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Higher Education Teaching

Can college students really not pay attention to the end of a 10-minute video?

On FB yesterday, some of my friends were sharing a piece of research the suggested the optimal length for instructional videos was around six minutes. The specifics of the research aren’t really important here. What is relevant is that academics are trying to come to terms with the realities of fall online instruction. Others are facing the riskier and more nerve-wracking prospect of in-person instruction. That’s a subject for another post, though I’m not sure I have much insight to add to that discussion except what I am suggesting here.

Whether we are staging social-distanced and masked classes on a campus where significant procedures, physical barriers, and other guidelines largely restrict extra-curricular interaction among students and others or we offer courses through remote learning, we are remediating the experience of pre-COVID in-person instruction and college life. Neither of these options will be like what we had before March 2020. We have to evaluate the affordances and capacities of what I’ll term “modified in-person instruction” in relation to the public health risks. Obviously we are also immersed in cultural-ideological commitments regarding what college is like and what we value about it (including in an economic-market sense), as well as the situation of higher education in a larger political struggle.

We also need to understand better the affordances and capacities of remote learning, and that’s my focus here.

So what does it mean to suggest that college students lose focus on instructional videos after six minutes? (Assuming for the moment that is accurate.) We regularly expect students to maintain focus in a lecture hall for longer than that. They watch other videos (movies, tv shows, etc.) that are longer than that. I don’t think it is difficult to recognize that “attention” is not simply an inherent capacity of which each person has a certain amount to spend. Instead, our capacities for attention are structured by sociotechnical and material environments and practices. Students spend years learning classroom behaviors in relation to desks, chalkboards, notetaking, textbooks, powerpoint, meeting times, etc. Similarly we learn how to attend to films, shows, video games, novels, magazine articles, web sites, text messages, and so on. 

There are so many factors and dimensions and actors (oh my!) to consider, but let me try to break them into four basic categories as seen from the perspective of faculty.

  1. Your/my physical-material-social-technical workspace (what I will call here our media ecologies). If you are like me, you are in your home. I have plenty of access to computers, printers, internet, cameras, software (and even a green screen at this point). My main obstacle is that I’m sharing this space with my wife, who directs our writing center, a phd student, and an undergraduate. All of this shapes for good or bad my ability to produce course content, including the production values of that content and the setting in which I conduct synchronous meetings. Right now, the demands on workspace are not too high but soon we’ll all be back in full-time mode.
  2. The physical-material-social-technical workspace (i.e., the media ecologies) of our students. These are obviously variable. They also exist with varying degrees of possible modification. So one necessary consideration for all of us is to understand how media ecologies shape our rhetorical, cognitive and agential capacities. Which tendencies in us to they encourage?  Which specific capacities do they engender? What actions are available to us to support particular tendencies and capacities over others?
  3. The media infrastructure that we share. For our purposes this is primarily the set of applications/web sites that mediate our interactions. These too affect tendencies and engender capacities. As faculty we have the primary responsibility for selecting among these options and designing the interactions between them. When will we use Zoom? For how long? For what purposes? Is Blackboard (or another institutional CMS) effective for asynchronous learning, or should we pick another tool? Do we need additional tools?
  4. Part of answering the media infrastructure question is considering our (and our students’) facility with digital media. In the spring emergency, I advocated keeping it simple. In the fall, we need to recognize we still have students who are reluctant online learners and that they are also taking several online courses with varying technical demands. That said, for the fall I am shifting the scales somewhat to suggest that an increased learning curve can be worth the cost provided the payoff can come within the scope of the semester. For example, I am toying with the idea of using Discord for informal class discussion. I have to answer for myself if I believe asking students to learn how to use it (which is more of a rhetorical than a technical hurdle imho) is worth the payoff. 

With this in mind, getting back to the notion of the 6-minute limit on the video lecture, I can try to address it through these four categories.

  1. How does our media ecology facilitate/limit our capacity to make an effective video? Do we have the tools we need to make a decent one?
  2. Can we have an open conversation with our students about the challenges of watching such videos? What makes them difficult to watch? How might a shift in their environments make the videos more effective? Or are the limits we are facing ones that are beyond our students ability to modify?
  3. Why are we choosing video as the format for this communication? Does our media infrastructure offer other options that might be more effective (or at least more labor efficient)? 
  4. How skilled are we at making videos? To what degree is the problem we are facing a result of our limited capacity (and/or willingness to invest the time and labor) to make rhetorically effective videos?

There are decades of research demonstrating the effectiveness of online instruction. That evidence is balanced by the antipathy of both students and faculty in general to doing it and a general cultural bias against online instruction. (I can’t help but note that bias is partly the result of the prevalence of scam for-profit online institutions.)

All that said, I don’t think we can afford to turn up our noses at learning how to become effective online teachers and learners. Universities obviously can’t do it. And students? Well maybe they say to themselves that they can take a “gap semester” and sit at home doing nothing. But how about a gap year? How about two gap years? I don’t mean to be alarmist, but none of us knows how long it’s going to take to beat this thing. Our challenge is to figure it out.

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