Less is More: Distraction and Learning in the Digital Age

This week I voraciously downloaded all of the podcasts available on the Monticello website in anticipation of my first trip to this American landmark. I downloaded approximately 204 minutes, or almost 3.5 hours, of podcasts with the intention of listening to them one by one in the car. If I’m honest with myself, however, I knew as I was downloading the mp3s that I would never really listen to every podcast. For one, my trip will be less than 3.5 hours. If that doesn’t stop me, I’m sure my car mates will put an end to the history lesson before we reach our destination. Since the podcasts were probably designed and posted by the staff at Monticello in order to allow the public to delve into specific topics of interest, downloading everything for no apparent reason other than to have it all clearly undermines this purpose.

I had a similar urge to over-consume recently when I decided to enroll in a MOOC (massive open online course). Looking through the extensive selection of MOOCs, I experienced a flurried excitement reminiscent of the beginning of the school year. As I peered at the list I felt like the world was my oyster, and I wanted to learn everything.

According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I was not alone in my desire to over-commit myself. MOOCs can actually be addicting. Jeffrey R. Young explains:

Exposure Overload
Exposure Overload by Mike Petrucci, 2007

“Nearly 100 students using Coursera, the largest provider of MOOCs, have completed 20 or more courses. And more than 900 students have finished 10 or more courses, according to the company. That means taking several courses at a time, and racing through as many lecture videos and robot-graded assignments as possible to collect certificates that carry no official credit.

The term “MOOCs” is meant to parallel the video-game acronym “MMOGs,” or massively multiplayer online games—collaborative worlds, like World of Warcraft, that have attracted millions of devoted players around the world. So perhaps it is no surprise that some MOOC students are driven to win as many certificates as possible and treat online lectures as a consuming pastime that keeps them from going outside to hang out with friends.”

A number of things seem to be going on here. I would highlight three main phenomena: digital hoarding, fear of missing out, and digital distraction. I should note that I owe many of my thoughts on distraction to a segment on the topic hosted by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan of Boston Public Radio.

Digital hoarding is an unhappy reality for most of us. It is easier than ever to store large amounts of data in small spaces; we would all do well to streamline and prioritize our digital holdings. But I think fear of missing out, or FOMO, and digital distraction might offer more interesting ways to think about the problems I confronted as well as their implications.

We seem to be at a pivotal point in re-evaluating the purpose and effectiveness of MOOCs, but colleges and universities continue to join the MOOC movement, and many established programs are expanding offerings. This movement forward, in spite of heated debate, might be a product of what Audrey Watters has described as a sort of institutional FOMO, or fear of missing out. More specifically, Watters discussed the pressure colleges and universities might feel to join the MOOC movement rather than be left behind.

Watters’ suggestion led me to think about the FOMO we experience as consumers of these ever-expanding free learning opportunities. One of the reasons I wanted to enroll in as many MOOCs as possible was because I felt guilty leaving behind such amazing material presented by important scholars. I constantly find new articles to read, new programs to participate in, and new academic blogs to follow. But what is the limit? And perhaps more importantly, what is the cost?

For me the cost is distraction. It is intuitive that we are not at our best when distracted, but emerging research suggests digital distractions may be particularly detrimental to our performance. This research seems to be confirming what many have long suspected. The Waldorf schools traditionally ban technology in the classroom for K-12 students. They made headlines in 2011 when the New York Times reported that the chief technology officer of eBay and employees at other leading tech powerhouses send their children there. A similar story in WTOP, a local Washington DC news outlet, was aptly titled “Waldorf schools focus on distraction-free education.” While many educators would agree that technology can be distracting, I think it would be hard to find one who lodges similar complaints against books. In terms of the digital public humanities, this reality demands careful consideration.

In most of my posts I extol the virtues of digital learning, and I remain particularly excited by innovative approaches to community engagement in the humanities. As I think about my experiences with the Monticello podcasts and MOOCs however, I realize how often I am tempted to over-consume digital resources. It seems to me that as institutions continue to increase the depth and breadth of free online learning opportunities, leaders in the public humanities need to think about how to teach consumers to be discerning. Over-committing ourselves not only sets us up for failure (I know, for instance that I will not listen to all of the podcasts I download, nor will I be a fully-engaged participant in multiple MOOCs happening at the same time), it also compromises the quality of our self-guided education. We may fool ourselves into thinking, for example, that we consume more knowledge when we click on every link in an article rather than read the article straight through, but some researchers suggests otherwise. Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows is an interesting place to go for more information on this subject, but in the spirit of his argument I will not link to the listing on Amazon, or a book review, or his blog. In fact, you may have noticed that I decided to leave all hyperlinks out of the text in favor of a list of relevant links at the bottom of this post.

While I don’t see myself cutting back on technology, I do think I will begin to curate my online learning experience with more care.

How do you approach the massive amounts of learning opportunities available online?

Relevant links: