Learning in the Age of the Goldfish
Why the fall of the human attention span isn’t such a bad thing
In 2000, research by Microsoft placed the average human attention span at 12 seconds. By 2015, the same study found that number had fallen to just 8 seconds. To contextualise, the goldfish has an attention span of about 9 seconds.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll see further evidence substantiating the decline of the attention span. Sweden has just changed to a 6 hour working day, saying that people are more productive when they don’t have to focus for a full 8 hours. More alarmingly, ADHD rates are on the rise, from 7% in 2003 to 11% in 2011.
Its official — we’re living in the age of the goldfish.
The rise of the multitasker
Many have questioned what the decline of the attention span means. Are we getting dumb? Is the human race devolving thanks to mobile phones and the Internet? The goldfish comparisons certainly seem to imply so.
But that’s not really the case. We’re just thinking differently.
We’re seeing a rewiring of the human brain — Danah Boyd, Microsoft Research
With the decline of attention has come the rise of multitasking. 74% of millennials use their mobile phone whilst watching TV. When Mozilla released statistics on Firefox in 2010, they revealed that the average user had around 4 tabs open at a time. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that that number has risen in the last 6 years. In a time of hyperconnection and an overload in stimuli, we’re learning to switch our attention rapidly from stimulus to stimulus.
The amazing plasticity of the brain is nowhere as evident as in the rapid adaptations humans are making in response to our unprecedented access to electronic information — Susan Price, TedX organiser
It may be that long-form attention is decreasing simply because we don’t need it anymore — in the age of the goldfish, where people can access information at an instant, we’re seeing a change in the skills necessary to learn.
Digital agility is now a basic skill for everyone — Susan Crawford, Harvard University
The fall of the human attention span isn’t a decline in the way we learn. It’s a revolution.
So what’s changing?
The birth of the MOOC
With a change in attention spans has come a change in the way we learn. We’ve seen the rise of Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, where participants learn at their own pace.
Duolingo, a language learning platform used by over 70 million people worldwide, lets you set a daily learning target each day, ranging from 5 minutes a day to a maximum of 20. Duolingo labels 20 minutes of learning a day ‘Insane’. Lynda, a MOOC with courses that range from high level mathematics to, interestingly, time management, delivers teaching entirely through video.
The power of video
Lynda isn’t the only example of an increase in video learning — in fact, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Media outlets have started thinking like producers, with video now a cornerstone of online content. Video has also been called ‘the future of online marketing’. There’s something to learn here: in the age of the goldfish, video’s use of both sight and sound has proven effective in grabbing the attention.
It’s no coincidence that the fall of the human attention span coincided with the mobile revolution. The average person now looks at their phone 1500 times a week. Learning has entered the mobile realm. People can and do learn on their way to and from work, on buses, trains, aeroplanes — even listening to podcasts in cars. 70% of Americans use their phones for work. Mobile learning delivery is changing from an untapped resource to a vital learning strategy.
Taking advantage of changing learning
Way back in 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, running one of the first experiments on learning and memory, found that we learn better when we space learning out over a long period of time rather than all at once. Everyone’s had experience trying to ‘cram’ for an exam, and realised how ineffective it can be. This is called the spacing effect, and is only becoming more relevant in the age of the goldfish. In an age where we can learn from anywhere, anytime, the best learning techniques revolve around letting people jump in and out of learning. Look back to Duolingo, which lets users access jump back into courses anytime from where they left off.
The focus here should be on the repetition of small amounts of learning a day, making use of that short attention span and modern day technology to drive information home. The days of forcing people to sit and learn for long periods are over — learning must be flexible, easily accessible, and kept in bite-sized chunks.
Utilise the smartphone
Mobile phones are misnamed. They should be called gateways to human knowledge — Ray Kurzweil
As we’ve already noted, mobile learning is here to stay. What better way to provide flexible, accessible learning than via smartphones and tablets? You can go as far as developing an app, or just make sure that all of your learning resources are accessible from a phone screen. And that doesn’t just mean enabling your content, it means optimising it. Actively check what your content looks like on a smartphone, and adjust it accordingly. If that means having to recreate entire blocks of content, do it. Smartphone learning is too important not to.
One way to create content that can be used on a smartphone is through rapid authoring tools such as the tool I’m working with at the moment, eCoach. Rapid authoring tools are cloud-based programs that let you create lessons, courses, and other learning content in minutes using ready made templates, then share that content onto mobiles and tablets.
Goldfish switch their attention away from anything that doesn’t engage them. Grab their attention. We’ve already seen the power of video — 59% of executives would rather watch video than read text when both are available.
Gamification is another way to appeal to shorter attention spans. Gamification refers to adding video game elements to learning — points systems, prizes, badges, leaderboards.
By the end of 2015, 40% of Global 1000 organisations were using gamification as a primary learning technique. Gamification results in a 9% increase in retention rates, with 79% of people saying they’d learn better if their learning environment was more like a game. The most preferred forms of gamification are level systems and points/scores, providing incentives for learners to continue.
Speed is key
The average page visit lasts less than a minute. 4 out of 5 users will click away if their video stalls while loading. 5% of viewers stop watching video content after 1 minute, and 60% by 2 minutes. If your learning doesn’t load quick enough, goldfish will simply go somewhere else. Make sure that it does.
Stay on top of new technology
Most of the tools we use were created in the last 5 to 10 years. Slack, the group messaging app billed as an email killer, had 3 million daily users in a little over 2 years. Our society picks up new technology fast and discards old technology even faster. The adoption rate is increasing rapidly — it took us 45 years to adopt the lightbulb, 15 for the PC, and just 5 for the smartphone. Stay on the ball, use new tools as they become adopted, and abandon old ones as they become obsolete.
The bottom line
The age of the goldfish is not an age of idiocy. It’s one of change. And with change comes new opportunities, new spaces to occupy. Accessibility, flexibility, and engagement are the rules of the game.
About AP Simpson:
I’m a freelance writer, currently also working as a resource developer with the team at eCoach to look at new ways people are learning and consuming content.