Multi-tasking and the Backchannel: Powerful learning or more noise

Doug Johnson’s been thinking again,

I thought of this yesterday when attending a presentation by Michael Wesch of The Machine is Using Us fame. (Great presenter and message, BTW). At the end of the keynote, I had an entire page of handwritten notes, which has become unusual for me. Why?

My laptop’s battery was dead and the lecture hall had zero electrical outlets. I could not do my usual thing of checking e-mail, reading rss feeds, or Twittering and half attending to the lecture. Now Wesch’s talk was probably interesting enough to suck my eyeballs away from the computer screen, but then again, maybe not.

One of the things that I seriously question is the conversation about “enhancing” presentations with live blogging, back-channel discussions, streaming on-screen chat, and other noxious goings-on. Are these things actually valuable or are we doing them because we’re nerds and we can?

I already responded a bit but want to flesh out the thinking a bit more. First of all, I think the term “multi-tasking” gets used to describe a number of things and I’m somewhat unclear of the definition. Without addressing Dr. Medina’s research specifically, I want to focus the discussion more directly around the back channeling. Since Doug is “seriously questioning” this, it seems we ought to as well.

I’ve experienced this from many vantage points. I’ve presented with a back channel and even included this in part of my presentation. I’ve participated virtually and my only connection was with participants (using Skype chats, I had no direct link to the presentation as well as observing Live Blogging tools) I’ve also participated live and virtually while hearing and seeing the presentation.  Here’s my take:

  • Prior to the technology advancements, I back channeled, with myself; that is I processed by thinking or taking notes just as Doug describes. I would ask questions and answer them myself.
  • The more engaging a speaker, the less I back channel.  That said, some less engaging speakers that understand and permit back channeling, can create as powerful a learning experience as if it was they were the most dynamic speaker
  • The more the presentation relies on the back channel, the more I focus. Knowing that my comments are going to be seen by the presenter or live participants, seems to make me pay more attention.

Stephen Downes’ recent talk at Tlt incorporated a live, on screen chat where comments, images and potentially audio and video would stay on the screen for 10 seconds. His talk produced over 900 comments for the 500 or so live participants. I know many/most in the room were not comfortable with that environment, they couldn’t figure out what to focus on. Since many of the 900 entries were just plain silly,  I think many were put off by this as well. But this was way more powerful than using twitter since it was limited in some ways to the people in the room with internet access. Even now the thread of comments are still worth viewing. I know by talking to Stephen that this discomfort and sense of chaos was intentional. The presentation was not a stand alone piece of work.

I, along with anyone who wanted to, helped create Stephen’s slides. I added several images I felt tied in somewhat to his talk. At the same time, all his notes were online prior to his talk. This is where it gets interesting. I already know what he’s going to talk about, I now have an opportunity to engage at a much different level than simply knowledge or awareness. I’m aware but my not understand all the ideas and I still don’t. This was a chance to process, question and unravel ideas. Now understandably, not everyone in the room was ready for that. By why not provide a space for those who are?  Reminds me of the one room schoolhouse story told by Alan November where the teacher  tells the students of one grade not to listen while she teaches the other grade. Inevitably, they listen because they can.  So in a sense, multi-tasking, interruptions or task switching is pretty old, it’s just in a new box. It is noise. It is distracting. Isn’t this simply another skill critical thinking? Should we try and create sterile environments where we work a linear ways one task at a time or figure out how to be productive in multi-sensory spaces? I agree, there are times when we should unplug and get away from it all. But when I have the chance to interact with others who likely are smarter I am, I don’t waste that time thinking by myself.

So enough rambling. I’ve not pointed to any research and so maybe I’m way off but my experience is that the more I’m allowed to interact and play with content, the more engaged and ultimately the more learning happens.