Friday, February 5, 2010

The Myth of Multitasking

Frontline had a very interesting documentary the other night about the impact of digital technology on a wide variety of things in our lives.

In the built-in irony department, I had recorded this Frontline episode on DVR, then watched it with my laptop in front of me, and I'd be lying if I said my attention never wandered from the show to look at my e-mail or Twitter. But mostly the laptop was there to take notes for this posting.

The show's opening had producer Rachel Dretzin talking about her home with her husband and son on two different computers, and younger kids playing a game on her i-Phone. The scene looked a lot like our house much of the time; in fact as I watched the program, with laptop at hand, my daughter was on the other computer, working on a project of her own.

But my favorite part of the program was the juxtaposition of quotes from an MIT professor and MIT student, demonstrating what I call the myth of multitasking.

When I teach classes in computer labs I have very strict rules for use of the computers, basically forbidding them being used for ANYTHING other than assigned classwork. If I catch students violating that rule, I dismiss them from class and mark them absent. I think the students are sometimes resentful of this stern, zero-tolerance attitude. But I stand by it because I agree with the MIT professor, Sherry Turkle, who said that students do themselves a disservice by believing that they can pay adequate attention when multitasking. I'm with her in thinking that "There really are important things you cannot think about unless it's still and you are thinking about only one thing at a time" (Turkle quote).

I wholly disagree with the counterpoint statement by a student named Lauren that: "I feel like the professors here do have to accept that we can multitask very well and that we do at all times. If they try to restrict us from doing it, it's almost unfair because we are completely capable of moving between lecture and other things and keeping track of the many things going on in our lives."

She portrays it as some kind of new generation gap; older people can't do this but younger people can, with no adverse impacts on their ability to absorb and process the information. But I consider it a hubristic display of a generational "third-person effect" for her to say that she and others of her generation can do it because they're young and the older generation just doesn't get it.

I just don't think it's possible to do for Lauren -- and others, including likely many of my own students -- to pay attention to multiple things at once as effectively as they claim they can. If you're writing an e-mail during class, you can't possibly absorb the ideas of a professor's lecture; it's the words of the e-mail that are running through your brain, not the words of the professor. If you're writing text messages or reading Facebook updates you can't be paying enough attention to a classmate's comments to respond to them in a discussion. I've even dismissed students from class for playing solitaire during a lecture. What the student would probably call multitasking to me seems more like a choice that playing a game is something he'd rather be doing than paying attention to the teacher.

Students may not like my lab rules, but I'm standing by them because in my judgment multitasking is a pure myth.

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