Metrodigi will be exhibiting at FocusOn Learning in Austin this week. As I wrap-up the paperwork and show logistics, I can't get the words "focus" and "learning" out of my head. I may not be thinking about them in the same context as the Learning Guild, but the conclusions I'm drawing should actually resonate with those organizing and attending the conference. While focus, as in attention, isn't how the Learning Guild is using that word, I can't stop thinking about it in this sense. 

"Focus…?"

My experience writing this post is a perfect example of a major challenges we all face due to the availability and immediacy of technology. While typing in a Google Doc, my Gmail inbox fills up in another tab on my Chrome browser. The numbers continually tick up like a casino slot machine, and beckon me to look. My input is requested in two separate Slack chats, whose alert bars pop and fizz in and out of my screen. I'm startled by a "ping", not from my computer but from my phone, which I forgot to silence when I started to write. Who can blame me for not being able to focus?

Disrupt, Don't Distract

This opening statement from the Learning Guild introducing the 2016 FocusOn Learning conference website, "Advancements in technology are disrupting the ways we view learning and performance," can be interpreted in two distinct ways. The first is what I believe the conference organizers intended; that new technologies bring opportunities to innovate approaches to training and learning. The second is less optimistic and perhaps more complex; that new technologies generate new and ever increasing distractions, both at work and at home. I can't even get through writing one short blog post without disruptive Gchat messages from my co-workers popping onto my screen. 

And I'm not alone. A study published by the Journal of Media Education this year found that college students are the most distracted they've ever been. For example, the students surveyed admitted to using digital devices such as smartphones, laptops, or tablets, an average of 11.43 times during class for non-classroom activities. In a similar study from 2013, Professor Barney McCoy estimated that the amount of time students spend on digital distractions in class such as checking Facebook, reading and responding to texts, tweeting, or playing Words with Friends, add up to as much as two-thirds of a school year. Yikes. That's more than a "little" distraction, don't you think? And why does this happen? Seventy percent of respondents to McCoy's survey said the biggest advantage for them was "staying connected", followed by "fighting boredom" at fifty-five percent. 

Digital distraction isn't limited to the higher ed classroom either. Countless studies have found the same issues in the workplace and scientists has proven that humans cannot multi-task, even though we stubbornly believe we can. How often have you found yourself quickly checking your favorite news site while on a conference call or in a virtual meeting, only to realize that you've lost the thread of the business conversation? 

Based on these findings, the challenge is clear: we need to break through the distractions. In this technologically-rich environment, how can we leverage the positive disruptive nature of technology and reach today's learners? Is it as simple as removing the distractions- making students put their smartphones in a bin in the front of the class? Restricting employee Wi-Fi at the office? 

Of course not.

Make Boredom a Four Letter Word

Attempting to control the learner is about as effective as medicating a condition that can be treated through improved diet. Students have always found ways to be distracted and overcome boredom (remember paper airplanes, spitballs, and passing notes?) We need to focus on developing more effective learning materials and learning environments, leveraging technology as a productive disruptive tool. Learners need materials to be so engaging and relevant that they forget to be bored, or distracted. Teachers, Ed Tech companies, HR managers; in today's world, our challenge is to banish boredom. 

This doesn't mean delivering learning digitally just because the technology is available. The learning materials need to be effective and engaging to meet today's learners wherever they are on their professional and personal journeys. A textbook in digital format isn't intrinsically better than a print book. Your training materials aren't effective simply by the addition of videos. Technology must be leveraged within the context of good instructional design and sound pedagogical frameworks. Technology enables us to add more and more to the learning experience. But more isn't necessarily better; in fact, you run the risk of building a new overly distracted environment to replace the one learners are currently living in today.

Don't Forget the Learner

Work for any software or app development company and you will constantly hear talk of putting the user first. Roles that were once given design-centric titles have evolved into user-centric ones such as User Interface and Experience Designers. No matter the technology you may be able to create, the aim is to always consider the end user's ability to use it successfully. While the field of Interactive Design isn't as widely known (see this great webinar on the evolving role of IDs), the same methodology is followed by Instructional Designers, also known as the TPACK model. 

Simply, TPACK is a framework of instructional design that combines three elements: content (what), pedagogical (how), and finally technological knowledge is used as a partner to support the content and selected pedagogy. Just like a tripod, if any of these three items is over- or under-extended, the end product isn't very useful. While virtual reality is very cool, it has no place in a course if digital flashcards would do a better job of making content more accessible to the learner. 

FousOn promises to introduce us to an array of companies with video and mobile solutions to transform learning and the performance of learners. Will will keep the learner front-of-mind as we attend sessions and roam the exhibit halls, looking for great examples of instructional balance. Posts from the show as well as our own best tips for great Instructional Design in 2016 are on they way. For now, I can't ignore my inbox any longer.