May 3, 2010

Kino Masks Your Screen for Customized Distraction Blocking

I was asked recently by a professor for ideas on how students could limit the digital distractions of their life. I knew that a few products were out there but did not have any names to give him quickly. Low and behold, as I was engaging in some digitally enhanced procrastination myself, I discovered an article on Life Hacker about Kino.

Kino is literally a desktop mask that hides the background on your big, gorgeous screen so that you can focus on the task at keyboard ... saving attention so that you finish the project and can later put the digital real estate to good use watching Iron Man 2 trailers. This puts it into the category of tools that self-aware procrastinators, like me, use to manage ourselves. It ranks along side habits such as turning OFF my cell phone, shutting down my email program, and setting a timer in World of Warcraft. These actions make sure that I can hit a project hard, complete it, and move on to actually watching Iron Man 2 in the theater.

Problem is that they are all voluntary. And there's the rub. None of the tools to eliminate distractions work unless a person (student or teacher) wants to engage in them. Oh sure, parents and lab administrators can install programs to actually take the decision out of the hands of their students, but is this really necessary? Or is it actually counter-productive? At some point, teens and young adults (and older adults) need to start self-regulating by turning off distractions or turning on the distraction-muting programs themselves. As any early childhood educator will tell you, learning to self-regulate is a major life skill. If a 13 or 23 or 33 year old hasn't mastered that one yet, it is time for some remedial training.

Truth is, teens and college students are more capable of choosing to limit social media than we may think. Reports are coming in that they are logging off Facebook and other sites in order to improve grades and achieve other goals. One of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits has a list of tips for teens to manage the balance between goals and socializing via media.

The key is that, no matter how hard it may seem, you have to decide that you're in charge of how much of the data stream you will enjoy - and when. I'll keep posting tools to help whenever I find them!

Posted by bjohnson at 12:00 PM

March 18, 2010

Addiction or shift?

This morning, I'm sipping my coffee and reading the news, switching between print (the New York Times) and my trusty electronic feeds (via Google reader). Since I'm focused on the educational potential of online tools, I stopped to track down and read this article from Ars Technica on addiction to social media.

As is usual, I find myself mulling a difficult question or two. And I haven't even had my second cup of coffee (don't get me started on addictions ....)!

First off, as the article points out, defining behavioral addictions is problematic and open to debate. Many addiction specialists question the label "addiction" applied to compulsive behavior. And many Madison Avenue behavioral shapers simply enjoy the income. But that's not the question I am focused on today.

My question is: is this really new behavior? Or is it just shifted to a new medium? And how would we study this question?? I only ask because, as I reflect on my own use of social media and slick devices, I do not see substantial changes in behavior other than the fact that I can now do things once instead of twice.

Let me explain. Back in the old days, when I carried around a DayTimer instead of an iPhone, I'd spend a substantial amount of time --- at odd moments of the day --- making notes about what I needed to do when business hours started: who needed to be contacted, what memos needed to be written, what newspaper article I needed to clip and file, etc. And I do mean at all hours of the day. Being a multi-tasker and insomniac from my teens, it was not unusual for me to be up at 4 am writing out reports long-hand on a legal pad so that a secretary could type them up when normal people started working.

Now, I drink my coffee and read the paper as always, but I can file clips (in the form of URLs) immediately (in Endnote or star them in Google Reader). Instead of making myself a note to remind my students of a paper due next week, I can send it out now via Twitter or the Moodle news feed. I type up my own memos (more likely emails) and can send them out at 4 am, if that is when I'm thinking of it ... instead of making notes and hoping I'll remember what I was thinking about. Does this mean that I'm addicted to social media? Or was I addicted to (something .... work perhaps) before social media came along?

People frequently make a big deal about how we text or read electronic media in bed ... but how is that different from the prior sins of reading fiction or watching TV before falling asleep? I'd argue that a quiet game of Bejeweled is more relaxing than watching the nightly news, but I think I'll leave that question to those who feel like researching it (anyone want to get wired up in the sleep lab?).

