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.

Got a Few Minutes to Hear My Research?

timerI saw that the Rutgers-Newark campus was hosting a 3-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition and clicked the link for some explanation. Explain your 75,000 word dissertation in less than 180 seconds? Apparently, doctoral students across the globe are doing just that in the Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT®). 

It is similar to the Ignite sessions I have done at conferences. In those, the presenters get to use 20 slides, which automatically advance every 15 seconds. It keeps the presentation moving and it last 5 minutes. It is a good way to sample a number of topics and works well if  there is a followup of a poster for the talk or the presenter is giving a longer session later.

They last only five minutes, but I have been bored by some that I have witnessed. Ignite® events are held in cities around the world. I haven't attended a 3MT® event, but they only allow one slide and less than 3 minutes. 

Are both of these an outgrowth of the PowerPointization of information? Yes, you can present information via slides with bullet points. Yes, it is important to be able to describe your work in a concise way. But sometimes that is just not enough.

I use this Albert Einstein quote on my website: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” That line is the one that presenter who do a 3 or 5 minute presentation need to be very aware of not crossing. 

We seem to like these things. Much older is the elevator pitch. I used it 20 years ago it with students to have them pitch a research topic to their class before they started the actual research. An actual elevator ride is quite short and would be a tough venue to pitch your idea (no slides or props), but my version was 2 minutes and you could use anything you wanted to use (props, slides, music...). Students got very "creative," especially after the TV program Shark Tank appeared in 2009.

3MT® (note the ® registered trademark) was founded at Australia's University of Queensland in 2008 and is now quite official. More than 600 universities host events. Part of the reason to do it is to develop presentation and engagement skills for doctoral students. It does bring research topics to larger communities. It is also a way to promote you and your work.

The very popular TED talks are a longer form of this concept. The speakers at TED conferences are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can.

Is this trend a good thing for attention spans? I keep hearing that attention spans are getting shorter every year for students but also for adults in general. If you see these at a larger conference, do the 45 and 90 minute presentations seem bloated?  

I do web design and there is this idea that "Users often leave Web pages in 10–20 seconds, but pages with a clear value proposition can hold people's attention for much longer. To gain several minutes of user attention, you must clearly communicate your value proposition within 10 seconds."   10 seconds.  That is a very difficult pitch to make. 

And this idea carries over to TV commercials, movie trailers, book jackets and really all advertising.

In 3 or 5 minutes are you informing or marketing?

 

More information about 3MT® is available at www.threeminutethesis.org

 

What Is on the Horizon in Higher Education

horizonThe annual EDUCAUSE Horizon Report for Higher Education is always interesting to read. The report for 2019 is online now. It is 44 pages, so it would be a full lunchtime read, but as a cheater's guide or preview I offer the two parts that I always look at first.  

One is the section on "Key Trends Accelerating Higher Education Technology Adoption."  If you look back at past reports you will see that some trends come back for several years. That is partly intentional as the report predicts ones that should be considered "Short-Term" meaning in the next one or two years, as well as ones for 3-5 years and long-term trends that are probably 5+ years away.

Of course, there are also trends and tech developments that are almost perennial. We always seem to be rethinking online learning, learning spaces and assessment. And some tech, such as blockchain and rethinking degrees, have been "on the horizon" for a chunk of years and still don't seem to be really making a big difference.

In the short-term, the report lists "Redesigning Learning Spaces" and "Blended Learning Designs."

For Mid-Term Adoption in the next 3-5 years, they list "Advancing Cultures of Innovation" and a "Growing Focus on Measuring Learning." I think the latter should be moved up as a perennial topic.

In the 5+ years category is the rather broad "Rethinking How Institutions Work" and the returning "Modularized and Disaggregated Degrees."

The other section I always jump to is called "Important Developments in Technology for Higher Education." Again, there are predicted "Time-to-Adoption Horizons" given for each. 

The report also considers the challenges in adopting any of these technologies or trends. For example, one that I have been challenged by since I started in higher education tech in 2000 is what they term "The Evolving Roles of Faculty with Ed Tech Strategies."

