Saturday, March 17, 2007


Is it really possible to multitask when using technology or are we just switching from one task to the other? I am intrigued with the current studies and interest in multitasking with technology and in particular the impact of multitasking on learning and leadership. Prior to delving into the research, I formed some assumptions about multitasking:
1) Everyone is able to multitask
2) Multitasking is something we should encourage not discourage
3) 21st century learners are able to multitask better than learners before them
4) Multitasking skills can be improved with practice
5) Multitasking makes tasks more interesting

I’m involved in 1-1 mobile computing leadership initiative where a group of school based administrators and district consultants meets face-to-face one afternoon each month. At first, it was really uncomfortable having everyone using their laptops during the meeting especially when presentations were being “delivered” to the whole group. During the presentations I noticed many of the participants checking email, websites, or working on other tasks using their laptops instead of completely focusing on the presenter. We never did establish or communicate any etiquette regarding the use of laptops during the meetings when we started the program. The only instruction given was the expectation that participants use the laptop as often as possible at our meetings as well as any other meetings they attend to become comfortable with using the technology and modeling the use of technology in a leadership position.

One participant asked me if we should have everyone close their laptops in order to ensure everyone is on task. I reflected on how many times I did the same thing as a teacher and said “Everyone put your pencils down and now we’ll begin ….” I suppose pencils could easily be replaced with laptops in the previous sentence. I have to wonder how modern learners expect one-to-one environments to operate. I believe it is possible for students to be present in their seat with pencils down and really NOT be present at all. So what’s the difference if they have a laptop in front of them and we ask them to close the lid? Will laptops OFF ensure students are ON or engaged and motivated to do the assigned task or participate in a given discussion? It doesn’t seem fair to limit learners by our own preferences based on our experiences and technology competencies.

Through extensive research, Harvard researchers, Jiang and Kanwisher, who studied students at MIT, found “that people have surprisingly stubborn limitations on their ability to carry out multiple tasks at the same time” (2003). In the study, it was discovered that students took twice as long to do two tasks at once as when they did the tasks separately. It was found that task switching took longer than task-repeating. The switching time between tasks adds on a considerable amount of time dependent on the complexity of the tasks. So, handling one thing at a time seems to be easier than handling two and we expend more time when switching in particular if the task involves increasing complexity.

Similar to my own personal assumptions, Prensky argues that today’s learners are able to task-switch efficiently and are able to successfully interact with multiple technologies and engage in several activities at one time (2005). I have to wonder if effective task-switching only occurs when the learner is engaged in complementary tasks or more than one simple task. Multitasking does seem more manageable if the two (or more) tasks are simple tasks. I find it much more difficult to multitask when one of the tasks is more complex.

Questions: What are the implications of multitasking for learners and leaders? By understanding the intricacies of multitasking can we avoid limiting learners by our own ideals and lead in changing the learning landscape to support 21st century learners?

Recommended Reading:
Common Neural Mechanisms for Response Selection and Perceptual Processing (Jiang & Kanwisher, 2003)
Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (Prensky, 2005)


Sean Marchetto said...

There is also something to be said for the nature of activities. Combining passive activites (such as watching TV) with more active activities (such as writing), is probably more efficient that trying to combine two active ones.

Barb Brown said...

I think it would be really interesting for students to be able to self-assess and determine complementary tasks (active/passive combinations)for themselves. Perhaps combinations of tasks are better for some than others!