Does the consumption of ephemeral content — those bite-sized, self-destructing user interactions — go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of deep processing that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection?
With the development of new communication applications and software comes an ever-diminishing amount of time required to receive and consider content: Vine’s 6 second videos, Twitter’s 140 character messages, Snapchat’s disappearing images and video, and most recently Meerkat’s streaming video that only exists for the viewer as they watch it. Snapchat, Yik Yak, Frankly and Confide are all apps that revolve around bite-sized, self-destructing user interactions.
This is not an insignificant trend, with Snapchat recently surpassing Instagram and Tumblr as the fastest-growing social app, growing from 30 million active users a year ago to 100 million six months ago to an estimate of nearly 200 million in January 2015. Snapchat users, predominantly teenagers, now share over 150 million pictures every day.
This trend towards a growing variety of ways for us to access ephemeral content essentially involves the delivery of content that is designed to be short-lived. In terms of digitally exchanged messages and information, ephemeral content works against the idea that content is captured, stored, accessible, reviewable, and shareable forever. Ephemeral content is no longer just the preserve of Snapchat users either, as it appears there is a wider move amongst multiple social media platforms to offer expiration options for our social content.
Does the rise of Snapchat and the digital world of ephemeral content mean an acceptance of the notion of the fleeting, of the impermanent nature of content? And what are the implications for learning?
Multiple demands on attention
Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), believed that the attention span of humans is decreasing as modern technology, especially television, increases. Nicholas Carr, writing in WIRED in 2010 warned that, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.” The information flowing into our working memory is termed “cognitive load”, and many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load. It would seem that in the world of multiple screens and fast consumption of ever smaller chunks of data, where we generally juggle several tasks and attention, the switching costs must increase.
This information environment is not surprising for anyone working in the mobile/digital world. Mobile productivity today means having to manage a constant flow of workplace, personal, and news information. Nine hundred million workers, 35% of the global workforce, are “mobile workers,” meaning that they use mobile technologies such as laptops, tablets, or smartphones, for work purposes at least occasionally. It seems that we are willingly being trained to expect a constant flow of information. Do we have strategies and skills that enable us to manage these multiple demands on our attention, especially for learners and learning?
What does this mean for learning?
We have always skimmed newspapers and magazines to get the essence of a piece of writing. We teach the skills of effective skimming and scanning because these abilities are as important as the ability to read deeply. Carr believes that the problem is that skimming is “becoming our dominant mode of thought. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for further study, it’s becoming an end in itself—our preferred method of both learning and analysis”.
Developmental Psychologist Patricia Greenfield reviewed more than 40 studies of the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability. She concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” She writes that our growing use of the internet and screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” But those gains go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”
It is reasonable to assume that the distraction and inattention inherent to the screen culture inevitably works against deep reading. Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall, in “Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives Through Reading and Writing” say that while celebrating speed, multitasking and fast reading, we should also celebrate slow reading, which allows for self-reflection and “imaginative flights to deep and contextualized space”. They caution that, while narrative “invites us into the interior of ourselves”, the world of ephemeral digital content tends to “flatten out the self in the name of speed, leaving little room for empathy and self-reflection”.
It’s likely that the attraction of distracting content along with transient attention will be a growing challenge for teachers and learners. This may already be manifested in students’ attitudes to learning and the learning behaviours they have developed out of school.
Do your classroom observations of children’s learning habits substantiate the claims of short attention span, skimming, and (more particularly) resistance to deeper engagement? If so, what can we do to help students as they navigate these new waters? How can we adapt pedagogies to support learners as they explore different ways of approaching different forms of content, and for different reasons? What new strategies or new literacies will children need, and what are the implications for the dispositions and media consumption habits that learners will bring into the classroom in the future?