Multi-Tasking, Multi-Subjects, Multi-Sources

Thanks to Jason’s for his comment and links yesterday about multi-tasking. Most of the articles I’ve read so far are quite similar, especially when noting how the learning of new material can be hampered by multi-tasking.

I had a conversation with a concerned colleague this morning who stated that kids today feel that they can successfully multi-task (more so than adults) but that their productivity and learning are less than what they believe. His example was of a student doing homework– but doing three subjects simultaneously with a chat window for each open to friends. When one friend chimes in with information about the math homework, he switches to that. When another comes in with science, he switches to that. At the same time, he’s writing his humanities paper and tossing paragraphs into its chat window to be read by another friend.

In some ways, we could consider this six different tasks, and it isn’t hard to imagine that retention and productivity is lower than if the three subjects were done sequentially. The trick is this– how do we teach students about this issue?

To return to the Shakespeare example, is closing yourself in a quiet, secluded room and reading The Merchant of Venice the best and only way to learn? Would it be harmful to stop reading part way through Act II ask ask the teacher of the class if Shylock is a victim or a victimizer, if the instructor happened to be in the room? Or if other students reading the text were in the room? Would that be a benefit?

In my colleague’s mind, that isn’t multitasking (even if done via chat instead of face to face), because the student is working on one subject, and stays focused on learning the subject, despite the fact that he or she stops reading and enters a brief dialog with others. It could be that this is simply “tasking” the language center of the brain on the same topic, and no serious shift is occurring. To me, it is multi-tasking, because the student has to put thoughts into words, and listing to another source, and appraise what he or she thinks in light of the information from a new source other than the text.

If the post test of this example were recall skills of the content, then it might be that having the conversations could reduce recall. If the post test was more conceptual and interpretive, it’s possible that the discussions would improve the understanding and interaction with the concepts.

So, I agree with my colleague on many points, but I do think that there are more issues at play here than how many tasks we attempt. There are also issues of how many subjects we attempt, and how many sources we try to understand or incorporate at once. Taking this further, maybe we can formulate advice to students about the benefits and draw-backs of chats and multi-tasking in a way that is more applicable to the actual ways they work.

As Jason and several articles have noted, we aren’t likely to return to agrarian lifestyles that enable us to focus on the plow as the sun passes through the sky. At the same time, I believe our students are sophisticated enough to understand the difference between a focused and fruitful homework session and one that is a train wreck.

Learning and Multi-tasking

I’m working on a presentation for students and parents about the use of Chat, and I’d like to include information for this article about how multi-tasking could have a negative affect on learning and focusing on new material.

It’s a fairly straight-forward report about how multi-tasking reduces one’s ability to focus on and retain new material (such as Shakespeare or Calculus), and draws into question the ability to run four or five chat windows while doing homework. Near the end, it also notes that this is similar to how our ability to drive a car can be negatively affected by holding a phone conversation at the same time.

If I’m not mistaken, this is related to research that suggests that similar areas of the brain (such as the language center) can thread but not parallel process, meaning that our minds can time-slice relatively quickly, but the actual effectiveness of the tasks is reduced.

As for chat in the classroom, I think there are some caveats to this. If a teacher is logged into the same chat session as the students, chat can be used as a way to post questions or even hand-in assignments as a class period progresses. Side conversations about different topics shouldn’t be allowed, but a textual representation of the student’s questions and ideas may be a way of representing and focusing their thought instead of distracting them. Personally, I have always used writing to put down and organize my thoughts, so my type of learning and focus is increased by the tool. As I type this, I don’t feel like I’m multitasking.

As for chat during homework, it’s clear that there could be definite problems. If a chat during a specific type of homework were held, with students communicating with other students doing the same homework, would this be any more distracting that the typical give-and-take of a homework group at school? If we sit in a room and discuss the calculus as we work on it, that could be considered a type of multitasking, but it would appear to be beneficial.

