Henry Jenkins defines multitasking as "the ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details". (n.d.)

Howard Rheingold talks about Attention as "knowing how to focus and how to divide your attention without losing the ability to concentrate. It's more than multi-tasking; it's learning how to exercise attention."

Multitasking originally was a concept that came from the computer world. Computers were believed to have the ability to do two tasks at once. In reality, computers act in a linear manner and complete one task before switching to the next task. Computers can switch quickly and efficiently. However, many people believe that for human beings attempting to multitask makes them ineffective.

Henry Jenkins discusses the prevalence of two different task modes for attention. People may be hunters who are looking high and low to gather the information from various sources. However, later on they need to switch their attention to the farmer mode in order to focus on one subject and understand it well. Students need to learn which type of focus they need for various learning tasks. I believe that during Divergence learning (when you are collecting information from various sources) this is when a hunter focus is best. However, at some point you need to decide that you have collected enough information and that it is time for Convergence thinking as you focus on higher levels of thinking about the topic.

Cory Doctorow, who is an accomplished and influential writer, blogger, and technology thinker, recently shared some of his strategies for focusing his attention. He says that when he is writing a book or an article, he sets aside 20 minutes each day in which he must focus on writing. For that time, he turns off his communication tools because "realtime communications tools are deadly.The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat — voice, text, or video — when it's needed, but leaving your IM running is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant "DISTRACT ME" sign over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the entire world." (Doctorow, 2009)

Stories of Multitasking

Comment posted to blog post by Ruth
"Reading your post and all these replies reminds me of my high school experience. Laptops were mandatory in the senior school and some teachers did better with this than others - obviously in math it's less likely you'll be taking notes with a laptop, but the same people who fall asleep in math class play video games in English. I was always looking up things online as teachers talked about them, and in French class I finished my assigned work early and then worked on a personal project of translating manga from french to english. But in my summer course my professor, who is obviously passionate about what he is talking about and moves so quickly it takes a lot of attention for me to be engaged enough to take notes, bemoaned the fact that laptops were now allowed in lectures and that he was sure that most students who had them in class were off somewhere else. As someone who can touch-type much faster than she can write, and has only a textedit window open, I find this rather insulting. And if I didn't know I needed to take notes to retain any information and he moved more slowly I would likely be wikipedia-ing things as he spoke, because that's how I studied for my most recent midterm.

So I guess you know you're preaching to the converted, and when you spend all your time with a group of people for whom this is the norm it's always strange to feel the disconnect in another situation. Every year my family used to go away to Florida for March Break, two weeks or so, and this would signal an offline time for me. There was an extensive detox period you might call it (if we could remove the negative connotations) as google and wikipedia and IMDB twitched in my mind like a phantom limb all day. Eventually you get used to not knowing things and sometimes this is useful - in the middle of writing something - and sometimes it's a lack"

media stacking
Media Stacking:
More and more people are trying to do two or more things at once. They will watch T.V., check their Facebook account, text to a friend, and do Instant Messaging in Skype all at the same time. When you think about these types of activities, what level of cognitive demand do they have? Maybe it is possible to do many things at this level all at once because the demand on your brain is not overwhelming. However, if on one of those input channels, a friend said they had just gotten engaged and needed help planning the wedding or on the news you learned about a huge flood that was headed straight for your geographical location, you would quickly focus all your cognitive powers in one direction. You would flatten the media stack to receive input from only the most important channel.

Maybe this is what Jenkins is referring to as the multitasking skill that we need to teach our students. Life will come at them quickly and rush by their eyes and ears. However it is necessary to know how and when to put your focus on your priorities.

For students in class who are trying to text or check their Facebook accounts (high school or University) while listening to a professor, they need to determine their priorities at that point in time. However, remember that "We don't pay attention to boring things" (Medina, n.d.). I believe that as teachers make learning the object of the class, the teacher and students will be learners together. Hopefully this will reduce the "boring" and convince students that it is worth it to turn off the technology if it is detracting from the required focus on learning.

Keep Focused
Keep Focus..

When you look at the faces of these two boys, you can see the focus and the drive they have. This same focus and drive can be experienced by those who are bringing all their powers to bear on a problem. They are "in the groove" and can tune out everything else. However, some times it takes a long time for people to reach this state. This is the state of being in the zone. (When you read the blog post below, identify the hunting behavior and the farming behavior. I think the hunting is when you are collecting input from every media possible while the farming is when you are in the zone and drill down on a concept in order to pull the topic or the work together.)

I recently read a hilarious blog post by a man who claims to have N.A.D.D. (Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder). He originated this term back in 2003. I read through all of the comments by other people who also have have N.A.D.D. (When I counted the 27 tabs I had open across my desktop, I realized that I, too, have N.A.D.D.)

For your reading entertainment (and to shed more light on the different ways and levels of focus) here is some of his blog post:

(Rand, 2003)
"Folks, I’m a nerd. I need rapid fire content delivery in short, clever, punch phrases. Give me Coupland, give me Calvin’n’Hobbes, give me Asimov, give me The Watchmen. I need this type of content because I’m horribly afflicted with NADD.

If you’re still with me, it might mean you know that you already suffer from some type of NADD-related disorder. Let’s find out:

Stop reading right now and take a look at your desktop. How many things are you doing right now in addition to reading this column? Me, I’ve got a terminal session open to a chat room, I’m listening to music, I’ve got Safari open with three tabs open where I’m watching Blogshares, tinkering with a web site, and looking at weekend movie returns. Not done yet. I’ve got iChat open, ESPN.COM is downloading sports new trailers in the background, and I’ve got two notepads open where I’m capturing random thoughts for later integration into various to do lists. Oh yeah, I’m writing this column, as well.

