Capturing student attention is often framed as the driver of technological innovation in universities. However, using more screens rarely results in a deeper investigation of ideas. Instead, it can promote quick swipe and like literacies.
Instead, we need to deploy strategies that slow down engagements with ideas, texts and knowledges so students find spaces to think critically, engage with deep knowledge and reflect. I call this a decelerated curriculum.
The screen age
Screens now percolate our physical environment, from ATMs and Eftpos machines, through to digital billboards, and art installations. Most of us carry at least one screen around with us. The ubiquity of the screen makes interaction with environments, people and places more complex and creative. The potential of this interactive experience is harnessed by clever ideas, such as QR codes for example, that effortlessly integrate online and offline consciousness.
These types of functional interactivities are what many educators are attempting to use to transform education from what is popularly decried as out-dated 20th century chalkboard and duster teaching to a flexible framework for mobile learning.
Multiplying screens in the world of university students
Students today have grown up with the internet. They typically own multiple devices, and have a diversity of internet, web and app-based literacies that work outside the tried and tested vocabularies of traditional education. Lectures and tutorials are decried as outdated and out-of-touch to the needs of these multitasking students. Traditional educational forms are too slow and mundane for jacked-in, digi-literate users.
Universities do indeed need to adapt. There is a place for wireless educational interactions and spaces populated with screens and touch interfaces, that offer multiple points of interaction with social media, learning management systems and flexible information management tools. Curricula and syllabi can offer the latest apps, Ted Talks, MOOC opportunities, and interactive testing, all in the service of capturing the attention of these highly mobile and fragmented digital natives.
It’s not the screens that matter
In an idealised education students learn at their own pace, in authentically interactive environments. Teachers ideally collaborate with them, using technology, to create a learning environment that is tailored specifically for them. Most importantly, this deployment of technology is coded to function as the catchall of that most difficult and mysterious of all educational challenges, student motivation.
The technology is seen provide the bridge between teacherly expertise and student interest. Teachers won’t need to worry about student engagement because the right app, programme, or interface will service those needs. As long as it is online, digitised and device ready, the students will be engaged.
However, what this approach belies is the fundamental problem of attention management. More screens do not capture attention, they fragment it. Students accelerate across their screens moving from platforms via different windows, gleaning information and processing at speed.
What is needed is the space and time to slow down from these interactions. It is through slow consideration of ideas that expertise is able to grow and percolate. It is not acquired, downloaded and archived. Education is as much about the student growing as a person as it is about them learning to process information into knowledge. This requires time, development and maturity.
The decelerated curriculum
What is needed is a decelerated curriculum. This is not a syllabus that nostalgically returns to the old ways of teaching and learning. Nor is this a radically new way of thinking. But the focus on using more screens to capture attention subverts the strongest potentials of education, to cultivate thinkers rather than scanners, critiquers rather downloaders, innovators rather than likers and swipers.
Our students already have an accelerated literacy. The point of education is not to provide more of what they already know, but to offer diverse experiences that make them effective learners, critical citizens and reflexive adults. This means asking them to slow down, to experience the world from a different perspective so that they make relevant and engaged choices.
How to decelerate
Moving towards a decelerated approach to teaching and learning means asking students to focus their attention on one idea or one task for an extended amount of time. It involves building their scholarship from information management into reflexively activated knowledges. Teachers may use a number of strategies to scaffold the disciplining of attention and mobilisation of contemplation. The objective is not to get to the answer or write the essay in the most efficient and effective manner, but to ponder the problems and potentialities in a question, topic or idea over time.
This process may also involve elements of digitisation and screen-based interactions, but done so in the service of amplifying the time focused on an idea. A semester long research project, for example, at first year level can introduce students to depth in investigation and demonstrate respect for knowledge. It can ask them to use their devices in ways that offer an intensified digital presence with a database, research task or required reading. This can be balanced by offline work that slows their interaction with texts so they cannot swipe or click through to new material. In doing so, teachers are teaching attention, focus and scrutiny by allowing students the space to think.
Students now face a number of demands as a result of a changing and highly unstable working environment. Getting the right education while accumulating high levels of debt is stressful. Many are being trained for jobs that may or may not exist when they graduate their degree. Universities are facing increasing competition under the demands to capitalise on business outputs. Digitisation is being framed as a way to excite students and streamline university processes.
It is indeed a time of great change, but I believe students do not need more screens. They need a decelerated curriculum in order to manage the screens they have and learn in more deeply relevant and effective ways.
Leanne McRae has been teaching international students at undergraduate and postgraduate level for over fifteen years. She is an expert in popular cultural studies and proficient in curriculum design and delivery with innovative approaches to pedagogy.
Leanne specialises in popular cultural studies, creative industries, mobility studies, pedagogy, postwork theory, and postcolonialism. Leanne is currently a lecturer and course co-ordinator in Internet Studies at Curtin University.