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Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age

Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age

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Published by: Crowdsourcing.org on Aug 29, 2011
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02/03/2013

 
August 26, 2011
Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age
By Cathy N. DavidsonFive or six years ago, I attended alecture on the science of attention. Aphilosopher who conducts researchover in the medical school was talkingabout attention blindness, the basicfeature of the human brain that, whenwe concentrate intensely on one task,causes us to miss just about everythingelse. Because we can't see what we can't see, our lecturer was determined to catchus in the act. He had us watch a video of six people tossing basketballs back andforth, three in white shirts and three in black, and our task was to keep track onlyof the tosses among the people in white. I hadn't seen the video back then, althoughit's now a classic, featured on punk-style TV shows or YouTube versions enactedat frat houses under less than lucid conditions. The tape rolled, and everyone begancounting.Everyone except me. I'm dyslexic, and the moment I saw that grainy tape with theconfusing basketball tossers, I knew I wouldn't be able to keep track of theirmovements, so I let my mind wander. My curiosity was piqued, though, whenabout 30 seconds into the tape, a gorilla sauntered in among the players. She (welater learned a female student was in the gorilla suit) stared at the camera, thumpedher chest, and then strode away while they continued passing the balls.When the tape stopped, the philosopher asked how many people had counted atleast a dozen basketball tosses. Hands went up all over. He then asked who hadcounted 13, 14, and congratulated those who'd scored the perfect 15. Then heasked, "And who saw the gorilla?"I raised my hand and was surprised to discover I was the only person at my tableand one of only three or four in the large room to do so. He'd set us up, trapping us
 
in our own attention blindness. Yes, there had been a trick, but he wasn't the onewho had played it on us. By concentrating so hard on counting, we had managed tomiss the gorilla in the midst.Attention blindness is the fundamental structuring principle of the brain, and Ibelieve that it presents us with a tremendous opportunity. My take is different fromthat of many neuroscientists: Where they perceive the shortcomings of theindividual, I sense an opportunity for collaboration. Fortunately, given theinteractive nature of most of our lives in the digital age, we have the tools toharness our different forms of attention and take advantage of them.It's not easy to acknowledge that everything we've learned about how to payattention means that we've been missing everything else. It's not easy for usrational, competent, confident types to admit that the very key to our success
 — 
ourability to pinpoint a problem and solve it, an achievement honed in all those yearsin school and beyond
 — 
may be exactly what limits us. For more than a hundredyears, we've been training people to see in a particularly individual, deliberativeway. No one ever told us that our way of seeing excluded everything else.I want to suggest a different way of seeing, one that's based on multitasking ourattention
 — 
not by seeing it all alone but by distributing various parts of the task among others dedicated to the same end. For most of us, this is a new pattern of attention. Multitasking is the ideal mode of the 21st century, not just because of information overload but also because our digital age was structured withoutanything like a central node broadcasting one stream of information that we payattention to at a given moment. On the Internet, everything links to everything, andall of it is available all the time.Unfortunately, current practices of our educational institutions
 — 
and workplaces
 — 
are a mismatch between the age we live in and the institutions we have built overthe last 100-plus years. The 20th century taught us that completing one task beforestarting another one was the route to success. Everything about 20th-centuryeducation, like the 20th-century workplace, has been designed to reinforce ourattention to regular, systematic tasks that we take to completion. Attention to task is at the heart of industrial labor management, from the assembly line to the
 
modern office, and of educational philosophy, from grade school to graduateschool.The
 Newsweek 
cover story proclaimed, "iPod, Therefore I Am."On MTV News, it was "Dude, I just got a free iPod!"Peter Jennings smirked at the ABC-TV news audience, "Shakespeare on the iPod?Calculus on the iPod?"And the staff of the Duke
Chronicle
was apoplectic: "The University seems intenton transforming the iPod into an academic device, when the simple fact of thematter is that iPods are made to listen to music. It is an unnecessarily expensive toythat does not become an academic tool simply because it is thrown into aclassroom."What had those pundits so riled up? In 2003, we at Duke were approached byApple about becoming one of six Apple Digital Campuses. Each college wouldchoose a technology that Apple was developing and propose a campus use for it. Itwould be a partnership of business and education, exploratory in all ways. Wechose a flashy new music-listening gadget that young people loved but that baffledmost adults.When we gave a free iPod to every member of the entering first-year class, therewere no conditions. We simply asked students to dream up learning applicationsfor this cool little white device with the adorable earbuds, and we invited them topitch their ideas to the faculty. If one of their professors decided to use iPods in acourse, the professor, too, would receive a free Duke-branded iPod, and so wouldall the students in the class (whether they were first-years or not).This was an educational experiment without a syllabus. No lesson plan. Noassessment matrix rigged to show that our investment had been a wise one. Noassignment to count the basketballs. After all, as we knew from the science of attention, to direct attention in one way precluded all the other ways. If it were areality show, we might have called it
Project Classroom Makeover.
 

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