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The New Modus Operandi: Techno Tasking

Recognizing the ability of students to use multiple technologies simultaneously presents a new paradigm by Alan E. Simon

The ability of students to multi-task with technology carries major ramifications for classroom instruction and decision making.

Multi-tasking with technology has created a new way to process and use information. Techno-tasking occurs when an individual uses two or more technologies at the same time. This is distinguished from multi-tasking where an individual can do several things at once.

In Growing Up Digital, author Don Tapscott points out that the students of today already are receiving and processing information differently from their parents. Idit Hare, author of Children Designers, sees today’s children as different types of learners. Their attention spans are shorter so they can multi-task with ease. Participation is now interaction. The techno-tasker is now doing and learning many things simultaneously.

All at Once

Most of us are not content to complete one task at a time. When we drive, we listen to the radio, talk on the cell phone, eat between appointments, groom ourselves and still have the ability to read billboards. Trips to the supermarket are continuous connections to the electronic and cyber world. The family minivan is now an electronic and virtual playground with VCRs, video games, cell phone conversations, tape players, CD players and even satellite radio.

Multisensory participation with picture phones, computers and other interactive technologies have captivated our society. Teen-agers are continuously connected, instant messaging five or more friends simultaneously. While on the computer, these same teens are downloading mp3s, listening to music, doing homework, talking on a cell phone, checking their e-mails and searching the web. Isn’t homework enough?

Halfway through a Sunday morning jog, I encountered an elderly man sitting on a park bench along the jogging trail. He was engrossed in a crossword puzzle. About 10 minutes later on the return the same crossword puzzle demon was talking on a cell phone, smoking a pipe, sipping coffee and still working on the puzzle. A small laptop computer was also taking up some space on the bench. It became clear from this scene that teen-agers are not the only techno-taskers.

John Horrigan, author of a recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, found that more than 30 percent of Americans are “highly tech savvy,” people for whom the Internet, cell phones and hand-held devices are more indispensable than television and old-fashioned phones.

Teaching Implications

One could view techno-tasking as another element of distraction. Sleeping and doodling were other attractive options for students before cell phones and laptop computers. However, radio, television, movies and rock and roll were all considered distractions by many. Now they are part of mainstream society and used as educational tools.

We are living in electronic and cyber times. There is no longer a debate about the use of computers, digital cameras, videos and calculators in school. The issue is how to use them in teaching and learning.

For years, educators and parents have been concerned that students are easily distracted and unable to complete in-depth assignments. For years students have complained that school moves too slowly and does not interest them. Is it the subject or is it the speed of the transmission of information? Is it possible that students are really bored and are capable of doing more than one simple task? Is it possible that schooling is not challenging to the techno-tasker? Is it possible that an attention deficit is really an asset or even a legitimate human mutation?

What are the implications of techno-tasking for educators? Should students be encouraged to multi-task using technology? How does the teacher plan for this? How many technologies could or should be used at one time? What kinds of lessons will maximize student learning with a multi-technology platform? What types of learning are best facilitated by this model of pedagogy? How distracting is techno-tasking to the instructor, especially in universities when hand-held devices, cell phones and laptops are allowed in classes? When does participation and multi-tasking become a problem? Should homework become an exercise in techno-tasking? Teachers, administrators and other policymakers need to address these questions in cyber times.

Multiple Methods

The web quest is one method of capturing students’ ability to techno-task. The web quest is the type of activity that educators use to integrate technology and curriculum. In a web quest a student is presented with a set of closed and open-ended questions. The instructor provides web sites to find specific answers with links to other sources for additional information. The teacher’s role is to review web sites, plan, guide and facilitate.

A web quest on the war in Iraq would include a search for specific facts about the country and the region. The quest would include questions about the causes and consequences of the war. Students would be guided to sources to find information to justify their positions. Because research no longer is limited to reference books and texts, this teaching technique enables students to access multiple sources of information quickly and easily. The teacher must help students filter information, provide methods of analysis and provide guidance to evaluate web sites and use information.

The web quest allows the techno-tasker to use audio, visual and print simultaneously. Several windows can be available at the same time. E-mails and IM can keep students and teachers connected during the web quest. Live video streaming also can keep everyone connected and on task. The teacher does not have to wait until class is over to provide feedback and encouragement.

