Continuous partial attention

 

In the Globe and Mail’s 2007 University Report Card (a 64-page survey of Canadian universities) there is an article by Ken Hunt titled “Teaching the iGeneration”. In it, Hunt describes the impact of electronic media, particularly notebook computers, on present-day university students. The following passage is especially revealing:

Campus-technology surveys from across the country indicate that a majority of students now own laptop computers and in the last few years, campuses have invested heavily to provide nearly-universal wireless network coverage. When you put those things together with an Internet that has become a robust media source, the sheer number of distractions now facing the average student is staggering. Along with the various temptations of the Web, students are also perpetually plugged into their entire social lives via e-mail, instant messaging and social-networking sites such as Facebook.


Distractions, of course, are nothing new to students. There have always been sarcastics notes to pass, important doodles to draw, hangovers to recover from, and classmates to ogle, but the competition for student attention has never been as fierce as it is today. This state of over-stimulation fed by constant connectivity leads to a phenomenon dubbed “continuous partial attention” by Linda Stone, a lecturer and former Microsoft executive. Her thesis is that the need that digital workers and students feel to monitor everything at once is driven by a constant fear that they might miss something important. The result is a high level of stress, accompanied by an inability to devote full attention to what is happening in front of them.


Ken Hunt, “Teaching the iGeneration” (2007)

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