Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Back Channel Contention

Bud’s Deihl’ posted an interesting (and flattering) post in response to my web conferenced seminar delivered last week to the EduCause NLI via Adobe Connect.

In the post Bud reflects on the advantages and challenges of the back text channel available to the audience in this type of distributed, real time presentation format. Bud wonders if we need a new form of net etiquette to keep us on track, or at least communicating civilly, when more than one channel is available to a group. Bud also links to a reflective post by Gord Campbell in which he apologetically describes the “roasting” of a not too effective key note speaker, in F2F real time, through Twitter dialog among the audience.

Two issues come to mind. The first is the challenge of continuous partial attention. This may be related to your generation and certainly to your exposure to various modes of communication, but I know from my own experience, that I can productively attend to a talk, while scanning my email or looking up a reference to a site noted by the speaker. If things get very interesting, I flip my focus back to the talk. But that doesn’t mean that I am very good at composing, debating, challenging or rebutting while really paying sufficient attention to the speaker to achieve maximum benefit. Of course if I am only expending partial attention, I should also be satisfied with only partial return on knowledge gain from the talk. So, rather than etiquette rules, we need to understand our own capacity for multi tasking and use different numbers of channels depending on the cognitive load of the activity, of the channel(s) and the amount we are willing to attend and thus benefit.

I found myself paying only VERY partial attention to the text window as things scrolled by during the NLI presentation. There was a few hundred attendees and probably 90+ % of my attention was directed to my presentation and the slides that accompanied it. Fortunately, the session was very aptly facilitated and questions and comments were filtered and presented to me by a moderator during pauses in the presentation. This extra support though isn’t available when I do my regular distributed teaching using Elluminate in the Masters program at Athabasca. There I try to attend to multiple channels including text chat (though fortunately SKYPE and Twitter) conversations that may be taking place among the students are not shared with the teacher!! I find that after 2 hours of this type of teaching that I am much more tired than I am when I teach in classroom contexts- but maybe I’m just getting older! I think I will experiment this next term by assigning one student to be the “text wrangler” to:

  • make sure I don’t miss relevant comments or questions
  • type in and correct URLs as noted or provided by myself and others during the class
  • respond to simple technical issues

Of course this all means that the designated ‘wrangler’ has to further spread their attention, but it may be justified by the benefits to the class as a whole.

The second issue relates to issues of respectful attention. My wife is always on at me for multitasking my attention by reading, listening to the radio or otherwise paying less attention to her (or others) at meals than she deems appropriate. On the one hand the partial attention provides clear benefit. Reading cereal boxes in French is the way most of us English Canadians gain our greatest exposure to written French! On the other hand, most of us have heard the rants from teachers and business colleagues about the irritation of seeing students at their mobile devices during lectures or business colleagues on their Crackberries, during meetings.

My own cut, is to advise those who feel deprived of 100% attention, to just get over it! I don’t feel compelled to repeat things missed the first time from those paying less than sufficient attention, but I respect that person’s right to decide for themselves how much attention to give to my presentation. Of course the line is drawn when partial attention taking forces others to loose part of theirs (as when the cell phone rings, or one starts verbally chatting so as to distract those attending to the speaker).

New etiquette will and is evolving, but I think the era of 100% attention, 100% of the time to teachers, preachers and spouses may have ended (if it ever existed – lets not discount pre technological day dreaming!)

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1 Comment

  1. March 19, 2008    

    Thanks for reading and responding to my posting; I am honored.

    Each day, I become a little more aware of how much multi-tasking I’m actually doing and that I’m continually trying new technologies. I guess my initial posting is related to my lack of mastery of my communication device (formerly known as my cell-phone) and Twitter. I’m sure that as I gain comfort, I’ll be in there with the best of them. I’ll have to Jott a note to upgrade to a more efficient communication device (note, I did not call it a cell phone). :=))

    I am still fascinated by the multiple conversations which happen simultaneously and which then generate a thread of conversation which can continue through multiple modes. It might start in Twitter, move to a F2F conversation with colleagues over coffee, jump to e-mail, lead to a blog post, etc.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

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