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Has the smartphone limited attention spans or increased access to knowledge?


May 19, 2020


Clancy Robledo Guest Author


Has the smartphone limited attention spans or increased access to knowledge

You’re at a coffee shop catching up on emails. Out of your eye, you see a TV advertisement about buying a car. “Oh!” you think, “I need to check my bank account to ensure my car payment went through.” 

When you look at your phone, you have a notification: “sussanagara liked your photo.” You instinctively open Instagram and look at the photo. But wait…you opened your phone to check your bank account. Then, a new work email pops up. Oh, and now you’re receiving requests for phone calls…”  

Have you ever had a similar experience losing the ability to concentrate on just one thing like this one? Most people have. In the digital age, people receive non-stop interruptions from their devices. Smartphone notifications can make it challenging to stay focused on anything for long periods.

Although it’s tempting to think humans are getting “dumber” with smartphones, research doesn’t support this. Yes, technology has changed how we interact with information. At the same time, our ability to pay attention remains constant. 

The truth about limited attention

There is a myth floating around the internet that humans have worse attention spans than goldfish. BBC Health investigated this claim and found it to be a statistical farce. 

In reality, humans are as capable now of learning information as we always have been. What has changed with the advent of smartphones is our distractibility. We are more distracted than ever: pings, dings, and notifications make it easy for us to lose focus on any one task. 

The question is not, “have our attention spans changed or reduced?” The question is, “can we learn to pay attention despite distraction?”

Have smartphones changed the way we learn?

Technically speaking, no. 

Educational research shows that humans learn best when they can connect their current schemata (ideas) with new schemata (ideas). This process is called activating background knowledge. People also learn and comprehend best when they: 

  • Connect new ideas to real-world situations
  • Repeat information at an increased frequency over time (spaced repetition)
  • Apply information
  • Ask questions
  • Make personal connections

Neuroscience also tells us the way we learn and process information hasn’t changed. What has changed—radically and rapidly—are our learning environments. The world is busier, faster-paced, and more crowded with data than ever. 

Modern people can focus on relevant information and retain said information. That said, it has to be presented in a concise, engaging, and brain-friendly manner. In our distractible age, we have to discover ways to work with our brains to learn instead of against them.

Microlearning: the educational strategy we’ve always needed

Microlearning is a strategy that presents information in small, digestible chunks to boost retention rates. Instead of overloading the brain with information, microlearning targets essential information.

Before smartphones, people forgot new information at the same rates we do now (about 70% within 24 hours). While we have access to more information than ever, we can only focus on one thing at a time (see: the myth of multitasking). This means that learning mass amounts of information all at once is not only unnecessary; it is ineffective. 

Microlearning is the perfect solution for learning in the 21st century because:

  1. Microlearning is brain-friendly. The brain can only keep you focused on one thing at a time and forgets what it cannot connect or use. The goal of meaningful learning is to slowly encode quality information over time, not a large quantity. Microlearning ensures that information is encoded before moving forward. 
  2. Microlearning fits into our schedules with on-the-go access to knowledge. We are far more likely to learn an achievable chunk of information in 5-7 minutes than we are to watch a two-hour training video…or remember everything from a full-day seminar.

Learning in the modern age is not about having reduced attention spans. It’s about discovering effective learning strategies despite distraction. Microlearning works within the flow of our “pings” and “dings” so that we have the opportunity to learn, no matter how busy we are. 

Limited Attention: the technology paradox

Technology has opened educational doors for people around the world. Smartphones are libraries, databases, and newspapers all wrapped in one. 

Even though we have access to more shared knowledge than ever, access to knowledge doesn’t equal learning. Learning means that we:

  1. Access information and
  2. remember/apply/evaluate said information to use it in creative ways.
short attention spans - bloom's taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy shows us that learning is an in-depth process. Accessing information, while good, is not necessarily “learning.” That’s because most people have access to information—not everyone learns. 

L&D professionals pour time, money, and energy into training so that employees can learn, not just “access information.” Learning goes beyond simply recalling data; learning is an active process that prepares people to think critically, get creative, and solve problems. 

Without a doubt, technology is a remarkable tool and asset. The fact that people around the world can access the human reserve of knowledge in seconds is an astounding advancement.

But…access to information does not equal learning. To learn, we still need robust educational strategies, catered to our needs. Microlearning does just this: it promotes learning through research-based methods and formats it in an easy-to-access digital format.

Limited attention spans: fact or fiction?

So, are smartphones limiting our attention spans and reducing our ability to focus and concentrate? 

No, not really. Research indicates that we are as capable of learning and applying information now as we were hundreds of years ago. This is excellent news for trainers and educators alike.

That said, our learning environment changed. Distractions that bombard us in day-to-day life can harm our learning process. It’s easier now, more than ever, to switch from one task to another without accomplishing anything.

To address this, we need engaging (hint: gamified) learning tools to support deep, succinct, and meaningful learning. This way, your learners do not get distracted while training.  Mobile tools like SC Training (formerly EdApp) foster learning with the tide of our lives, not against it. 

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior


Clancy Robledo Guest Author

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