Blog Post

Can A Device Really Help Us Pay Attention?

It's that wonderful time in a semester when the grades have been turned in and a prof can look back on a rich, rewarding experience where all the students have done well and all have participated and made, together, an incredible learning experience. In this case, FutureClass--my peer-motivated, collaborative tutorial (a kind of collective independent study) of six students (three grad students, two undergrads, one recent alum)--ends but that ending is just the beginning.   After our triumphant trip to the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona on Learning, Freedom, and the Web, we are continuing to work, together with the open source Mozilla developer community, on developing the FutureClass's attention tool.  What uses will this tool have?   Can we really make a device flexible, complex, interactive, responsive, modular, and yet simple enough that people will use it and benefit from it?   And the big question:  can a device really help us pay attention?


Those were the questions we asked this term in FutureClass.   We discussed neuroscience, histories of the brain and work and learning.  We analyzed the role of institutions, education, and all the ways we think we do and do not pay attention.   And then we wondered about ways that tools might be developed to help us in a time of distraction.   Sam Iglesias was the lead project manager for our class and, with his friend Andrew First (a recent alum), they worked to prototype an actual open source online web-based tool that is having an afterlife beyond the duration of the class and that might even contribute to FutureClasses.   Maybe the brain science of attention really can transform the ways we live, work, and learn in practical, concrete ways.   That's what we are testing.  


At first we were calling the device the Classroom Attention Barometer.   The name arose from discussions we were having together about what attention is, how technologies and tools enhance or distract attention, the role of such tools in a classroom setting, or other ways that learning and tools go together.   Whitney Trettien, Mary Caton Lingold, Jade Davis, Robbie Curtis, and Nick Bruns were the other students intensely engaged in analyzing the brain science of attention and it was Nick who told about an unfortunate experience he had at an Un-Conference where minority voices weren't being heard, feedback was treated as noise, and attention wasn't so much distracted as diverted.  How do  you make sure feedback isn't just noise?  That started a profound discussion of feedback itself, what is it, when can you give it, when is it pointless, when is it overwhelmed by too much else happening in the environment? 


The conversation interested me because, as a teacher, I want to hear the unspoken as well as the articulated thoughts of my students and, I know, from research and experience, that is almost impossible.   I am a highly interactive teacher and I want my students to take the lead, to be active participants in learning and not simply absorbers of material that will be on the test.  An adage I often use for teachers is that, if we can be replaced by computers, we should be.   By that I mean if we're not offering anything else or anything more or anything different than a computer screen, if we are just standing up there lecturing away as if there were no other humans in the room, then why not be online?   If we are squandering the preciousness of real-life encounter (rarer and rarer in all of our busy lives), then why bother?    But what about Nick's judicious lament, that sometimes you can speak up and still not be heard?


FutureClass responded with the Classroom Attention Barometer and then, many discussions later, decided that name shortchanged the intellectual experiment we were conducting and the tool we were creating.  A barometer simply measures.  The purpose of FutureClass's device isn't to measure success or failure--it is to help us succeed by collecting useful and usable feedback.  It is a tool that allows those sitting silently in the back of a class to offer commentary, to express doubts, to register questions or concerns, and to participate, in the best possible way, in the co-creation of learning.  So the CAB became the Feedbacker, a tool of collaboration, especially in one-to-many situations so that the "many" can also contributor.  "Mic'ing the back.  So the Feedback is more than noise."  That's the motto.


 Sam has blogged about the Classroom Attention Barometer here: If you have ideas for how it might be used, or if you would like to try it out in any situation--a class, a Toastmaster's event, a conference, or even a conference call--leave a message on this blog or on Sam's:  "There are several ways for you to submit your napkin sketch: you can write a blog post and link up to it here in the comments, you can visit our project wiki on Mozilla and submit your napkin sketch (either link to it or write out your idea), or you can tweet it out with #Feedbacker and we'll pick it up and place it in the appropriate channels of communication. You can follow the project on Twitter also at @thefeedbacker."   And you can go here for the demo.


It is one of those wonders of teaching to see one's own ideas take shape in dialogue with those that one, supposedly, is teaching.  In my entire career,  this is the first time I've seen "my" ideas materialized into a  device.  A lot of those ideas will be between two covers next summer, in  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, coming out from Viking Press and, I see, already up on Amazon (   But it might be just as true to say that those ideas will also be embodied in a device, the Feedbacker, for which I did very little except, well, provide feedback.  Where does one idea end and one device begin?   I don't have the answer.


What I do know is that next semester, in "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" and in "21st Century Literacies," the two new classes I'll be teaching, we will be using The Feedbacker in as many ways as we can think of and we will be giving feedback  to FutureClass and to the Mozilla developers so they can improve it and expand its uses.  


It's a lovely, wintry Friday night in December.   Grades submitted.  The campus is quiet.   Another semester is over, another class is done.  And, in the most profound sense and in the most literal, it has very much just begun. 





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