Folks, this isn’t multi-tasking. This is advanced case of Nerd Attention Deficiency Disorder. I am unable to function at my desktop unless I’ve got, at least, five things going on at the same time. If your count came close, you’re probably afflicted, as well. Most excellent.

My mother first diagnosed me with NADD. It was the late 80s and she was bringing me dinner in my bedroom (nerd). I was merrily typing away to friends in some primitive chat room on my IBM XT (super nerd), listening to some music (probably Flock of Seagulls — nerd++), and watching Back to the Future with the sound off (neeeeerrrrrrrd). She commented, “How can you focus on anything with all this stuff going on?” I responded, “Mom, I can’t focus without all this noise.”

The presence of NADD in your life is directly related to how you’ve dealt with the media deluge of the new millennium. You’ve likely gone one of three ways:

1) You’ve checked out… you don’t own a TV and it’s unlikely you’re even reading this column.

2) You enjoy your media/content in moderation. When I asked you to count how many windows were open on your desktop you either said, “One, my browser for which to read this article” or you made yourself a note to yourself to check this AFTER completing this column. In a previous age, you were the type of person who kept their pencils very sharpened.

3) You enjoy the content fire hose. Give me tabbed browsing, tabbed instant messaging, music all the time, and TIVO TIVO TIVO. Welcome to NADD.

The presence of NADD in your friends is equally detectable. Here’s a simple test. Ask to sit down at THEIR computer and start mucking with stuff on their desktop. Move an icon here… adjust a window size there. If your friend calmly watches as you tinker away, they’re probably NADD-free, for now. However, if your friend is anxiously rubbing their forehead and/or climbing out of their skin when you move that icon 12 PIXELS TO THE RIGHT, there’s NADD in the house. BACK AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER.

I’m making NADDers sounds like obsessive power freaks and, well, we are. How else would you deal with a world where media is forced on you at every turn? You’d get very good at controlling it. Here’s more good news:

1) Folks not afflicted NADD think those who are can’t focus because, look at us, we’re all over the place. PLEASE STOP CLICKING ON THINGS — YOU ARE GIVING ME A HEADACHE. Wrong. NADDers have an amazingly ability to focus when they choose to. Granted, it’s not their natural state and, granted, it can take longer than some to get in the zone, but when we’re there, BOY HOWDY.

2) Weblogs are designed for those with NADD. The web digested into short little blurbs of information. NADD heaven. My guess would be that the population of regular webloggers is mostly NADD-afflicted. Otherwise, they’d be writing books… not paragraphs… at random times of the day… always.

3) NADD can advance your career… if you’re in the right career. Ever worked at a start-up? Ever shipped software? What are the last few weeks like? We call it the fire drill because everyone is running around like crazy people doing random, unexpected shit. NADD is the perfect disease for managing this situation. It develops the skills to sift through the colossal amount of useless noise and hear what’s relevant."

LT2009 Crowd during Sue Waters presentation
(The Backchannel)

LT2009 crowd during @suewaters pres
Something that we will need to teach our students to deal with is called the backchannel. In the above picture, the people on their computers at a conference may be tweeting about the conference or live-blogging it on Facebook or in a Google Document. People from around the world may be tuning in to the comments from the conference while the conference is taking place. This is a situation in which the conference attendees multitasking is actually benefiting people around the globe.

I have attended one workshop and two presentations in which I tweeted throughout the presentations. (Actually, at one day long conference, my laptop battery ran out and I had no immediate access to a power supply. So for one session I just took notes the old fashioned way--with a pen and a paper. The presenter who gave that session told me later that he thought I didn't like his session because I didn't tweet about it.

It would be an interesting experiment to have some students give a presentation while others are making notes with pen and paper as others do live blogging on a laptop.

Leaf Floating by Hector Ramirez. (devildog1.0 on Flickr)
Leaf Floating by Hector Ramirez. (devildog1.0 on Flickr)

With all of the demands on our time and attention, part of finding balance in our lives may be to find some stillness. Walk away from the computer. Put down the cellphone. Watch this short video by Shelly Turkle to be reminded of the value of being still.

Saving Stillness video clip (1:53)

In this video, Sherry Turkle (a clinical psychologist and the director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self) talks about the need for stillness (as opposed to multitasking) in order to fully develop as a human being. Some quotes:

"Stillness is one of the great things in jeopardy."

"Stillness is part of our human purposes."

"Part of K-12 education is to give students a place for stillness."

Multi-tasking mentality video clip (1:06)

In this video, Todd Oppenheimer (journalist and the author of The Flickering Mind) talks about the dangers of multi-tasking which he believes leads to a culture of instant gratification. Some quotes:

"The dangers of multi-tasking is that it habituates the brain to a kind of superficial processing where you can do the task with no idea of the meaning of the task."

There is new scientific evidence that shows "the benefits of self-control, delayed gratification and perseverance as opposed to instant gratification education...A thought comes to you, you pursue it."

"It bifurcates the brain, keeps it from being able to pursue one linear thought."

One student said, "Multitasking spreads your brain too thin." (Elliott, 2010)


Doctorow, Cory. (2009). Writing in the Age of Distractions. Retrieved from

Elliott, Michelle. (2010). Personal Communication.

Medina, John. (n.d.) Brain Rules. Retrieved from

Rand. (2003) N.A.D.D. Tech Life. Message posted on

Ruth. (2009). Comment posted to boyd, danah. (2009, July 13) I want my cyborg life. Message posted at