As I listed to tapes of Shakespeare performances in the college library as an undergrad, the one thing that I really missed was being able to stop the tape and discuss the literature with someone as I listened (to find out if my ideas were crap or not). I guess if we became too extreme, all dialog could be considered multi-tasking and therefore “distracting.”

Feel free to distract me with comments… :)

US Newspaper Now Online

OES BlophishThe Blophish, Newspaper of the OES Upper School, is now online here.

It’s recently went through a major redesign for the public web, but it’s good to see it online off-campus.

Student enthusiasm about the project is high, and the advisor for the newspaper hopes that this “new phase” for the student publication will enable it to be recognized by outside organizations.

As for me, it makes it easier to keep track of what’s happening in the US. Last week, I learned about a new game called “Fugitive,” for example.

The film, book and restaurant reviews (by students) are also fun to read.

A Sunny Day Sail

Sailing AuroraIt was a good Sunday for a father/son day sail on Aurora, our 1967 Cal 20. We were out on the Columbia River for about three hours, and my son had the tiller for about an hour, dropped the jib, and motored most of the way back to the marina. Fun.

Aurora is a nice boat to take out when the rest of the family isn’t around. Easy to handle. No big deal launching and landing.

Small photo gallery here.

Community Standards in a Laptop Environment

In our Upper School, we have a lot of laptops brought from home this year. The other morning I passed nine sophomores on my way through the building, and seven of them had laptops. Our network now has over 700 unique IP addresses access the Internet via our proxy server every school day.

With growth, however, comes challenges. In the “Great Hall,” a large community space in the Upper School building, we’ve had a lot of issues with loud music and inappropriate films and videos on laptops. Games are less of any issue this year, but laptops as entertainment centers is a problem for some students.

Great HallThe student council moved to help the grade deans with this issue– they created a very funny, but very informative video about community policies for the Great Hall and other common spaces on campus. Through a series of little scenes, the community policies were presented: “headphones only” for music, no games, as well as no PDAs (the affection type), no loud noises, no cafeteria trash or food, no abandoned clothes or laptops or TI calculators. The only topic missed was videos and movies, which is being discussed and is moving toward “no videos or movies” during the school day.

For years we’ve discussed game policies, cell phone policies, and classroom management policies. I’m happy to see the students themselves becoming active in how to set community standards for the laptops, and viewing them as no different than other “rules” for maintaining comfortable common spaces where people can work and spend time with friends.

So What Happens in the Car?

I have to admit that the car has changed since I was a kid. I remeber sitting on the “transmission hump” in our International Harvester as we drove to place to place. No seatbelt, nice steel dashboard to fly into, and I don’t even think it had a radio.

Silverwing CoverToday, we seem to have a continuing collection of audio books for our kids to listen to in the car. I’ve really enjoyed this as well, because some of the kids literature we’re listening to is really fascinating. I like the Silverwing books by Kenneth Oppel. The first Artemis Fowl book was well-read. I enjoyed the The Last Lobo by Roland Smith.

At first, we only had the audio books for the long drive to Montana and back each summer, but now we have them year round. We talk about the stories and the issues. We laugh at the humor. It reminds me of the BBC radio shows I used to listen to when living in London, but not as dramatic or produced. It also reminds me of the “time before TV” when families would gather round the radio in the living room.

I know that Podcasts are becoming more popular, and our students are producing some this year. My wife bought a “learn Spanish in your car” set yesterday at Powells bookstore, to refresh her college Spanish before a trip to Central America. The audio environment is alive again.

As for DVD players in cars, I wonder if they’re such a great idea. We’ve noticed that more of our parents have kids watching DVDs as they drive in each morning, and go home at night. The teachers have expressed concerns because some of the very young kids seem to be watching inappropriate films (PG-13 or higher), and others are worried about the kids being plugged into video for even more hours a day.

Maybe it’s elitist to say “DVDs in the car are bad” while I enjoy audio books with my family in the car (and pretty much no where else), but to me it seems like there’s a difference. I like read aloud times– even as an adult.

