Friday, January 20, 2012

Single-Tasking: This Teacher's Resolution for the New Year

Greetings, VTLCers and Teacher-Scholars,

Over the winter "break," I attended the UW System Southeast Regional Conferencethe focus of which was "Using Technology to Promote Active Learning." It was fantastic.  In particular, I was impressed with the way in which the presenters focused on letting pedagogy drive the use of technology, rather than using technology for its own sake.  The conference will likely lead to several workshops and showcases for the VTLC.  

But before I get to the great content of the conference, which will be featured in future blog posts, I started thinking about my own uses of technology in and out of the classroom, both as a teacher and scholar, and  how it has made my teaching or research better.  The problem I continue to circle back to, even at the conference itself as I answered emails and text messages, downloaded apps featured in the presentations, and checked Facebook way too many times, is that I have convinced myself that I am fantastic at multitasking when using technology to the extent that I rarely allow myself to focus on one thing at a time.  Case in point: as I type this I have nine tabs open in Chrome and 3 programs running (and it just occurred to me that I wasn't taking advantage of the "quiet time" to listen to a podcast).  A recent study says that 2.5% of people are "supertaskers" who can do multitask so efficiently that not just the productivity, but also the quality of their work is improved.  However, my work time regularly reminds me of this clip from Portlandia.

And that brings me to the reason for this post.  With classes starting next week, the conference made me think about how I could use technology more effectively, and instead of permitting technology to dictate how I do my work, allowing my workload to dictate when and how I use technology.

Questions for Reflection:
  • How can I better organize my teaching into daily components on which I focus solely for a specific duration of time?  
  • How will my teaching effectiveness/productivity be affected if I answer questions, respond to discussion posts, and answer emails during planned times throughout the day rather than  immediately?  
  • How will my productivity be affected by committing to do tasks in a scheduled, focused manner?
  • and... the million dollar question... How do I use technology to make myself a better teacher?
After thinking about these questions and being honest about and aware of what I actually do, it is clear to me that the biggest problems are email and Facebook, which I often have "open" while I'm at work.  I suspect that we send and receive more email than most institutions because the UW Colleges' 13 campuses are spread out all over the state. Email and Facebook, I have told myself, are important for maintaining the relationships with my colleagues, doing work efficiently, and being connected to my students and colleagues.  Because I teach half of my courses online, I feel even more of a need to stay "plugged in."  However, being plugged in affects my teaching while I am reading course material, lesson planning, or evaluating essays--I stop to answer a quick email, read a news article, or see what notifications popped up on Facebook, and I lose the continuity of and the focus on what I was doing. For example, it didn't actually take me 25 minutes to grade that paper; it took me 25 minutes to grade that paper, respond to two questions on d2L, and read and reply to four emails. I have gotten so used to being connected at all times and haven't considered how this connection may have disconnected me from events as they are happening in real time, not unlike my students who cannot seem to leave their cell phones in their pockets for the duration of a class.

The fact is--"supertaskers" aside--none of the research on multitasking would lead me to conclude I am a better teacher or scholar for multitasking.  In fact, it is likely harming me, especially if the quality is affected by the scattered way in which I complete tasks.  For me, at least, it amounts to procrastination and distraction from the task at hand (I've lost count of how many emails and other things I did while drafting this post).  If the research is correct, that means a positive goal I can set for myself is to change my technological habits.  So, to that end...

My goal for the first week of class calls for a retronym: single-tasking. 

I define this as

  • Writing one email (or blog post or anything else) at a time.
  • Logging out of email (and Facebook and Twitter) while lesson planning, reading, grading.
  • Responding to email and discussion board questions at planned times, rather than all day long.
I know these tasks look and sound like easy, logical things to do, but I am a Pavlov dog trained to check email at the sound of a bell ring from my phone, even in the middle of reading bedtime stories to my children.  (Though in this metaphor, I'm not sure how I have developed such a conditioned response to email (other than loving my job, of course).)

Feel free to join me in this challenge, if you are so inclined.  And, feel free to disagree, especially if you are a supertasker. Share the tips and tricks you have for navigating our technology infused professions, whether those may be single-tasking or multitasking effectively.

Wish me luck.  I will report back at the end of next week.


  1. wow. this speaks to a recent conversation i had with my fiance about my addiction to the pleasures of the internet, particularly facebook, and how i've noticed it shortening my attention span and keeping me away from sustained reading. i need to break the pavlovian response, too.

    i think, too, that this could be a great lesson to share with our students, who are also mostly almost always connected. to talk about the struggles this causes, to brainstorm solutions, and to discuss the importance of diving in deep and not diverting our attention.

    i also think that responding to emails, especially work related emails, including ones from students, would be a great practice. it would help maintain neater, clearer boundaries between our other work and our availability to others. and, it also encourages us all--responders and senders--to reconsider our notions of time and importance. my crisis message is not necessarily someone else's top priority, and in many cases, it is not actually a crisis.

    thanks for your thoughtful post!

    1. Thanks for the comments! I started to make a plan for how I will actually accomplish this, and I'm hoping it will work well.

      I agree that the next logical step is to think about how to get students to reflect on multitasking's effect on their learning. Not an easy task, to be sure, but at the same time I think there are assignments and in-class activities that might promote this--I'm looking into research to see what I can find.

  2. I am going to give this a try as well. I think that more in-depth concentration, rather than the surface-only style I typically give my work while trying to multitask, will up my overall productivity and address a lot of the concerns I have about how to better contain how I am expending my teaching energy.

    And on a semi-related side note: I also will be responding to emails at specifically designated times. I will also not be responding to emails after 5 pm. I put email hours into my syllabus, in small part for my own benefit, but also to give my students a boost in planning their work and time management.

    Thanks for these interesting things to think about!

    1. Email hours is a great idea! I'm trying to figure out why I haven't thought of that before. I know I have set up clear parameters in my online classes, but the thought just didn't cross my mind to do the same for my face-to-face courses. I still haven't printed them, so there is still time to make that change...

      Thank you for the comments!