Continuous Partial Attention – Redux

I recently had the opportunity to take some long overdue vacation, telling myself I had to disconnect in order to [re]connect. I went camping in the mountains of Virginia with my dog, and chased trout with an expensive graphite fly rod and flies. I didn’t see or talk with any people for three days. It was amazing!

One of the things that struck me about this experience however was the amount of time it took me to actually stop thinking about reading blogs, reading / answering email, what was happening on Twitter…what cool ideas was I missing on the Network?! It was a little unsettling at first, and I was almost embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about all this stuff. It took me the better part of three days to really disconnect. As my digital life blurred, I became consumed by hiking mountain trails, scouting the creeks, being quiet streamside and watching bugs hatch off the water…observing feeding trout, gathering firewood and staying warm and dry. In these moments I really appreciated the simple slowness of a day of hiking, fishing and camping out under the stars.

All of this helped me realize how much time is actually required to manage a modern life along with the desire to be a live node on the network. The latter is in itself a full-time job! I remain a little unsettled with the realization.

In any event, I have since been thinking about a concept I heard a few years back – Continuous Partial Attention. To the best of my knowledge this was initially coined by Linda Stone, a social computing researcher at Microsoft. She writes:

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”

Whoa! That set me back a bit. Forgive the rhetorical question, but…what are the implications of maintaining a sense of high alert and constant crisis for extended periods of time?

I began to think about these ideas in the context of some of the work I am engaged in at the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU. Over the past year, my colleagues Britt Watwood, Bud Deihl and I have been engaged in a collective journey to explore social networking and the development of our own web-based personal learning networks (PLNs). For each of us this journey has involved significant amounts of time and energy to connect and stay connected; to really be part of the networked conversation about teaching, learning and technology…writing blog posts, reading countless blog postings in our RSS readers, tagging resources in, making / listening to podcasts and Twittering. Along with engagement in this conversation there seems to be the added expectation for even more engagement. Based on observations of colleagues and friends, and what I imagine about my network “heroes,” I think it seems safe to say that continuous partial attention, as described by Stone, is a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of developing and maintaining a PLN. If we accept that, I think a whole host of questions arise…Who can really afford to develop and maintain a PLN? Who can afford not to develop a PLN? How does the maintenance of a vibrant PLN impact the attention we have to devote to other aspects of life and work? Are PLNs primarily for the early adopter set?

To me a PLN seems to be a bit of luxury, and at times an extravagant one.

That said, I turn to considering the faculty members with whom I work at VCU, and teachers in general, and wonder how many of them would even remotely consider taking the time required to overcome learning curves, fear, doubting, and network building to begin reaping benefits of a robust PLN. I suspect very few.

Perhaps it is simply my emerging notion of a PLN, ill-formed as it is and full of my own personal trappings, that makes it difficult for me to see how many teachers could really devote the amount of time and energy that appears to be required here. I’m not discounting the possibility, but I do however think we need to be realistic in terms of our expectations about how many teachers (K-12 & higher education) can devote the time required to engage and participate in the development of a robust PLN.

If we value the role PLNs can play in education, we need to find ways of introducing them that don’t confuse or overwhelm by being fully formed, offer meaningful starting point experiences that can lead to further development, and at the same time be part of a balanced practice and life. That is a tall order…and I’m not sure how to do that just yet, but I’m inspired by another comment from Linda Stone:

“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention. We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.”

Right on! I’m going fishing…


9 thoughts on “Continuous Partial Attention – Redux

  1. I am engaged with Jeff and Britt in the process which he (Jeff) describes. I wrestle with the same issues. I have lived through an intense online Master’s program at CSU and know all too well, the demand of constant partial attention.

    Forming boundaries has always been important. Current technologies magnify the necessity, due to speed of digital communication and the incomprehensible amount of content which gets generated each day. Choosing all or nothing in regard to technologies is unacceptable to me. Our task is to identify when the technologies are enhancing our lives and our ability to learn, create and share, vs. when they become an unnecessary or undesired drain on our resources. Balance is a difficult act, but with care, diligence and practice, I believe it is possible.

    One role we serve in the academy is to sort out our own definitions and share what we feel is of value with our faculty colleagues. Doing this without overwhelming them is the challenge. A former faculty member told me years ago, that she tried to learn one new thing in regard to technology each day. She approached the flood of information one small step at a time. I believe her approach is a wise and sane one; one we should promote. Committing a few minutes each day to read, listen about or try some technology will hopefully inform and inspire teaching and learning opportunities.

    Looking at the big picture reminds me of a quote from Carl Sagan,in Contact: “Small moves, Ellie, small moves…”

  2. Pingback: The Facets of Social Networks | Learning In a Flat World

  3. Great post. I had the chance to spend a couple of days with Linda (and some other tech bigwigs) last summer. She’s a neat lady.

    I think you’re right. In many ways, having a PLN is a bit of a luxury. But, in my mind, a wonderful opportunity that, unlike most luxuries, can be possessed by anyone who wants one…

    Questions running through my mind: Are school principals too busy to have a PLN? Can they afford not to?

