Friday, December 2

The scarcity of attention rule

Fred Wilson, a well known VC, covers on his blog a topic that I think is very relevant to the field of learning:
The overabundance of information leads to a scarcity of attention

"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it." (Computers, Communications and the Public Interest, pages 40-41, Martin Greenberger, ed., The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.)

Wow, that is a very very interesting statement.

Only several years ago there were not a lot of online courses available. Since then the technology has matured to the point where almost anyone can create and publish content (just look at blogs!). Now companies have access to libraries with thousands of courses. But all to often I see people searching Google first, looking for answers and getting thousands of search results (informal learning) or having mind-numbing access to those thousands of online courses through enterprise libraries (formal learning), both of which are resulting in a quick-hit, good luck knowing how 'right' the answer is, learning experience.

Frankly it scares me how many people take the Internet at face value. Yes, Google, Wikipedia, blogs etc are all great sources but there is little in way of context to help judge it's value.

But on the other hand I find myself not really needing to 'learn' something but rather 'find and discard' an answer, knowing that I can always dig it up again later if need be. Heck my world seems to be changing so quickly that I'm lucky if I can find the answer to my question in one place as I often have to pull it together from several sources.

Jay Cross says that 80% of learning is informal and I wonder how much of that informal learning is being done by Internet searching. Maybe the first course every person should take should be on effective online search techniques and how to assemble knowledge from multiple sources of varying quality.

Do you agree?
- is there simply too much information, stored in containers like courses, out there? (is Google the new incarnation of the learning object repository?)
- How do we in the learning industry prune away the excess but still ensure that it is relevant to each learner and not overly generic? (is it our job to do the pruning or do things like tags, social networking and RSS enable each learner to do the pruning their own way)
- if learning is now truly able to be continuous then how do we create effective learning experiences that can span across multiple delivery mediums independent of time? (anything published on the Internet will last forever especially with search engine caching)
- are we to become knowledge navigators to our learners? (equipping our learners with tools versus content like courses and saying 'the answer is out there, now go forth and find it'?)


David Grebow said...

Interesting idea the 'scarcity of attention'. It may ne true although I wonder if we are evolving 'new brains' as information consumers to handle the abundance. In the 19th century it was not uncommon for a speaker to talk for three hours straight and the audience took in every word. Most people today have the attention span of a gnat compared to that

The word multitasking entered our vocabualry about 5 years ago, that's 5 years after the PC and the Internet started to become ubiquitous.

I would answer your questions with some of my own.

1. How can formal learning lay a foundation that will support the informal learning process?

2. Recent IDC research found that we spend upto 25% of EVERY workwork searching for information. What tools and systems can we implement today to increase the effectiveness of this search?

3.How can we provide tools and systems (e.g. Subject Matter Expert Location Programs, more focused Knowledge Repositories, Workflow Systems,embedded learning,etc. ) that enable the informal processes to be more effective. If is is truly 80% of the learning equation then people who own the P&L need to learn not to spend all their money in that little basket.

4. What can we learn from the informal process that may - or may not - inform a somewhat more formal approach? Why does it work so well? Why do people in the workplace like it so much more than 'taking a course' or 'going to class'? Is it a cultural bias that formal learning ends at some point? That the workplace is NOT the schoolplace? That performance (being able to do) is better than knowledge (being able to know)?

5. And perhaps most important, how can we figure out when any learning - formal or informal - is not even needed? When does 'just doing it' and moving on or as you said 'find and discard', without ever learning a thing, become acceptable?

Lots of hard, new questions for a relatively young business that has it's roots in a mix of early 20th century Prussian Army training and instructors who, until the 70's, were primarily school teachers looking for a better salary.

Trace Urdan said...

I think you're on to something Ben. The role of the "learning industry" has always been, in a sense, to help learners navigate: to put the right SMEs in front of the right audience at the right time, in the most effective way.

Since I make a living sifting, scrounging, parsing, and ultimately re-presenting information, I think the situation is less grim than you imagine. Yes there is a lot of drek, but an information seeker is rarely coming completely unarmed, and the rapid sorting through of the data brought forth by Google is I think not so unmanageable. The richer tool for me by far is Google Desktop and I think that's where the answer lies, for that allows you to access a subset of your own pre-screened data -- when you can find that piece of information a second time and put it together with some other piece of information is when you really start to get some leverage.

I see no reason why the capabilities implies by Google Desktop could not be applied to corporate servers where the SME data might be chaotic and inconsistently represented but ultimately pre-screened and easily searchable.

David Grebow said...


Your post had me thinking and it suddenly dawned on me that we have been teaching students to learn using the old rules. The traditional model of the schoolplace - transposed onto the workplace - teaches that to learn, to enable the learning process, you need to find someone who can lead you in that process.

No matter what we name them - Master,Tutor,Teacher,Instructor, Professor - there has always been a 'them' at the head of the 'class'.

That's the teacher-centric view of learning.

The world has changed so dramatically that even though there has been no brilliant learning technology that has improved the actual learning process (flipcharts notwithstanding), the process nonetheless has been changed by technology.

Today and forever more it will be student-centric.

And that means that we need to teach people how to learn on their own using all the educational technology available and coming on line. We need to provide content for the tools or the tools themsleves but take ourselves out of the front of the room.

So our primary job is to help give birth to a new type of student. One who can eaily learn in a classroom or hotel room, from a actual book or a virtual book on Google, with the formally transferred knowledge of the SME to the informally grabbed learning Mcnuggets aywhere and everywhere.

Students are on their own AND they need to know that it's as much about collaboration as content and context. So they need to experience, and learn how to use and create, a collaborative community of learning or practice. Yet another skill we need to give them.

There's more. The metaphor is that the the gate is open, the horses our running free and wild on the range, and we still act as if they were back in the corral.

Thanks for the lightbulb that just switched on! It just gave me a new focus to a learning department business plan I was asked to develop.

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