Demographers refer to them as GenZ and GenAlpha. For us they are the Digitally Distracted generations, with the attention span of a gnat.
These young people have been teethed on smart phones and video games. The two-year-old in our family picks up an iPhone and uses FaceTime. The twenty-year-old spends 7 hours a day online, thumbs furiously competing in video games. Digital natives gravitate to fast action, flicking past mobile web pages that take more than 3 seconds to load.
Yet we expect these same kids to pay attention during hours of talking heads? Is it any surprise when they drift, nod off, and disappear from virtual classrooms where lectures dominate?
According to a 3rd grade teacher, the most successful activity in her virtual classes is “show & tell,” which sustains student interest for up to 15 minutes. When she tackles American history, more than a third of students have physically abandoned class within that short time frame.
The viewer falloff is most extreme in the early ages. However, engagement issues are not unique to young people. Adult online attention spans have gotten shorter every year since 1998. Passive screen watching puts people to sleep.
This is a tragedy for kids. We risk losing a generation of talent and intellect if we don’t quickly adopt better online teaching methods. Human potential is lying dormant. Their minds are turning to mush!
There is a simple answer. The implementation is more complex:
Changing learners from passive to active lifts every performance metric.
We have spent 20+ years tracking key performance indicators for online training. Student dwell time, class completions, immediate and two week recall have a high correlation to student subject mastery.
Giving students something to do, even simple activities such as clicking a “NEXT” button, markedly changes every metric.
The Rules of Golf, a series of 3:30 instructional videos, were getting 40 second views on YouTube, with few completed views. By adding quizzes throughout the content, engagement time was extended to 490 seconds. That 12x lift in engagement time is not unique. There are hundreds of case histories that show order of magnitude improvements in results. Activity and participation lifts engagement and performance.
There is no magic or mystery. Science supplies the reason why.
Passive screen viewing "induces low alpha waves in the human brain – waves associated with meditative states, as well as daydreaming and the inability to concentrate." It takes only 1-2 minutes for the brain to switch off during viewing. Children with ADHD (12.9% of boys) have less ability to maintain cognitive focus.
Give students something to do, however, and their brains stay switched on.
Here are a few simple ways to ramp up student involvement and participation using common video conferencing tools like Zoom and Google Meet:
Count on synchronous training to improve. Video conferencing will be seamlessly integrated with pop quizzes, social media, games, and videos. Teachers will be able to create content on their own, or readily acquire interactive modules in a resource rich marketplace.
It’s coming soon. Hundreds of talented educators, user experience designers, and software engineers are working on transformative new virtual classrooms that keep students engaged for hours rather than minutes. In the interim, your students need your creative best to stay attentive.
Randall Tinfow, President of V-SCHOOL, has been involved in corporate and public education for more than 30 years.