In the web quest the teacher must set appropriate goals with multiple methods of achieving goals. The teacher’s role changes from the keeper and broadcaster of information to the facilitator of learning. The teacher provides the students with opportunities to learn and the criteria for making decisions about the accuracy and relevance of information. Evaluation of web sites and information must be a taught skill.

In Arlington Heights, Ill., 3 rd graders are asked to judge the authenticity of websites and the accuracy of information when presented with a reference site about “Whale Watching on Lake Michigan.” Students are taught to search for clues about the site and its contents. Much like students in the 1950s were told not to believe everything in the newspapers, students in the 21st century must be taught not to believe everything they see on the Internet. The techno-tasker must be an information connoisseur with the teacher serving as a guide using multiple paths to achieving goals.

The field trip or excursion is another opportunity for the appropriate use of techno-tasking. Picture phones and digital cameras connected to phones or hand-held devices provide instantaneous connections to the home school, students, teachers and field trip guides. Data can be immediately stored or transmitted. One can actually look, listen and learn at the same time at a number of different levels. The field trip is real and virtual at the same time.

Staff Meetings

School executives can use techno-tasking as a means to improve productivity at professional meetings. The key is the planning and structure of meetings. If the guidelines are reasonable and allow for techno-tasking, much can be gained.

During administrative and staff meetings several participants would be connected to the Internet and research topics that arise during the meeting. These searches provide valuable information and immediate answers to questions of fact. The discussion can be enriched by these searches. Principals can be contacted immediately via e-mail and can respond without leaving the meeting to take a phone call.

Text messaging is another form of instant communication that would be helpful and would not distract the group. Teachers can use e-mail to contact parents or record grades at some point during the meeting. Text messaging and e-mail can relieve the anxiety that staff members feel when they need to know where their children are after school. These quick electronic messages are not distractions. They ease anxiety and can keep a staff member focused on the business at hand.

Business Use

Business leaders who are ignoring the electronic culture are not unlike educators who dismiss the ability of students to multi-task with technology. Today’s administrative assistant works with several computer screens, handles multiple phone calls simultaneously with a head set and uses faxes, recording devices and other office machines on a regular basis. Workers and managers need to recognize that techno-tasking is a viable way to function in everyday business situations.

Business meetings have been filled with techno-taskers for years. While the sales manager is discussing the latest strategy, staff members are checking their laptop computers for e-mails, surfing the Internet, making plane reservations and answering cell phones. Meeting leaders must be aware that spouses, relatives, clients and friends are connected during the meeting.

Some managers now are banning cell phones and prohibiting access of the Web by individuals during meetings. Are these devices distractions or is the staff able to tune into both the meeting and to the technology? One could assume that techno-tasking would be a natural for younger business executives. Yet they are not the only ones who are bored and disconnected at business meetings.

At a recent seminar, a colleague in his 50s admitted: “I have a hard time sitting through meetings with all of the technology at my fingertips. Meetings are too slow. I could participate in the meeting and still be productive with my laptop and cell phone or hand-held device. I would use different types of technology to enhance productivity during meetings, but I don’t want to be rude.”

The business leader who accepts techno-tasking may conduct a more productive meeting. Meeting planners need to discuss this with participants when setting the agenda. The key to constructive techno-tasking is the recognition of the types of activities that contribute to productive meetings.

An Opportunity

Techno-tasking is a phenomenon, not an answer. Our culture is changing and we need to adapt to it by adopting the best methods to teach and to do business.

In professional football, plays are relayed to the quarterback through a wireless microphone while the coaches analyze digital pictures and computer programs to determine if their opponents have the tendency to repeat certain plays. A player can view the replay on the Jumbotron while listening to his coach call the signals for the next play.

If techno-tasking is enabling for the National Football League, then why not recognize that participation and interaction are now available on many levels simultaneously? The predominant method of teaching today remains the presenting of information through lecture and testing recall. Students in the digital age are bound by pedagogy, not technology.

The digital age encourages active participation. The techno-tasker is not only a student but also a worker and a consumer. Business leaders need to adapt to changing consumer patterns and to adopt policies that reflect a changing workforce. Educational and business leaders must recognize new ways of communicating and use them to enhance productivity.

Alan Simon is superintendent of Arlington Heights School District 25, 1200 South Dunton Ave. , Arlington Heights, IL 60005. E-mail: simon@ahsd25.k12.il.us. The author retains copyright to this article.