I am planning to periodically post topics related to the use (and misuse) of instructional technology in dental education. Here the first installment:
I just read a thought-provoking article “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” by Katherine Hayles which discusses the generational shift in cognitive styles that poses challenges to education at all levels (published here, full text available here).
Dr. Hayles discusses the dichotomy between deep attention, concentrating on a single object for long periods ignoring outside stimuli, and hyper attention, switching focus rapidly among different tasks. The latter is characterized by preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.
While many people, in my age group anyway, would immediately argue that deep attention is better, “it comes at the price of environmental alertness and flexibility of response.” Dr. Hayles argues that “Hyper attention excels at negotiating rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention, …” However, in our traditional educational environment “hyper attention [is] regarded as defective behavior.” The problem we are facing is, according to Hayles, the clash between the “expectations of educators, who are trained in deep attention […] and the preferred cognitive mode of young people.”
Her research also shows that while the “mean [of the population] moves toward hyper attention rather than deep attention, compensatory tactics are employed to retain the benefits of deep attention through the artificial means of chemical intervention in cortical functioning,” such as through cortical stimulants (e.g. Ritalin). Her article elaborates on research about synaptogenesis which is altered when children grow up in media-rich environment–reminding me of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.
One of her key arguments is that “A case can be made that hyper attention is more adaptive than deep attention for many situations in contemporary developed societies.” However, I would note that the public thinks differently when it comes to the work of health care providers, see: New York Times: As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction Grows, and AHRQ recently reported about a “multitasking mishap” in their Morbidity & Mortality Rounds on the Web.
CODA, the accrediting body for all US dental schools, states in its standards that the “[u]se of technology in dental education programs can support learning in different ways, including self-directed, distance and asynchronous learning.”
What challenges are we facing when these students enter our dental schools? Do we want to foster hyper attention, building on their acquired predisposition, or do we want to change their cognitive style to adopt a style of deep attention which is more suitable for a health care provider? Actually, is deep attention really more suitable for health care providers who must interact with often multiple computers and devices as well as need to adjust to the rapid pace of many patient encounters per day?
Do we need to prepare our dental educators for these hyper-attention learners? At the University of Southern California, researchers “explore new pedagogical models that provide greater stimulation than the typical classroom […] 14 large screens span the walls, providing display space for […] participants [who] search the Web for appropriate content to display on the screens while a speaker is making a presentation.” Think about dental educators: do you think they would enjoy teaching under such circumstances?
Or, maybe the solution can be found in what Atul Gawande recently wrote in The New Yorker regarding the promises of technology: “What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology. We have devoted disastrously little attention to fostering those abilities.”
Heiko, looking forward to your comments and thoughts
Associate Dean, Office of Faculty Development and Information Management
Associate Professor, Dental Public Health, Center for Dental Informatics
School of Dental Medicine, University of Pittsburgh