Are Mobile Devices Distracting?

Craig Taylor has written an interesting post about his experiences at a recent eLN event. It seems that many attendees agreed with the suggestion that “people can’t possibly be learning effectively if they are tapping away on mobile devices”. I thought it merited a longer response than Craig’s chosen comment system would allow, so here are my thoughts;

First of all, I think that the “tapping away on mobile devices” part is irrelevant. There are plenty of times where I’ve very effectively failed to learn anything at all, without the assistance of any technology!

In answer to Craig’s questions:

Is it reasonable to expect us and our learners to use technology to aid our/their productivity in areas and in situations that have traditionally used pen and paper? – That depends on what you mean by ‘expect’. We certainly shouldn’t be surprised that people are using tablets and smartphones for things such as note taking. On the other hand I wouldn’t want to impose those tools on people if they don’t want to use them. I’m usually well ahead of the curve in my personal adoption of technology, but there are still things that I choose to do on paper; and let’s not forget, pen and paper is technology, it’s just more established than some of the alternatives.

Should we maintain traditional practices for meetings but attempt to push forward with new practices when the output has an overt ‘learning’ tag attached to it? – No. Learning is most effective when it builds on what people already do elsewhere, so trying to introduce new practices at the same time as something that is ‘overt learning’ (or training, as it should be called) just makes both activities more difficult. If you want to introduce new practices (e.g. making notes on a tablet) then introduce that as something that people perceive as being part of, not separate to, their work.

Of course, the act of note taking on a tablet has little or no value in itself; what people need to understand first is the benefit they get from doing this (easy to store, search, reference, find and reuse those notes) and then the benefits to others (ability to share, collaborate) and finally the benefits to the organisation (knowledge management, dissemination of information).

Do you use technology to aid your personal productivity or not? – I use technology for pretty much everything, but at the same time I’m not naive enough to think that technology = productivity. For example; when I first started using Twitter I attempted to ‘live tweet’ every event I attended, but quickly found that I was getting a worse experience because I couldn’t focus on the event and the tweeting.

Are you encouraging/discouraging of others to do so? – I’m keen to share the opportunities that technology can bring, in all areas, including productivity. However, on a personal level I’m not an evangelist. Just because something works for me, or someone I know, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. It won’t be a surprise that I do encourage people to adopt technology at an organisational level – e.g. virtual meetings instead of face to face.

Whether face to face or online, I think the type of event makes a difference to the expected behaviour.

For example, when I’ve presented at eLN events I’ve been happy if two thirds of the people are paying attention and the remaining third aren’t distracting them. After all, there are a number of speakers at each event and it’s unlikely that every attendee will be interested in every speaker? I feel the same way about webinars (by which I mean ‘presentation style’ online events); the barriers to attendance are so low that some of the attendees are bound to only have a passing interest. As a presenter I should be focussing on those people who do want to take part.

If I was facilitating a workshop, presumably for a much smaller group of people, then I might expect different behaviour. If we assume that I’m doing my bit by running a good session, then it’s reasonable to expect the participants to do their bit by taking part. Most importantly, I would expect their focus to be on working with the others in the room (physical or virtual), and whether or not they use technology to do that is irrelevant. In this situation I would direct people to avoid distracting activities, whether that’s switching their phone to silent or closing email (which is not the same as saying – switch off the technology).