Musician David Bowie, in an interview in 2002, lamented that ‘nobody reads anymore… people have attention spans of five seconds’. Or I think he did, I only managed to listen to the first half of his sentence, before derailing back into the stimuli-inducing embrace of social media and Angry Birds. This consideration of reduced attention spans is not just limited to recently deceased singer-songwriters, and has filtered through into the world of E-learning- as Olympia’s Learning Technology Conference this month demonstrated.
Pointing an accusing finger at smartphones, companies are struggling to reform a system associated with mind-numbing longevity, in favour of more interactive and time-effective models. Procurement should place these growing conclusions at the centre of its training purchasing and must learn to consider that whilst extensive training programmes may often seem tempting, particularly in value for money considerations, they are increasingly ineffective.
A recent presentation by City & Guilds Kineo, dissecting their annual Learning Insights Report, highlighted how short attention spans had reduced the effectiveness of longer, often boring, training programmes. Amongst the central pleas of surveyed workers was a reduction in ‘boring’ content. This is a perspective I certainly have sympathy with, as will I imagine the majority of readers who have worked within larger companies. At the BBC we were expected to undertake a thirty minute fire-safety e-learning course. A drawn out, patronising, half hour process ensued, learning not to run towards fires, or use fire extinguishers for impromptu games of cricket or do any barbecuing in the foyer during lunch hours. License-fee payers’ money invested in thumb-twiddling, self-evident conclusions and desperately hammering ‘next’; a situation worsened by the sheer number of E-learning exercises which ate into productive worktime, whilst not providing enough interest to create satisfactory engagement.
The science for reduced attention spans is increasingly solid. A 2015 report by Microsoft Canada, using information from National Center for Biotechnology Information, describes a collapse in attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds, by 2013. This is particularly important when engaging younger employees which, as researchers Dr Carina Schofield and Sue Honoré explored, have lower boredom thresholds and shorter attention spans. This, and similar research, led to Simpleshow, in creating its compliancy training programme for the Royal Mail, restricting its video content to a maximum of four minutes. A process which allowed the re-watching of material, increased information intake and allowed employees to quickly return to working.
Interactivity is also central, and increases attention spans significantly. Dr John Medina, who wrote the widely acclaimed Brain Rules, constructed frameworks of ‘ten minute’ information plans. Dr Medina demonstrates how high levels of interactivity, and shorter lessons, were the central components in improving information transfer. Christopher Palm, a graphic artist for E learning innovators Allen Interactions, attacks ‘cruise control’ learning processes: slow, hands off and lazy. A term which perfectly encapsulates the issues with many contemporary training programmes.
The reasoning behind extensive, and less interesting, training programmes are multi-layered. Partially the issue lies with the customer which has long favoured the long-standing, and laborious, click-and-read style training, despite the increased content required in E-learning programmes. Additionally the cheapness of producing low-stimuli long-form content allows cheaper training packages to be offered to customers, cementing less innovative companies in the market.
This problem is worsened by a tendency for buyers to focus on the scale of the package, particularly when considering value for money, without adequate attention paid to the impact on workplace productivity. These are the pitfalls procurement must sidestep as we move towards more effective, and modern, training programmes.
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