  4. Thanks for the comment Scott.

    I continue to think about the idea of whether anyone can really have a PLN. While the access is surely “out-there” I also think that the acces is not really equally distributed. At the very least it takes time, strategic building and plenty of attention…all of these seem to be at a premium these days. Those of us who swim in this stuff every day can seemingly afford to devote the energy. So I think there are many folks for whom the idea of a PLN will simply remain a foreign notion because the demands of their “normal” lives are already consuming.

    That said, I think that principals – as school leaders – need to be the folks who can not only model engagement in this environment, but use the development of a PLN to crucially support their work. So…I don’t believe that school principals can afford not to have a PLN. Thoughts?

  5. I guess one major issue is at the intersection of access and time. I can be in front of or checking some kind of Web-enabled device for much of my day. Most K-12 educators cannot. So, perhaps it comes down to how much of their own time they are willing to spend as learners. I find myself realizing that to profess the values of PLNs for educators, I must frame it as a part-time deal and not a full-time deal.

    I think it’d be neat and important to find full-time K-12 educators who are maintaining comprehensive PLNs and document how they manage that.

  6. I love that last quote from Linda Stone. I think I am trying to “evolve beyond an always-on lifestyle.” Having a PLN doesn’t mean you have to be immersed in the PLN all the time. Isn’t that what “asynchronous” is all about? The opportunities for refelction and learning are enormous and we can certainly learn to balance somehow.

    On the other hand: what about connection? I am wondering if we are evolving different kinds of relationships that weren’t possible before, or at least not as easy. For instance, I read many article by Peter Elbow when I was learning Composition Theory. How would it be different now, emailing and skyping with scholars instead of just reading them? But do they have time for that; ) We have to preserve our solo reflection time as well as our communicate-and-contribute time. So I have a broader array of people to choose to be in conversation with, and that allows me to grow more relationships with more like-minded people. But physical space still seems to matter. I have lost touch with friends who I don’t get enough f2f time with, and,on the other hand, the occassional lunch discussion goes a long way in maintaining a real connection!

  7. Your post and recent comments on laptops in higher ed really have me thinking about things…again! I totally get the concept of Continuous Partial Attention almost wonder if some ADD kids just suffer from that 😉 and adults don’t get being connected and attentive to more than one thing – not really multitasking but partial attention and the better you are at filtering when you need to pay attention, the better you are processing lots of information.

    Maintaining and getting maximum benefit requires this.. when to read blogs, check bookmarks, comment, twitter, and f2f. Tools like or netvibes/pageflake/igooggle or a browser like flock become a necessary, advanced networking tool allowing users to managea series of networks.

    I would argue teachers do have time and must make time if they are to become 21st century teachers. It won’t happen overnight but will be a more of an evolution towards more social and connected learning. At my school we are trying to push the issue – We have forced teachers to use instead of firefox bookmarks stating that we do not support the other bookmarks. We are also forcing all faculty members to do some reflection and sharing on an internal Elgg network as we move to a 1-to-1 program. We have several examples of nings on campus. We recently had a faculty meeting that we ustreamed out and brought twitter friends in. My 65 year old division head just started the conversation with the faculty at large about the role of cell phones and tools like twitter and jott as part of a discussion about lock down procedures. (More about this can be found in this post –
    Our kids are networking and it has the potential to be a powerful learning tool so how can we not network – We recentl had adv chem class put on a Global Climate Change summit that was ustreamed out- to do projects they netowrked with experts by virtue of some connections the teacher, a few kids, and I had from our network. Teachers need to provide opportunities for students to do things like that – Yes, I’d argue developing a network should be a requiremnet!
    It can help you get less overwhelmed by acting as a resource and filter for information.

    The twitter conversation about turning off wireless and laptops in higher ed is interesting to me as we are just starting a tablet program. I think its a futile, useless battle not to accept technology and learn to at least coexist with it. As k12 schools adjust their curriculum, because i don’t think laptops enhance the same old traditional lecture driven teaching environment, I woudl think higher ed would feel student pressure to change if you want to keep them engaged…

    Thanks for getting me thinking-thinking makes me smarter- without a network, look what I would have missed..Apologies for being rambling and longwinded!

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Elizabeth.

    While I agree with you that teachers need to find time to participate in the meaningful use of social media and the development of a PLN, I struggle with the idea of “forcing” teachers to do anything with technology. Part of this stems from the fact that I work in a university context where some wear resistance like a badge of honor. I can’t, nor would I attempt, to force university faculty members to use any particular technology. I do however advocate for (and against) certain kinds of uses and practices.

    Bottom line for me is this: we need to craft experiences for teachers that make the adoption of particular technologies and practices compelling. To me this means valuing risk taking, building communities that help people overcome the fear of change, and providing meaningful recognition for those who are willing to invest the energy.

    Clearly this takes time…often more than we are willing to devote. I don’t think there are any easy answers here.

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