03.08.2017

The Great Multitasking Myth

A young woman, often referred to as a digital native, using two devices simultaneously

A typical Tuesday evening conversation with my (non-techy) mother-in-law turns towards a problem with her television – “it’s not connecting to the router”, she explains, “we’ve changed the DNS settings and manually entered the IP…”

What previously might have been the start of a support request turns into yet another demonstration that the pervasive myth that older generations don’t get tech and use it differently is exactly that, a myth. It's about exposure to technology not when you were born.

Just such an observation was heavily underlined by a recent review of the literature from Kirschner and De Bruyckere published in Teaching and Teacher Education (1). The headline conclusion of the review confirms what we’ve known for a long time; Millennials/digital natives don’t use tech differently to previous generations.

Highlights of the paper’s findings are stated as:

  • Information-savvy digital natives simply do not exist.
  • Learners cannot multitask; instead they task switch which has a negative impact on learning.
  • Educational design that accepts the value of these myths hinders rather than helps learning.

Challenging the pervasive and somewhat patronising ‘Millennial’/’digital natives’ myth is worthwhile, but it’s also worth digging below the abstract into the paper’s other conclusions as they may have profound relevance to the way we adopt new technologies. Perhaps most interesting of all is the assertion that;

“Learners cannot multitask; they task switch which negatively impacts learning”

The popular image of the digital native has them carrying out multiple tasks in parallel, but in fact this is not how our brains operate. It is possible to carry out activities in parallel, but only where one or more of the activities is sufficiently well-practiced to be automated. Think of people sufficiently well-practiced at a musical instrument to be able to hold a conversation while playing.

When people carry out multiple tasks that require information processing they are actually switching between them rather than processing them simultaneously. Kirschner and De Bruyckere conclude that this switching is detrimental to learning.

If this bears out, the idea that learning is most effective when learners focus on the learning rather than multitasking is an important point to consider when designing mobile-first experiences. We’re encouraging learners to carry out activities in a BYOD environment where they have all their favourite distractions close to hand and alerts and notifications fighting for attention.

Working closely with our games division, Amuzo, has given us a strong focus on making sure our mobile activities fit with how people are already already use their mobiles and provide a seductive user experience on a level with their other apps and games. When designing longer activities, we also need to ensure that the overall experience and environment are designed to help the learner focus and avoid the myriad distractions they’re exposed to – regardless of age.

If you’re interested in taking an in-depth look all things digital native, you can access the paper here (free until 4th August). Well worth taking a look:

Read the full paper here.

  • (1)The myths of the digital native and the multitasker (Kirschner and Bruyckere, 2017)

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