Computers and Our Own Kids

I really enjoyed a “get together” with some local ed-tech specialists a few nights ago. We could banter about Moodle vs. Edline, First Class vs. Entourage, custom scripting vs. off-the-shelf solutions. It was fun.

The longest conversations, however, were about kids. Kids we work with at school, but mostly our own kids. We discussed the philosophy of a local Waldorf school, which serves the kids of some Intel and Silicon Corridor parents in the area. Then we talked about how we’re “teaching about technology” in our own homes. It was cool, because everyone at the table had kids at home to talk about.

Pit DroidsI’m always looking for patterns, and for the most part we all seemed in the moderate to slow category for our own kids and computers at home. I might be the slowest of the bunch, but I’m promised to start working with my fourth grade son on keyboarding. He’s already doing well with research and reading on the web. He’s only slightly interested in games, preferring hands-on Lego projects. I have, however, put bids in on Pit Droids, Droidworks and Gungan Frontier software on Ebay for him.

My second grade daughter wants a good drawing program, and I’m looking for somthing finer than KidPix but not Illustrator tough. I’ve seen some Disney-type programs but their interfaces were pretty scary. I’m open to suggestions!

The interesting thing is that we all seemed pretty relaxed about technology use at home by the kids– in that we don’t have advanced early goals or projects we want achieved. Some of our kids sounded much more “natural” or “interested,” while others (like mine) are more interested in hands-on challenges.

It was great to hear that we were all relaxed with the range of differences, and overall there was a consensus that letting kids set the pace when younger (grade six and less) wasn’t a bad idea.

Photo Source: Lucas Learning (http://www.lucaslearning.com/products/pitdroids.htm)

Student Publication

Sometimes, I think the biggest problem we have is simply giving examples of how technology has changed the way things work at school. Not just to “automate,” but to innovate.

Blophish NewspaperWhen I started at OES five years ago, I remember finding an old copy of the US newspaper. It was a tabloid newspaper, called the Blophish. Having been a college media advisor in the past, I scanned it and noted that the layout and writing seemed pretty rushed. I asked around, and I learned that the newspaper was no longer being done, since interest waned to the point of only one issue being produced in its final year.

About three years ago, an Art teacher asked about getting some tech support to help restart the newspaper. At first, he was thinking InDesign for a new tabloid version, but in the end decided to go with an online version built on SharePoint. It became an online newspaper, available only on campus, but the default opening screen for all student school computers in the US.

In the past history of the newspaper (20 plus years), the most paper issues ever produced in one year was seven. Last year, the online version had evolved into a year-long activity, and 27 issues were produced. The writing can exceptional, and this year the advisor argued to make the online newspaper public so that it could participate in competitions and be read by parents and alumni. This week, the Admin Council approved the change, and we should have the public Blophish up and running in a couple of weeks.

So, I don’t really see this as an example of “technology changes everything.” The SharePoint back-end didn’t create the enthusiasm in the students to write for publication. It simply made the process easier, and the feedback loop has created some serious writers. Not a bad thing.

Students, and Intellectual Property Rights

I have to admit that I found this Washington Post story intriguing.

I’ve long known about Turnitin.com, a site where some schools make it mandatory for student papers to be processed through for plagiarism. They have a database of something like 22 million papers they can check student work against for plagiarism.

What I didn’t know is that the student papers processed through the system also get copied into the system, and part of the detection database. Hmmm. Did anyone ask the students, the authors, if their papers could be used in this way?

I need to learn more about this– the lawyers appear to believe that the system doesn’t violate student rights, but it’s not made clear in the article how that was determined. I feel that plagiarism is a problem we’ll always need to deal with, but I’m impressed that the students in a “mandatory review” program are asking about their rights.

Wandering a Beach

River View
Work has been relatively serious lately, so it was time for an overnighter on the Columbia while our weather continues to hold. We had a great sail, with bright stars, fun people to talk to at the docks, and a big, open beach to wander. This morning I read for almost two hours as fishing, treasure hunting, frog finding, and other mischief took place.

Other boats

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