Instead, I'll continue to wonder if we are all Rip Van Winkle, suddenly waking up and forgetting the progression of the past 50 years. We did not suddenly become a sedentary, media focused society with the invention of the smart phone. We've been sitting and amusing ourselves with cheap paperbacks, readily available newspapers, crossword puzzles and TV for decades. Is the shift to electronic media really increasing our consumption of media? Or do we just notice it now that we're not consuming the privileged print as much as we are the disruptive electronic forms?

Posted by bjohnson at 8:11 AM

September 10, 2008

Time Management for Students

I had wanted to teach a section of our Introduction to College Learning class, but I was assured that they already had all the well-qualified instructors they needed .... ah, well, such is life. So, I'll have to share my bits of wisdom to a MUCH larger audience via the Internet (or the "Interweb" as it was called on an episode of "House" --- seriously).

Today's lesson is about time management and how to procrastinate while looking like you're doing something productive. What's better than sitting down with your syllabi, planning out when things are due, and watching your favorite TV show? Very effective multitasking, which puts you well on your way to surviving in the modern world.

Unless you already have your paper planner (I'm assured they still exist) or use Google Calendar, check out this online software: StudyRails. Seriously. Many first year students get into trouble because they haven't had to work very hard before college and suddenly have what looks like an even lighter load than senior slide ... until they get hit with mid-terms.

So, plan ahead, block out time now for studying and playing both. You'll thank me around Halloween when you can still go out with friends, play your favorite videogame, and tell your parents that you're getting a "B" with a straight face.

Posted by bjohnson at 1:02 PM

October 27, 2004


I think it is ironic that I do my post on Take Back Your Time Day late - both years!

Last year, it was on a discussion board. This year, it is in a blog. I guess we do make progress of a sort ....

But, back to the point.

Take Back Your Time Day is an initiative by the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University. That's the first hook between TBYTD and this blog - it harkens back to the days when institutions of higher learning were also places where social change often brewed and were communicated to a wider audience. Whether a website or a blog, the ability to publish your thoughts can spark learning and action in others. Isn't that what education is all about??

The other hook is my enduring interest in using technology to IMPROVE learning, coupled with my concern that, in the effort to improve learning, we are overloading ourselves and our students.

One of the seven principles proposed by Arthur W. Chickering and Stephen C. Ehrmann (Implementing the Seven Principles) is that good practice emphasizes time on learning tasks. However, with our ability to expand learning activities well beyond the time and location of the classroom, are we in danger of asking students to spend too much time "on task" and not allowing them time to simply live? And are we in danger of doing the same to ourselves??

Frequently, when faculty first begin to adopt technology, there is the hope that tool X will help them get through with task Y faster or easier or more efficiently. But I often see that tool X sucks them into doing more - often just because they can.

For instance, a discussion board is a great tool to get everyone involved in a discussion. But, if you think about it, this potentially also greatly increases the amount of time you and the students spend on the course. Instead of a few people discussing an item in the classroom, now, the whole class will be expected to post something. You, the instructor, at a minimum, will end up reading perhaps 30 or 40 posts instead of listening to a 3 or 4 person discussion that probably would have taken 10 minutes, if that.

Without a doubt, this is a fairer scenario and one that allows you to know a far broader range of student opinions. But, if you keep adding to the amount of time required for your classes rather than replacing time for one activity with the same amount of time for a replacement, you are in danger of becoming increasingly time-starved. And you'll probably end up wondering why all these tech tools are supposed to save you time!

So, keep this idea in mind when you plan tech enhancements to a course. Look for places where you can REPLACE an activity that does not serve the educational goals well with one that will. Watch out for the amount of time it will require and resist adding activities just because they can be done outside of class.

Being a full-time student or professor does NOT mean that you live your entire life for learning or teaching. Take back your time.

Posted by bjohnson at 3:10 PM