In the old days at workshops, there was a person up front speaking and everyone listened attentively. If they were not listening they were thinking about something else (a.k.a. daydreaming).

Today at workshops, there is a person up front speaking and everyone not listening is typing madly on their computer doing email.

Should we care?

Some people do care – they think that it is completely unacceptable that people are not paying attention and doing something else (a.k.a. multi-tasking). Perhaps I used to be one of those people – but not any more.

Now I think this is fine for a number of reasons, mostly because I see it as a sign that the paradigm of learning – as centred on the choice of the individual learner – has really shifted. Imagine that I am in a workshop which has speakers who are imparting information to me. If I am interested (and if they are interesting), and if I can use this information, (and they help me understand that I can use this information), then I will tune in long enough to see if I can learn something. If I decide to tune out, I may dip back in to check up to see if my original decision (to do email) was correct or not, or if I should start listening again. Overall, I am in charge of my learning and I can choose what information is useful to me right now. Of course, I need to keep an open mind, and I will always START by listening, and then reassess at some point. This is opposed to a centrally taught system whereby everyone needs to listen (or appear to be listening) to everything.

Now of course, for an organizer and a speaker, it is preferable if everyone listens to everything, and finds everything useful. This is, afterall, why you organized this workshop – YOU think that everything is valuable. What can you do to make sure that the audience agrees?

The number of people typing emails is an interesting indicator of how well the speaker is doing, and how useful the focus of their intervention is. It is also an indicator of interactivity. You cannot type and speak, play a game, answer questions, or have a powerful, thought-provoking question capture your attention. How refreshing would this be: The Facilitator says to the participants, “You are welcome to tune in and out of any of these presentations as you find useful. We ask that you please give each presentation a chance first. If you do decide to tune out, please notice the time elapsed (was it after 2 minutes, 5, 10 minutes) and please give us the feedback. It will be useful for future programming.” Viola, permission to choose your learning yourself.

That way people would still be in control of their learning, and speakers and organizers would get more data on what people want to learn and the best way of reaching them. It would also be a powerful motivation for speakers to make their presentations meaningful.

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