AAEE 2012 – Yes, Another Conference

In between writing up the conventicle (which I’m not doing yet), the CI Conference (which I’m doing slowly) and sleep (infrequent), I’m attending the Australasian Association for Engineering Education 2012 conference. Today, I presented a paper on e-Enhancing existing courses and, through a co-author, another paper on authentic teaching tool creation experiences.

My first paper gave me a chance to look at the Google analytics and tracking data for the on-line material I created in 2009. Since then, there have been:

  • 11,118 page views
  • 2.99 pages viewed/visit
  • 1,721 unique visitors
  • 3,715 visits overall

The other thing that is interesting is that roughly 60% of the viewers return to view the podcasts again. The theme of my talk was “Is E-Enhancement Worth It” and I had the pleasure of pointing out that I felt that it was because, as I was presenting, I was simultaneously being streamed giving my thoughts of computer networks to students in Singapore and (strangely enough) Germany. As I said in the talk and in the following discussion, the podcasts are far from perfect and, to increase their longevity, I need to make them shorter and more aligned to a single concept.


Because while the way I present concepts may change, because of sequencing and scaffolding changes, the way that I present an individual concept is more likely to remain the same over time. My next step is to make up a series of conceptual podcasts that are maybe 3-5 minutes in duration. Then the challenge is how to assemble these – I have ideas but not enough time.

One of the ideas raised today is the idea that we are seeing the rise of the digital native, a new type of human acclimatised to a short gratification loop, multi-tasking, and a non-linear mode of learning. I must be honest and say that everything I’ve read on the multi-tasking aspect, at least, leads me to believe that this new generation don’t multi-task any better than anyone else did. If they do two things, then they do them more slowly and don’t achieve the same depth: there’s no shortage of research work on this and given the limits of working memory and cognition this makes a great deal of sense. Please note, I’m not saying that I don’t believe that Homo Multiplexor can’t emerge, it’s just that I have not yet any strong scientific evidence to back up the anecdotes. I’m perfectly willing to believe that default searching activities have changed (storing ways of searching rather than the information) because that is a logical way to reduce cognitive load but I am yet to see strong evidence that my students can do two things at once well and without any loss of time. Either working memory has completely changed, which we should be able to test, or we risk confusing the appearance of doing two things at once with actually doing two things at once.

This is one of those situations that, as one of my colleagues observed, leaves us in that difficult position of being told, with great certainty, about a given student (often someone’s child) who can achieve great things while simultaneously watching TV and playing WoW. Again, I do not rule out the possibility of a significant change in humanity (we’re good at it) but I have often seen that familiar tight smile and the noncommittal nod as someone doesn’t quite acknowledge that your child is somehow the spearhead of a new parallelised human genus.

It’s difficult sometimes to express ideas like this. Compare this to the numbers I cited above. Everyone who reads this will look at those numbers and, while they will think many things, they are unlikely to think “I don’t believe that”. Yet I know that there are people who have read this and immediately snorted (or the equivalent) because they frankly disbelieve me o the multi-tasking, with no more or less hard evidence than that supporting the numbers. I’m actually expecting some comments on this one because the notion of the increasing ability of young people to multitask is so entrenched. If there is a definitive set of work supporting this, then I welcome it. The only problem is that all I can find supports the original work on working memory and associated concepts – there are only so many things you can focus on and beyond that you might be able to function but not at much depth. (There are exceptions, of course, but the 0.1% of society do not define the rule.)

The numbers are pasted straight out of my Google analytics for the learning materials I put up – yet you have no more reason to believe them than if I said “83% of internet statistics are made up”, which is a made up statistic. (If is is true, it is accidentally true.) We see again one of the great challenges in education: numbers are convincing, evidence that contradicts anecdote is often seen as wrong, finding evidence in the first place can be hard.

One more day of conference tomorrow! I can only wonder what we’ll be exposed to.

3 Comments on “AAEE 2012 – Yes, Another Conference”

  1. billb says:

    My problem is not that I don’t believe that multitasking is worse, it’s that I don’t appear to have a choice. I have 3 active research grants (with my time directly implicated instead of just supervision of students), one due in 2 weeks, a giant computer to help stand up, and a group of 20 researchers, programmers, and students to manage.

    I suppose we have to ask ourselves if it’s any different for our students. They (as we did) are taking multiple classes simultaneously, each with its own demands on their time. It would be be nice to tell them to work on Course A’s assignment (due tomorrow) until they complete it before switching to finishing Course B’s assignment (also due tomorrow), but we don’t always see the impediments to progress or the downtime associated with assignment work. This is especially true of group assignments where one person’s work may be dependent on progress from another group member. It’s very tempting to switch from A to B while the code for A is compiling, for example, in order to try to gain some time back even if they know or are told it’s not more efficient.

    This kind of task switching certainly seems required at my job in order to fit it all in. I probably have some ability to reduce my load by dropping or delegating tasks and projects, but besides taking fewer courses, our students are locked in to the assignment and study workload once they’ve committed to a certain set of courses for the semester. What sort of tools or structure can we give them to help them manage their time better? My traditional admonition to “Start now!” or “Start soon!” has rarely been universally effective.

    That being the case, I wonder if by “acclimatized” we should, instead, read or think “prone”? I.e., it’s not that so-called digital natives are better at multitasking and non-linear learning, but that they are more likely to attempt it since it is so easily facilitated by their tools. Why shouldn’t they take a Facebook break while their code is compiling or its result is computing? 🙂 How can we help them be successful knowing in advance that they may work on their assignments in overlapping bursts?


    • nickfalkner says:

      Hi Bill,

      I’m actually distinguishing between having multiple projects on the go and trying to do more than one thing at once – task switching is certainly something we’re capable of although we’re well aware of the costs of rapid context switching and the effects that too many tasks can have.

      The idea that was being discussed in the keynote was not switching but simultaneity. Basically, someone who is texting in your lecture while reading a book is now capable of doing all of these, with no loss, at the same time. We certainly have to prepare our students for a multi-project world, where part of that is selecting which task to achieve next. My issue is that I am yet to see convincing evidence that we are seeing a shift that means that most of the new generation can increase their project efficiency by undertaking two or more complex cognitive tasks at once.

      A task-interleaving (Why are you reading Facebook? Compiling!) approach is fine – it’s the notion that you can drive, text, recite Shakespeare and learn Latin at the same time that I’m having an issue with. 🙂



      • billb says:

        Well, no argument there. I once watched, from the back of the room, while an foreign student* watched streaming video of his home country playing their national soccer rival in an important match right in the middle of a lecture my colleague was giving. They (we) are clearly prone to this. The (our) tools enable it. A wandering mind can be entertained by another stream.

        Perhaps only the dedicated will set their devices aside and learn effectively. But perhaps not until we modify our materials to engage them more effectively. 🙂

        *I note his foreignness only because the idea of the US having a national soccer rival is pretty laughable. 😉


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