Earlier in 2015, Microsoft Canada’s consumer research division released a new study on attention spans. Based on a survey of 2000 adult respondents, the company’s researchers discovered that over the past 15 years, our attention spans have been plummeting at a rather alarming rate. Indeed, among the study’s most alarming observations is the fact that since 2000, the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, which even puts us behind goldfish (goldfish have an average attention spam of 9 seconds). The same study reports that Internet users rarely spend more than 10 seconds on a single page. The study’s results not only have implications for consumer research and marketing but also for education and training and more specifically, for the development and adoption of learning management systems.
The Microsoft study—just one of many recent studies on attention and technology use—discovered that there is a strong correlation between the use of digital technologies and attention spans. Among other key findings, the study found that:
• 44% of participants really have to concentrate at work or school to stay focused on tasks; early tech adopters (participants who started using digital media earlier in life) and heavy social media users report more difficulty staying focused.
• 45% of participants report getting side tracked easily at work or school; early tech adopters and heavy social media users are far more susceptible to distraction in these contexts.
• 37% of participants and 62% or early tech adopters and heavy social media users report not using their time well at work or school and as result work late and/or on weekends to make up for lost time.
• Volume of media consumption, social media use, multi-screening behavior and time of technology adoption are the major factors impacting attention spans.
• Age and gender impact attention spans less than expected (31% of 18- to 34-year-olds were found to have a high attention span and 35% of participants 55+ were found to have a high attention span).
While this may sound alarming, the findings are not all bad news for the future of education and training.
Are Technologies Rewriting Our Brains?
Several recent studies maintain that our brains are being rewired by digital media technologies. Indeed, technology writer Nicolas Carr argues that the Internet represents the most “powerful mind-altering technology that has come into general use” yet. Why? Despite earlier assumptions, scientists have come to appreciate the fact that the brain is a changeable organ—this process is known as neuroplasticity—and changes to the brain result from the growth of new networks of neurons. The more we use these networks, the less likely they are to be pruned away, and because interactions with digital technologies are both stimulating and usually repeated, there’s ample evidence to support the idea that they are in fact rewiring our brains in profound ways that we have yet to fully understand. While lower attention spans are one reported consequence of this rewriting, there’s also ample evidence to suggest that as our brains become rewired by digital media technologies, we are also experiencing more short bursts of high attention and as a result, becoming more adept at processing and encoding information quickly. (Also see another recent eLeap post, “Can Gaming Push Back Retirement?”)
Implications for Education and Training
Traditionally, there has been an assumption that as learners mature, they can handle longer periods of instruction. As a result, we still tend to teach in short 30- to 45-minute blocks of time at the elementary level but in up to 3-hour blocks at the college and university levels, especially at the graduate level. The same equation has historically held true in the training world where six- to eight-hour training days were once the norm in many organizations. Given the observation that older workers (those who are 55+) in fact may only be marginally more likely to exhibit high attention spans than younger workers (those who are 18 to 34), the assumption that age necessarily correlates with a longer attention span may not in fact hold true. This, of course, is why adopting the right learning management system (LMS) is especially important.
Over the past decade, the training field has recognized that learning and even our capacity to learn (e.g., how we process new information) is changing rapidly. As a result, there are now a wide range of LMS products on the market to help organizations develop an approach to training made for the 21st century workforce—in short, an approach that capitalizes off of our strong capacity to take in multiple channels of information simultaneously. By adopting a highly flexible LMS that enables course deliver to be modified to meet the attention spans and processing strengths of your specific workforce, you can develop a training model for any attention span—long or short.