Continuous Partial Attention – Redux

I recently had the opportunity to take some long overdue vacation, telling myself I had to disconnect in order to [re]connect. I went camping in the mountains of Virginia with my dog, and chased trout with an expensive graphite fly rod and flies. I didn’t see or talk with any people for three days. It was amazing!

One of the things that struck me about this experience however was the amount of time it took me to actually stop thinking about reading blogs, reading / answering email, what was happening on Twitter…what cool ideas was I missing on the Network?! It was a little unsettling at first, and I was almost embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about all this stuff. It took me the better part of three days to really disconnect. As my digital life blurred, I became consumed by hiking mountain trails, scouting the creeks, being quiet streamside and watching bugs hatch off the water…observing feeding trout, gathering firewood and staying warm and dry. In these moments I really appreciated the simple slowness of a day of hiking, fishing and camping out under the stars.

All of this helped me realize how much time is actually required to manage a modern life along with the desire to be a live node on the network. The latter is in itself a full-time job! I remain a little unsettled with the realization.

In any event, I have since been thinking about a concept I heard a few years back – Continuous Partial Attention. To the best of my knowledge this was initially coined by Linda Stone, a social computing researcher at Microsoft. She writes:

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”

Whoa! That set me back a bit. Forgive the rhetorical question, but…what are the implications of maintaining a sense of high alert and constant crisis for extended periods of time?

I began to think about these ideas in the context of some of the work I am engaged in at the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU. Over the past year, my colleagues Britt Watwood, Bud Deihl and I have been engaged in a collective journey to explore social networking and the development of our own web-based personal learning networks (PLNs). For each of us this journey has involved significant amounts of time and energy to connect and stay connected; to really be part of the networked conversation about teaching, learning and technology…writing blog posts, reading countless blog postings in our RSS readers, tagging resources in del.icio.us, making / listening to podcasts and Twittering. Along with engagement in this conversation there seems to be the added expectation for even more engagement. Based on observations of colleagues and friends, and what I imagine about my network “heroes,” I think it seems safe to say that continuous partial attention, as described by Stone, is a necessary precondition for reaping the benefits of developing and maintaining a PLN. If we accept that, I think a whole host of questions arise…Who can really afford to develop and maintain a PLN? Who can afford not to develop a PLN? How does the maintenance of a vibrant PLN impact the attention we have to devote to other aspects of life and work? Are PLNs primarily for the early adopter set?

To me a PLN seems to be a bit of luxury, and at times an extravagant one.

That said, I turn to considering the faculty members with whom I work at VCU, and teachers in general, and wonder how many of them would even remotely consider taking the time required to overcome learning curves, fear, doubting, and network building to begin reaping benefits of a robust PLN. I suspect very few.

Perhaps it is simply my emerging notion of a PLN, ill-formed as it is and full of my own personal trappings, that makes it difficult for me to see how many teachers could really devote the amount of time and energy that appears to be required here. I’m not discounting the possibility, but I do however think we need to be realistic in terms of our expectations about how many teachers (K-12 & higher education) can devote the time required to engage and participate in the development of a robust PLN.

If we value the role PLNs can play in education, we need to find ways of introducing them that don’t confuse or overwhelm by being fully formed, offer meaningful starting point experiences that can lead to further development, and at the same time be part of a balanced practice and life. That is a tall order…and I’m not sure how to do that just yet, but I’m inspired by another comment from Linda Stone:

“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention. We are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. As we make choices to turn the technology OFF, to give full attention to others in interactions, to block out interruption-free time, and to use the full range of communication tools more appropriately, we will re-orient our trek toward a path of more engaged attention, more fulfulling relationships, and opportunities for the type of reflection that fuels innovation.”

Right on! I’m going fishing…

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Twitterpated…well, maybe.

I guess I’ll throw my hat into the already overfull ring of people who scratched their heads for months wondering about the value and function of Twitter, and then somehow took the leap to engage in the Twitterverse. Seems like a rite of passage, or perhaps a rite of absolution.

What is Twitter? Do you get it? Why would anyone want to use it? How do you use it? What are the applications in the classroom? These questions ran through my head for nearly a full year, until recently, I – like many others have recounted – took the Twitterplunge. I’ll try to provide a little insight into what finally kicked to put me over the edge.

The first time I encountered Twitter was nearly a year ago at the University of Mary Washington’s 2007 Faculty Academy – a wonderful event put on by the UMW folks at DoIT. At this conference I had the pleasure of seeing Alan Levine talk about Twitter and share some uses as well as his own head scratching journey to take the Twitterplunge…it seems everyone has that story. There was also a TwitterCamp set up for folks attending the UMW event where participants could tweet at each other and engage in some exchange…I watched in confusion. I continued to lurk – inconsistently – at the fringe of Twitter for several months…uncertain and already overwhelmed with more information streams than I could manage. Why did I need this…? I couldn’t answer the question…it continued to stew on the wayback burner.

The second significant encounter I had with Twitter was at the recent 2008 ELI Annual Conference, where Twitter was again featured prominently. The ELI folk had set up a TwitterCamp that could be “followed” by any participants, as well as others not attending the conference. Twitter became a medium of exchange – in the moment – that allowed people to comment and share thoughts on what they were experiencing and thinking about in sessions during the conference. This got my attention. There was an entire stream of ideas flowing among participants that was visible, informative and most importantly…generative. It was a valuable back channel of information and it was here I think I turned the corner on Twitter. I began to “follow” people on Twitter who I saw at the conference, and slowly over time began and continue to build a network.

So what makes it worthwhile for me? Right now there are a few things:

1) I have come to see Twitter as a piece of a much larger conversation. Blogs, YouTube, podcasts…these are all part of a conversation I am attempting to participate in, and Twitter is an interesting complement.

2) Twitter somehow seems to let me learn and get to know a little bit more about the folks I follow. It builds a sense of connection, and for me represents a bit of community building.

3) The network you build on Twitter becomes a resource to support learning and exchange.

4) It allows me to stay loosely connected to folks that I have a relationship with that I might not get to talk or communicate with as much as I’d like.

Yet Twitter still represents a very real challenge for me.

I am valuing the participation as a learning support and a process for connection. However, I’m still thinking that the adoption curve on this one is pretty wacky. Every faculty member I have introduced to Twitter, albeit casually and with hesitation, has rolled their eyes. “Twitter, cute! What do I need that time sucker for?” Perhaps they sense my own uncertainty. No matter how you slice it though, arrival at valuing participation in a networked community is something that takes time and belief that it will be a resource that can pay learning dividends in the future. Part of the challenge – seems to me – lies in creating a context or need where participation in the network becomes a necessity. Are we there yet?

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