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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Education Toolbox

The myth of multitasking

By Mac McKerral

During the last week of classes in the fall 2013 term, I told my students about five myths perpetuated within the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University and outside it.

One of the myths was “multitasking,” more specifically that the current generation of students is a “multitasking generation” capable of deftly juggling multiple skills and tasks.

I never believed this, not because I dove into mounds of research but because it didn’t make sense to me.

Part of that disbelief hinges on years of teaching journalism classes. This consistently revealed that the weakest part of student work was editing — the ability to fix mistakes before I found them. Weak editing also was reflected routinely on student internship evaluations.

The editing process hinges on a combination of skill and a high level of concentration and conscientiousness.

So when I saw a short but effective article in the Dec. 2 issue of the Christian Science Monitor with the headline “Teach students the dangers of digital multitasking,” it got my attention.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a history and education teacher at New York University, concluded in that article that the emergence of digital technology makes it more difficult for all of us — especially students — to maintain focus on the work at hand. And because of that, the work suffers in quality.

Zimmerman did dive into the research. So, he arrived at his position through data, rather than anecdotally, as I did.

But how we arrived at the same conclusion isn’t the issue.

More important it seems is Zimmerman’s contention that we need to “teach” students the flaws in their thought process when it comes to using and abusing the technology.

This ties directly to the classroom and ongoing debates about what technology we allow students to use in the classroom beyond use directly related to classwork.

And, yes, I muttered the lament common among teachers in j-schools: “You’re kidding? We have to teach another thing?”

My syllabi preclude the use of smartphones, tablets and the like during class unless they are used for class.

“Put the gadgets in a place where you cannot see them and they are not touching you,” is what I tell my students.

I heard that some time ago, a teacher at WKU required students to put the technology in a box at the start of class, but that practice ended when the teacher got a call from university legal counsel.

Ditching the technology is painful for students, literally. Many of my students display physical discomfort when told they cannot hold or see their phones.

So, to return to Zimmerman’s position, how do we “teach” it?

To answer that, I did try to dive into research. But that led me in several directions, most notably into the debate about the diagnosis — or better the over-diagnosis — of attention deficit disorder and its close relative, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

I’ll leave that debate to the medical community. But it is probably worth checking with your school’s disability services folks to get a sense of how many students fall into the ADD/ADHD net. However, be advised that the students registered as disabled based on an ADD/ADHD diagnoses might not hit the mark. The director of disability services at my school told me that high schools are proactive in identifying students with ADD/ADHD issues. But at the college level, students must come forward to a disability services office, and there is no telling how many do not.

On the journalism education end, it seems like we face the task of creating awareness and exercising behavior modification, both of which have been part and parcel to teaching for a long time.

Both of those lead directly to classroom policies on technology use and — if you side with Zimmerman and me — dispelling the myth of multitasking.

The second is much more challenging in that industry standards — at least those reflected in job postings — dictate that journalists and other professional communicators must be capable of doing multiple things at one time and all of them well — the “unicorn” buzzword.

That expectation might be more a product of finances than sound workplace standards, but it is one that faces our graduates, even though the unicorn is a mythical beast.

Mac McKerral is an associate professor and news editorial coordinator in the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University and a past national president of SPJ.

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