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Sit Up and Pay Attention

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How many times in your life have you been told to pay attention?  Well we can tally up the obvious times, like when you’re in school or in an important meeting that you know will have information you need, and that’s certainly a large number of times.  But there are also the subtler examples of being told to pay attention, for example every commercial you’ve ever seen, every billboard you’ve passed, and every print ad you’ve skimmed over.  They’re all trying to get your attention, and unfortunately you only have so much to give.

Attention is like any other resource: limited.  The research is in on this one, multi-tasking is pretty much a lie, and even if you think you can do it, you’re fooling yourself.  But we don’t just have a finite reserve of attention in any given moment, we have only so much in a given day as well, when there are too many demands made on that reserve it can run out quickly.  

I want you to do a little thought experiment with me for a moment.  How many times do you think you check your phone daily?  10? 20? More?  Well there are actually apps you can download that will track this kind of data if you want, but if you don’t want to wait a full day to find out exactly how much time you spend on your phone, I can tell you that the average American spends 2 hours a day on their phone.  And since that two hours isn’t continuous, but broken up into a lot of small chunks throughout the day, we can see that just your phone is already placing a huge set of demands on your limited reserve of attention.

Unfortunately when it comes to eLearning, we are more often than not creating just one more demand on people’s attention reserves.  And if these reserves are already maxed out, as they often are, people will simply be unable to pay attention to the course content, no matter how good it might be.  It is therefore essential, that we take advantage of two of the best features of eLearning: time and location independence.  

Unlike an in-person class, or even a more traditional desktop bound electronic course, modern eLearning can happen on any device at any time of day.  Which allows each person to engage with the material when there will be the fewest other demands on their attention reserves.  Some people might choose to take their eLearning first thing in the morning before anything else, or perhaps they’ll make a strategic decision to only engage with eLearning on those days when there are fewer demands on their plate.  

In order to make this style of eLearning work, the course needs to take two parallel approaches.  First, the course needs to be broken up into small enough pieces.  If the course is a single unbroken 2 hour chunk, it will be much more difficult to schedule into the day, whereas a 7 minute chunk is much easier to fit in wherever is most convenient.  Second, the people taking the training need to be trusted and empowered to control when and how they take the training.  Without these two parallel characteristics, the ability to engage with training when it is most likely to be effective and training that is designed to be taken in this manner, it will be impossible to take advantage of the full benefits that eLearning has to offer.