Online Learning: What’s your Attention Span?

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online learning - what's your attention spanThe best online learning programme in the world is worthless if you can’t keep your learners’ attention. In this always-on culture, we’re all bombarded with Facebook updates, Candy Crush invites and videos of marbles and magnets.

Did you follow the link and get distracted for four full minutes? If so, you can see just how fragile learner engagement can be (and just how awesome marbles and magnets can be). Now imagine for a second that your learners are doing the same thing every time they’re supposed to be working through your training programme!

Well, don’t worry about that – we’ll give you the solution just shortly, but in the meantime, let’s look at the extent of the problem of attention spans in online learning.

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THE ATTENTION SPAN CRISIS

It’s an unfortunate fact that even with the strongest willpower in the world, we simply can’t concentrate on one thing for very long. Evidence varies hugely – some estimates state that we can only keep our attention on tough or ‘boring’ tasks for between 10 and 20 minutes, though our attention span has also been argued to be closer to 5 minutes!

In general, our attention spans are decreasing. While we could pay attention to something for an average of 12 minutes back in 1998, by 2008 that number was down to a dismal 5 minutes. That’s a decrease of more than 50%! If this trend continues, we’ll soon find ourselves struggling to engage with even the most basic activities.

attention span crisis

And when it comes to our attention span online, the evidence is even more bleak: when we’re surfing the net, our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish – 17% of all page views last less than 4 seconds.

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WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

So why is it our attention span is decreasing so rapidly and alarmingly? There are a few theories:

learner distracted by mobile phoneThe ‘everything instantly’ culture

Gone are the days when we had to wait to read about developments in the world. News is now pushed to us, directly into our pockets, onto our TVs and even into our wristwatches! Nowadays we can simply point, click and download books, movies and games instantly.

Mobile Apps set expectations

It’s almost as though we’re being conditioned to shorten our attention spans. ‘Vine’ is a mobile app that allows users to take and share 6-second videos – imagine the effect this is having on not only our attention span, but our expectations. We now expect something exciting to happen within 6 seconds of watching a clip. It’s no wonder we stop watching product videos after 10 seconds – we’re not used to watching for longer!

The ‘can’t sit still’ culture

Are you one of those people that can’t just sit still and do nothing? You might be a victim of the always-on culture. If you get your mobile out and browse Facebook as soon as you find yourself with an empty 2 minutes, you may have forgotten how to stop and pay attention to the moment.

Try this: sit still for two minutes and do nothing. No Facebook, no Twitter, no news sites, no texting, no watching TV and no music. If you find it a struggle, chances are your attention span has been damaged by modern technology. Don’t panic, though – carry on reading for ways to improve your attention span.

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How a poor attention span affects learning

When we’re learning new things, it’s important that the content has our full attention. We can’t learn how to solve complex equations if we’ve got one eye on the phone. We need to dedicate our minds to the task at hand if we are to retain what we learn, change our behaviour and see real, lasting improvements.

This is more true when it comes to online learning than any other form of learning: we’re learning using our laptops, mobiles and tablets, those very devices that are trying to distract us. Being able to switch off the distractions and become wholly immersed in our online learning is vital.

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How gamification improves attention spans

Now we know how important it is to pay attention, we need to put a plan in place to prevent all the distractions of everyday life. Whether it’s office banter distracting us, or a general lack of enthusiasm and interest in the topic, gamification can stop distractions, reduce cognitive load and increase attention spans when we’re learning online.

gamification improves attentionWhen game mechanics (badges, points and leaderboards) are added to a Learning Management System, the effect on engagement is enormous. The whole point of gamification is to make difficult tasks more palatable, and research has found that our brains are 68% more active when we’re doing something we enjoy.

When you reward your learners for paying attention and doing some pretty demanding work, you’ll find they are much more engaged in their learning and will be motivated to do more.

When learners log on and explore a gamified LMS, they earn achievements as they go. When they can see an achievement that’s just within their reach, they’re more likely do devote their time to earn it.

The more they interact with their fellow learners – comment on statuses, share links and recommend further reading – the more points they get.

As soon as your learners realise that the more points they acquire, the higher up the leaderboard they move, they’ll be eager to pay attention for longer. When their learning is fun, engaging and motivating, a short attention span suddenly becomes a moot point.

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Getting your learners’ attention and keeping it are all to do with engagement. If your online learning programme isn’t engaging, your learners will struggle to keep their attention on it. If, however, your learning platform is built with engagement at its core, you’ll soon notice a seismic shift in your learners’ behaviour.

Download our Engagement Engine Workbook and create something that your learners won’t be able to resist!

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