Attention and focus in the age of online education


This post is republished from earlier in 2014.


I am a perfect example of the kind of unlearning and relearning that Professor Davidson discusses this week in her MOOC, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” As a Ph.D. candidate in classical studies, I am more comfortable researching and writing alone in a carrel, handling antiquities such as Greek papyri or Latin manuscripts, than plunging into new media in collaboration with my peers.

This course has been an immersion experience in digital literacy for me. Not that I am completely unfamiliar with those tools and resources, but the MOOC and especially its associated online communities can divide one’s attention among so many opportunities for engagement that it all feels like chaos to my sensibility, by turns liberating and exhausting.

This experience has led me to reflect upon attention and focus, and how the course has shaped my reaction to new media. N. Katherine Hayles, a professor of literature at Duke University, offers one way to conceive of it, distinguishing between what she calls “hyper attention” and “deep attention.” Hyper attention is best exemplified by the responsiveness of talented videogamers, who “negotiat[e] rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention.” However, that mode of attention is poorly suited to “focusing for long periods on a noninteractive object such as a Victorian novel or complicated math problem,” where deep attention to one medium is required and tends to perform better.

My training has been almost exclusively in my discipline’s specific practices of deep attention, but this semester one could say I have been unlearning that habit to familiarize myself with new practices of hyper attention. The movement toward MOOCs, with their high variability in topics—and those offered rarely beyond the introductory level—seems to gravitate toward accommodating hyper attention, rather than engaging it productively. Deep attention, for its part, seems incongruent with the aims of MOOCs and the media they employ. And the cultivation of a lifelong discipline, such as the mastery of a craft that a Latin paleographer or a flamenco guitarist pursues, seems outlandish in this context.

The 21st century demands a curriculum of higher education that achieves an integration of those modes of attention so that they complement one another’s deficiencies. Digital media have the potential to enhance learning by introducing the habits and skills associated with hyper attention. From that, one is bound to learn much that should not be dismissed. It is harder to imagine a MOOC, or any existing online education platform for that matter, teaching deep attention in the way that reading literature with a small community of like-minded peers can.

Harder, but perhaps not impossible. One of the big surprises for me has been that, through the “Who’s your favorite teacher?” segments, Professor Davidson’s MOOC has achieved the personal, provocative teaching that one associates with mentoring. The videos and forums call one back to the memory of life-changing teachers from one’s own past, linking past to future in this way. Furthermore, the international aspect of MOOCs multiplies exponentially the potential for conversations with different people. That exchange is going on both inside the forums and outside of the MOOC altogether, in the peripheral exchanges on other social media.

The technology offers a space for encounter between radically different people. That socialization itself demands the meeting of these two different modes of attention: a responsiveness to multiple points of focus and the ability to close out external noise, narrowing in on what is truly essential, hearing one’s partner in dialogue and then perhaps realizing the need to extend that dialogue.

Courses like “ModPo,” taught by Al Filreis, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, brought together a community of readers for the difficult modernist and postmodern poetry that rarely finds an audience beyond the academy. A second iteration of the course, set for September, may find a deepening of the conversation, a network of communities taking shape around and being shaped by the challenging poetry.

Finally, to choose an example from my own field, the Synoikisis Consortium links instructors in courses on advanced ancient Greek at liberal-arts colleges, in order to offer courses that would otherwise not achieve high-enough enrollments. Between those two examples there may be some model of participatory teaching that could approach accomplishments that, beyond the introductory level, require a prolonged depth of attention, exclusive focus, and lifelong dedication.