Sunday, February 03, 2008

Let me tell you about...Excuse me, what were you saying?

Killian & Company have a fascinating opinion piece about the public's attention span and what it means to marketers which I think can also hold true for training and development individual. The article, The Post-Literate Era: Planning Around Short Attention Spans, when viewed in the perspective of learning initiatives would seem to argue against the lengthy (read 60 minutes or more) elearning initiative.

Brand holders need to be aware of the implications of this phenomenon, including such practical applications as starting a White Paper with a paragraph that consists of one short simple declarative sentence. Welcome to the Post-Literate Era – a period which began decades ago but which has gained momentum in the 21st century. The evidence is everywhere: we can even draw the graph of sustained attention, from a 19th-century reader willing to read David Copperfield over several weeks, to long-copy magazine ads of our grandparents' generation, to today's web pages that are given 4.5 seconds to show themselves relevant.

As an avid reader my initial response is to rail against this apparent turn of events, but, being a reader, I continued on from the initial proposition and found some guidance, guidance that had been fermenting in my brain already.

In today's age learning content can no longer be just facts on a page. They must be engaging which requires strong storytelling. Now this is nothing new and I've heard it said before the advent of shorter attention spans that successful learning events need to engage the learner, but I think this concept has often been given lip service while the focus of most learning is on how to save dollars by using software that will allow rapid development of e-learning courseware by the subject matter experts who know their materials. Unfortunately the subject matter expert may not be the best story teller.

Nobility, elected officials, and celebrities know that while they may be good at what they do, they may not be the best at telling their own stories. So they hire writers to tell their stories for them. Likewise the training industry sprang up to tell the stories of subject matter experts. I think as an industry we need to reflect on how we tell these stories and remodel them to reflect how society wants to absorb these stories.

Hour-long clicking of Next buttons to read course content and maybe see an animation or two will no longer work. We have to streamline presentations to be absorbed in smaller chunks and can be developed and delivered in multiple means: on-line courseware chunked into small (10 screens and no more) sections that can stand on their own; audio podcasts using narration developed for the courseware; transcripts of the podcasts for reading; online forums in which people can discuss the matter with one another.

It's a new age and we need to start thinking in terms of how our customers want to consume our product rather than force customers to try and swallow what we produce.


Downes said...

As I've commented elsewhere (including by email to Killian, who doesn't post comments), it's pretty absurd to say that people have a shorter attention span today when they'll sit at a video game for 24 hours straight, play an entire season of John Elway Quarterback, or nurse a WOW character over a duration of months or years.

Tom Kuhlmann said...

Good post. I wonder if the issues isn't more about the volume of information that people are exposed to. They learn to sort and filter the information and don't spent a lot of time unless it interests them, which Downes alludes to.

campos said...

Good, post I have been thinking about this as a developer.

dmcoxe said...

Regarding video gaming vs. learning, I think it speaks volumes about motivation and the quality of what passes for formal learning initiatives (regardless of whether it is in our public school systems, corporate classroom, or online learning.

From a motivational perspective video gaming and World of Warcraft provide an escape from the real world and a means to safely vent your frustrations with boss/teacher. There is a motivation to excel because you are immersed with your friends and other participants in a story that your are shaping. There is a sense of control.

Compare that with what is presented as education. Even a 60 minute online course is still dreadfully dull due to several factors.

1.) An unwillingness by the educational sponsors to spend the time or money to develop engaging learning events. Especially in the business and government arenas sponsors have fallen prey to the siren song of rapid elearning development.

2.) An ingrained belief that learning is "serious." This leads to seriously dull tomes that do not so much teach as preach. Don't get me wrong, learning is serious, but it doesn't have to be dull.

Since my focus is currently on asynchronous elearning in the corporate/government workplace I am constantly in a position of developing instruction that is limited by funds and time and programming constraints caused by the authoring tool chosen by the customer. This normally means a page-turner.

Learners are expected to ingest these lectures while either maintaining their output or on their own time. The best I can hope to convince the customer to allow me to tell a story with the content and strive for something that is engaging enough to help the learner gain some additional knowledge.

Katherine said...

As a fellow instructional designer, I agree that the "attention span" has seemed to grow shorter as time marches on.

I believe several ongoing factors contribute to the decline in the willingness to stay focused, or at least to the perceived unwillingness to focus on material that is presented.

1) I myself have a hard time focusing on anything I don't find interesting. I can stay up all night playing WOW online, but fall asleep trying to read a text book.

2) In the rapid pace of today's world, technology has made it "better, faster, easier" for us to do the little things. For example, I can order just about anything I want online, have it delivered to my door and I never have to leave the confines of my house. I don't want to spend a lot of time trying to learn anything or going anywhere to do it.

When I design material, I try to keep my audience engaged by providing interaction (this adds interest and facilitates learning) and sticking to the point. I think too many people get hung up on providing too much information and "pretty fireworks" to impress the audience. To quote Robert Mager (Center for Effective Performance) "If it's nice to know, it's gotta go".

Stick to the point and put yourself in the learner's shoes!