or unfollow such or person. You might even take the time to try correcting them with a link to snopes.com or some other site that shows their information is incorrect.

And here we get into that term that is so much in the air the past year or two – fake news.

In all my years of teaching, I always had to teach lessons to students from 7th grade to graduate school about how to vet information in doing research. How do you know a source is valid? How do you know that a fact is a fact? Is your information up to date? Can you separate fact from opinion?

I posit that all of us active online need to be good content curators. Just using this blog as an example, I try to be a good curator of the information I put into the online world. I try to follow good curation practices.

I often write original content, but at least half of my content comes from other sources, such as books I am reading, websites, and podcasts. I try to share things that interest me but that I think will interest and help my audience.

Who is “my audience”? After blogging in different places for 12 years, I have learned to look at my statistics and comments for where people come from (geographically) and what content they find most appealing.

As when I taught research, I try to use trustworthy sources. I look for content that is relevant, timely, interesting, useful, and occasionally entertaining.

A good curator gives credit to sources – give a link to the original  inspiring article or the book or person. Give readers a way to get additional information if they want to go deeper into a topic.

In the more commercial side of social media that concerns marketing (I do that too), there is the “social media rule of thirds.” This rule says that you should share a third on your original brand (which might be personal) content promotion, a third using curated content by others, and a third about the conversations happening on social media.

You are reading this online, so there is a good chance you are a content curator yourself – whether you know you are or not. Are you a good curator? Leave a comment if you have any thoughts about this either on how others do it well or poorly, or about your own practices.

 

This article first appeared at Weekends in Paradelle

Aligning Learning and Key Performance Indicators

focusAlign your training with KPIs. This is not a mantra I hear in education. A KPI is a Key Performance Indicator, which is a measurable value that demonstrates how effectively an organization (most commonly a company it seems) is achieving key objectives.

KPIs are used to evaluate success at reaching targets. Businesses talk a lot about the Return on Investment (ROI) and they are usually talking about dollars and cents. But in educational training and professional development, the ROI probably can't be measured in dollars.

Still, the process may be similar.

Define which metrics are most important to you. These become your key performance indicators. You need to know exactly what you're going to use to judge performance. 

If you want to increase enrollment in a major or program, that provides an easy metric. If a professor want to increase attendance in her classroom, that is also easily measured.

When I work with faculty designing courses, many professors stumble on setting objectives versus goals. The simple difference is that a goal is a description of a destination, and an objective is a measure of the progress that is needed to get to the destination. In this context goals are the long term outcomes.

Teachers will sometimes tell you objectives that are not measurable. For example, to want students to "have an appreciation of modern poetry" may be an admirable goal for a poetry courses, but how do you measure that? 

For an objective to be effective it must be clear, measurable and have a time element. For instance, that objective of increasing class attendance by 10 percent by the end of the semester is clear, measurable and has that time element.

Of course, after you determine those objectives, the real difficult part begins - figuring out how to reach that objective.

Students Are Still Suffering From Summer Melt

Summer melt is the phenomenon of prospective college students' motivation to attend college "melting" away during the summer between the end of high school and beginning of college. I wrote about this summer melt last summer and this summer (inspired partially by a week-long heatwave in my part of the country) I decided to check in in and see if things have changed. Basically, things have not changed.

There are some intervention programs at schools that seem to help prevent summer melt, but for the majority of schools students are still melting away.

This phenomenon is especially prevalent in low-income minority communities, where students who qualify for college and in some cases even register for classes ultimately end up not attending college because they lack resources, support, guidance, and encouragement. The melting is also common for students who are the first in their family to get a chance at college. That was the case for me many decades ago.

I vividly remember trying to fill in the FAFSA forms for financial aid (which was critical to me attending). My father had died three years before and he was the one who wanted me to attend college and get the opportunities he never had. My mom couldn't provide money for college and couldn't really help in completing the forms. She had no idea what college was all about. I had no one to turn to, so I did it all myself - probably badly, as I didn't get the financial aid that I clearly should have gotten based on our financial situation

But I persevered and I got to Rutgers College in September. And I hated it. College seemed so much like high school all over again that first semester that if I could have gone to an office and gotten all my money back, I would have quit in October.

I couldn't get a refund and I stuck it out, and by the spring semester my perspective had completely changed. I found my place. I found the places to go when I needed help. I was able to get some additional student loans.

Many students were helped on their college path during their years in high school by counselors and probably a few trusted teachers. But that support is gone in the summer after high school graduation and most colleges are not supporting incoming freshmen until orientation.

These students who melt away are not going to other colleges. They are going nowhere.  

The summer melt student rate varies by schools but runs about 10-40% of students, according to a study from Harvard University. According to surveys, the general number given is about one third of all students who leave high school with plans to attend college never arriving at any college campus that fall.

That's the problem. What about the interventions and support?

One project I read about targeted 1,422 students and offered them up to two hours of counseling (which is not much) over a five-week period following high-school graduation. About 500 students received assistance through in-person meetings or over the phone. About one in three of them received help filling out financial-aid forms; another third got help with transcripts. One in 10 merely sought emotional support and reassurance to manage pre-college anxiety. This Summer Link program set a budget of $48 per student to cover costs.

But some of the interventions are not costly and may not involve much staff time. I would not let the high schools totally off the hook when it comes to support. Realizing that almost all high school counselors are 10-month employees and off for the summer, high schools can still support their graduates by texting weekly reminders to check their email, complete their financial aid forms and register for classes can go a long way to keep students on track. If there is any summer staff, being available for help would be a tremendous intervention even if it is more of a group session than 1:1 support. 

For colleges too, texting programs (email seems to not be the way to communicate with these students - though many college are still using that and snail mail as their way to communicate) can make it easy for counselors to reach large numbers of students quickly.

Social media should also be used. Having incoming freshmen follow an Instagram account for their particular class (not the general college accounts) that post photos and brief notes on deadlines, numbers to call etc. would also be better than email and snail mail.

When feasible, getting those students on campus in July and August is a good thing. These are not the students who visit with mom and dad, take pictures and buy t-shirts and things at the bookstore.

My only visit to Rutgers before orientation was an afternoon when we met with a faculty member to create our schedule. My "advisor" was new faculty member who taught economics and knew less about my English Education program of study than I did. Plus, I was profoundly disappointed that my first semester courses seemed to have nothing to do with my goal to be an English teacher. Economics 101? 

Some of summer melt certainly comes from those doubts and concerns I felt and I think all students feel about what college will be, how successful they can be and even if they’ve made the right choice. The forms and information colleges ask for and the placement exams that most schools require and all the deadlines are important. Missing or messing up one of them can really screw up your college path. 

In talking to some friends who are not involved in education about summer melt, they were shocked. They say "You mean a kid has taken the SATs, been accepted, received financial aid, and she still doesn't show up? That makes no sense." And they're right. It doesn't make sense that colleges aren't doing more to prevent these students from melting away.

 


Summer Melt: Supporting Low-Income Students Through the Transition to College by Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page