The report says about that (and I generally agree) that:

"At institutions of any type or size, involving faculty in the selection and implementation of educational technologies can be difficult. Whether an institution is implementing a new courseware platform for the purpose of personalizing learning or building a completely new program by applying a pedagogical approach such as competency-based learning, such efforts face a range of challenges. Identifying learning outcomes and engagement strategies before identifying educational technology solutions creates an advantage by establishing faculty buy-in at the earliest stages of a strategic initiative.

The role of full-time faculty and adjuncts alike includes being key stakeholders in the adoption and scaling of digital solutions; as such, faculty need to be included in the evaluation, planning, and implementation of any teaching and learning initiative. Institutions that address the needs of all faculty through flexible strategic planning and multimodal faculty support are better situated to overcome the barriers to adoption that can impede scale.

...in order for faculty to fully engage in educational technology, training and professional development should be provided to facilitate incorporation of technology... adjunct faculty also need to be considered in professional development...workshops that include both faculty and students could enable learning for both groups of stakeholders."

But I do always bristle when the business of education overrides pedagogy, such as the statement that "frameworks for tech implementation and prioritizing tech that offers high ROI should be a guiding principle for institutional tech adoption for faculty use."

Mergers and Acquisitions in EdTech

Mergers and acquisitions are not just the business of Wall Street. They happen in education - especially in the technology side of higher education.

Last week it was announced that Cengage and McGraw-Hill plan to merge. (A move that may have monopoly implications.) They are both at the top of the country’s textbook publishers. With a merger, they would have 44,000 titles in a range of fields. 

This week, John Wiley & Sons announced they are buying the assets of Knewton. Knewton started out as an edtech company with adaptive-learning tools that could work with content from commercial publishers. But beyond that attraction, Wiley is probably interested in Knewton's more recent move towards being a platform that incorporates open educational resources (OER). In 2017, Pearson moved away from using Knewton’s adaptive-learning technology. Knewton's Alta digital-courseware is its OER platform.

Wiley’s president and chief executive, Brian Napack, told The Chronicle that the product costs students about $40 per course, and that Wiley wants to “double down” on low-cost options, "because we think the future needs to look different than the past.”

Being a Gig Worker in the Sharing Economy

The Gig Economy (AKA the Sharing Economy) has its appeal: choose your hours, choose your work, be your own boss, control your own income.

It is a unconnected collection of online platforms and apps that allow users to bypass some of the barriers to personal capitalism.

Some of the players are well known: Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Etsy, Airbnb, TaskRabbit. But there are many more apps that allow entrance into gig work that are not as well known.  You are more likely to be a user of the sharing economy than being a worker in it. 

Alexandrea J. Ravenelle has been studying predominantly millennial workers who work in this new economy. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mercy College and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Her new book is Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy (University of California Press) which comes out of her research.

An earlier paper by her (see below) asked if these members of the gig economy were microentrepreneurs or working in the precariat class. The former is a positive label. The latter is not. The precariat social class is formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security. The term is a portmanteau obtained by merging precarious with proletariat.

I have written about the gig economy, and I feel like in my unretirement I am a member of that economy, even though I don't use any of the gig apps.

The optimism connected to the gig/shared economy is that it can help reverse economic inequality. It can enhance worker rights, and bring entrepreneurship to many more people.

But it is precarious too. What is lost includes worker safety, workplace protections around discrimination and sexual harassment, reliable income.

Ravenelle groups the stories of giggers into three types: Success Stories (they created the life they want), Strugglers (who can’t make ends meet) and Strivers (who have stable jobs and use the sharing economy for extra cash).

I know that some of my college students are part-time members of the gig economy. It is their way to earn money and gain experiences and perhaps make contacts for more permanent future work. The flexibility it offers works well for students. For example, I have had several Uber and Lyft drivers who were students who drove between classes and on the days off. I suppose they are closest to being Strivers, though being a student is hardly a "stable job." In higher education, adjunct instructors are also members of a kind of gig economy as many of them put together a full time life via part time teaching assignments along with other work. 

 

Ravenelle's earlier paper "Microentrepreneur or precariat? Exploring the sharing economy through the experiences of workers for Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Uber and Kitchensurfing" was presented at the First International Workshop on the Sharing Economy held at Utrecht University June 4-5, 2018.

You can also watch the video with her slides.