What do Zuckerberg’s Jarvis, Google Glass and contactless card payments have to do with the way we learn? Well, pretty much everything.
Simply saying that using technology has changed the way we work isn’t enough anymore. It’s the way we use it. The world of dial-up internet connection and formal email could never have prepared most for the assault to our attention spans which would arise with the advent of smartphones. In Zadie Smith’s latest novel, the protagonist traces the twin movements of shortening content and increasing frequency, haste, and saturation of communication:
‘My mother was one of the first people I knew to…exploit it fully. Most emails sent in the mid-nineties tended to be long and letter-like…(‘I’m typing this just by the window, looking out to blue-grey sea, where three gulls are diving into the water.’) But my mother never emailed that way, she got the hang of it at once…she began sending me multiple two-or three-line messages a day, mostly unpunctuated, and always with the sense of something written at great speed.’
Fast forward two decades and the average human attention span has fallen by a third since 2000, around the time of the mobile revolution. A 2008 study by Lloyds TSB recorded the average attention span as falling to just over five minutes, from twelve minutes ten years previously, and the ever-shortening length of online video content reflects this. Simultaneously, we send messages and emails round the clock. Hyper-communication and hyper-distraction have the same root, and it lies in the new nature of our seamless interaction with technology.
How We Live Now: Interactive and Instantaneous
Now, we dip in and out of our smartphones as we go about our day, often flicking between social media, work emails, news apps, and games. Much discussed features of our new relationship with tech include that it is:
- Instant — information can be accessed on demand as and when the need arises, as easily as turning on a tap.
- More frequent and more superficial— the same parallel which Zadie Smith points to. A recent study of 18–33 year olds found that the average person checks their smartphone a whopping 85 times a day. With an average time of five hours spent on screens overall, this should boil down to roughly 3.5 minutes per interaction — but actually, over half the interactions were found to take no more than 30 seconds. The phone grab is impulsive, born from distraction.
- More ubiquitous — we don’t just use tech during office hours or to perform specific tasks, but check it at all hours of the day, whenever a notification appears, or during any free time (a commute, say, or while waiting to meet somebody).
What do these new patterns mean? They mean we never quite switch off but often don’t fully engage. They mean short bursts of activity for a ‘distracted’ or ‘multitasking’ brain, which we’ve managed to build into our day without really identifying it as disruptive. It’s easy to flit between mobile screen and the world around. From these patterns emerge a new demand, a demand at the heart of all today’s key trends in tech — the need to move between interfaces without experiencing any ‘friction’.
What Google, Facebook, and the banks already know
The most adaptive companies are already picking up on the desire to experience screen or device interactions as seamless. From augmented reality, brought into mainstream commercial use with Pokemon Go, to artificially intelligent chatbots like Jarvis, humans now manipulate tech to enhance a specific sensation: that the binary divide between real and virtual interfaces is dissolving, and that we can move between them without friction.
To get a creative survey of the ‘seamless’ sensation companies want to provide overall, one need only look at the advertising trends which clustered around the advent of contactless card payments. Visa’s campaign series ‘life flows better with Visa’ is — evidently — all about flow.
Barclay’s famous giant waterslide advert and its successor, the rollercoaster, aim for exactly the same effect.
A key 2015 buzzword, the ‘Internet of Things,’ works on the same principles. Daniel Newman writes in Forbes that ‘at the heart of IoT is a desire to connect items we already own into one cohesive network.’ Yes, but why? Popular culture has always entertained the seamlessness fantasy, imagining tech to help the flow of our smallest daily tasks — now, with multiplying applications, we dream of unifying them for exactly the same aim. Humans developed artificial intelligence and used it to make themselves toast without the click of a button.
The final, most crucial trend which truly does dissolve interface boundaries is augmented reality. Far before Pokemon Go, Google were as usual ahead of the curve. What systems like Google Glass give us is a more explicitly realised vision for the increasingly intertwined relation between the virtual and the real, as we go about our day.
So, what does all this mean for the future of learning?
As learners, fundamentally, we seek information. Technology has hugely changed all expectations of how we acquire and process this information — instantly, fleetingly, seamlessly — and modern learning must adapt to these new trends.
But importantly, we expect a seamless interactive experience because we are now used to tech being built into the structure of our lives, used throughout each day. This change is what Google and Visa have picked up on, and used to their advantage. It’s about both engagement level and interface, and this is what learning and development leaders will have to get right.
Fortunately, two current learning trends seem primed to tackle each of these aspects. Bite-size learning is perfectly apposite for the modern level of engagement, providing amounts of information which are digestible in the ‘Age of Distraction.’ Releasing small bits of content frequently is the best way to take advantage of ‘short burst’ styles of screen interaction, and it provides productive opportunities to fill any ten minutes of a day.
But the drive towards a frictionless learning experience isn’t just about making bite-size chunks sufficiently smoothly packaged — all elements of the interface matter. The new mobile learner seeks content delivered as seamlessly as possible, content which can permeate their established patterns of interactivity. This is why many e-learning models already feel outdated: creating an account and remembering details, logging in to a corporate portal to watch an hour-long HTML 5 animation, even downloading an app…all of this involves friction. ‘Mobile’ learning shouldn’t just mean using a smartphone; it’s about mobility in all senses of the word. And taking bite-size content and delivering it through an already naturalised interface — a known mode of communication like a social messenger — can do half the work of learner engagement.
Crucially, these trends are able to seamlessly embed learning into a normal day. The most successful learning models will be those which can achieve the aspiration of a life of flow without friction, and proactively integrate into a modern lifestyle of flickering engagement with technology.
At Chatterbite we’re excited by the future of e-learning. We develop bite-size courses delivered over Facebook messenger, and are currently working on new onboarding solutions. You can find us on our website and twitter, and follow our Medium publication.
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