Monday, January 30, 2012

Single-Tasking Update (Week One)


As I described in my previous blog post I spent this last week single-tasking with the hopes that it would improve the efficiency and quality of my work.  

I wasn't sure how to go about this, so I spent time thinking about why I was trying to navigate so many things at once.  Essentially, the answer to this question is that, like many of you, I have so many tasks that comprise my daily work (and I will leave out the 24-hour shift of parenting and second-shift of domestic labor, but they often play a role in the problems of multitasking):  

Teaching: researching, reading, prepping, teaching, assessing, conferencing
Professional Development: researching, reading, writing, revising, collaborating
Service: reading, emailing, responding, collaborating, writing, meeting, advising

The other half of this problem, though, is that I have so much "flexible" time in which to accomplish these tasks.  Other than scheduled meetings and one face-to-face class, the large majority of my time is unscheduled, and those flexible times are the ones I fill with multitasking: perhaps the solution is that I need to better schedule my time, so I don't feel a need to do everything at once.  Because I love spreadsheets' ability to categorize and organize things, the first thing I did was to make a schedule of my plan to do all of those things, with the higher-priority items coded in dark colors.  

Is that snorting and knee-slapping I hear from the blogosphere at the omission of Saturday and Sunday?  I will be the first to admit that I will be unable to prevent work from spilling over into weekends, though I hope this process will help me recover some of my weekend work time.  

Problem solved, right?  Not so fast: I was well into the task of programming all of this into my Outlook calendar when I realized I would have to stay logged into email to remind me of the shifts from task to task.  I settled for printing a few copies and tucking them into visible areas at my workplaces.  

Day 1 worked well.  And even Day 2.  But I quickly realized that problem is not just scheduling my time:  the problem is also that the time all of those tasks take is not fixed, but variable.  This first week of class, I had little "grading" to do.  In a few weeks, it will be a much larger amount.  I don't have time to adjust my schedule every week in Excel and Outlook, and even if I would take secret joy in color coding my life this way, I cannot predict with absolute certainty whether it will take me 4 or 6 hours to give feedback on a set of essays.  

So my attempt at scheduling my problem away returned me to basic general practices:
  • 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.
In addition, I turned off my sound notifications for email and Facebook on my smart phone.  I found I had a hard time not "checking in" every time I heard them.  

These practices actually seemed to make a noticeable difference immediately.  Logging out and logging in at designated times helped me focus on the task at hand. I felt as though I had a very productive week, and I only worked one half-day this weekend.  I do, however, dislike the emails I feel are lingering in my Inbox for far too long (3 hours!), but I am not ready to concede that is something I can't learn to accept.  In the mean time, I'm going to continue my single-tasking mission.  And though I am loathe to abandon my spreadsheet, it will serve as a "reminder" function for when I am derailed by meetings, tidal waves of grading, toddlers with high-grade fevers, or anything else for which I cannot plan.

If you have other tips for single-tasking (or multitasking) effectively, please share away!    

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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

New Year, New Semester, New Director

As you can see on the calendar for the semester, the UW Colleges VTLC has an exciting semester planned: reading circle activities for How Learning Works, a podcast interview with UW-LaCrosse Psychology Professor Bill Cerbin, a white paper on learning styles, to name a few of the highlights.

Our outgoing inaugural Director, Nancy Chick, has started in her new role at Vanderbilt University, and Jennifer Heinert, a former Advisory Committee and Executive Committee member, was chosen as the new Director for the VTLC.  Jen plans to build on the excellent foundation Nancy built and continue the momentum of the last year of programming.  

New developments: 

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