Tag: attention

Apple product launches as attention conservation devices

TL;DR: we use Apple’s regular product launches as a sense-check to cope with the myriad of technologies in which we could invest our time and attention.


Some background

Yesterday was another Apple product launch. Since the passing of Steve Jobs they feel less and less like the Wizard of Oz showing us behind the curtain, and more like another tech company wheeling out incremental updates while their competition catches up. This time, both Microsoft and Adobe shared the stage with Tim Cook and co, for goodness’ sake.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled and pixels pushed about Apple’s ‘culture of innovation’ and it’s ‘design-led principles’. People argue that you can get better value for money with other devices. Others (including me) worry about vendor lock-in. And so many people in my Twitter timeline yesterday were tweeting during the event that the features and products Apple were launching have been available on other systems for years.

But I think this is to miss the point. If you’ve got five minutes to spare, Steve Jobs explains why this is irrelevant in his answer to a question at WWDC 1997:

(no video? click here!)

The point is that market leaders make opinionated choices. They put the user first and make decisions based around what’s useful for the user.

Conservation of attention

I’d argue that Apple’s product launches are now cultural artefacts. They’re included in regular news items along with world disasters and briefings about national politics. Rather than considering this as ‘entertainment news’ I think it’s perhaps more instructive to see Apple’s product launches as attention conservation devices.

Let me explain.

In the not-so-recent past, it was entirely possible for people to choose not to pay attention at all to consumer technology. It could just ‘not be for them’. They wouldn’t even feature on the technology adoption curve. People like this used to live out their lives without giving a second thought to things that others (including me) would happily choose to consider during every waking moment.

Nowadays, without a smartphone and a social network account, you’re quite likely to feel like a social pariah. As a result, you’re forced to pay some attention to consumer technology. But there’s so much of it! Thankfully, there’s an organisation that you can pay a lot of money to in order to provide a small, continually-updated, fully-supported product line that will ensure you have all of the technology you need in your life.

My favourite manufacturer, as I mentioned on the TIDE podcast this week, is actually Sony. The difference between Apple and Sony is that the latter doesn’t tell people what to pay attention to. They provide a multitude of options to fill almost any niche. I can imagine Apple’s designers having far fewer user personas than other organisations — if they use them at all.

Conclusion

If I were an academic I think I’d do some more research into this area. For instance, Apple’s never put a Blu-Ray drive into one of their machines, choosing instead to phase out physical media. As a result, they’ve done extremely well and have tied this in with developments around app stores and new/easy ways to pay for digital good. However, the mojo only lasts as long as their products are fashionable and people agree with the opinionated judgements they’re making.

Attention is a zero-sum game: we’ve only got so much of it and once it’s gone, it’s gone. By providing regular, timely, opinionated updates about the state of the field in which they’re leading, Apple not only get to make massive profits, but are the world’s de facto ‘innovation department’ — even if they didn’t invent the technologies they’re showcasing.

Image CC BY-NC-SA LoKan Sardari

The future of learning organizations: What do we mean by ‘attendance’?

At the JISC Conference 2011 I presented with JISC Digital Media on Using Digital Media to Improve Teaching and Learning. For my part of the presentation I used the question of what we mean by ‘attendance’ as a framework:

This was picked up by the editors of JISC Inform and tomorrow I’m being interviewed for an upcoming issue of the online magazine. I’ve been asked the following questions, and below that I’ve written up notes in preparation into some kind of coherent format.

  1. How do you think student attendance relates to their performance?
  2. How do you think students measure their engagement/ attendance?
  3. How do lecturers and other educational professionals measure student attendance?
  4. How would you define ‘attendance’?  Which definition works best?
  5. What are the issues associated with measuring attendance when students don’t have to be physically present – for example when they are accessing courses online or using mobile learning technology like an educational iphone app?
  6. How can wise technology use help overcome those issues?
  7. What needs to change about the way we approach teaching and learning to get over this?

In my presentation at the JISC Conference I pointed out that dictionary definitions of ‘attendance’ can be organised into three main categories. The first is attention-based and involves applying your mind to a thing as well as some form of effort. This is obviously something that we want in learning organizations* and we often call this ‘engagement’.

The second type of attendance centres around the idea of service. This is what many would see as a rather 19th-century idea of subservience: somebody waiting upon the actions or decisions of a superior. I would suggest that learning organizations might want to move away from this kind of definition of ‘attendance’.

Third, and finally, comes the definition of attendance as involving community. That’s to say individuals are present at an event that relies upon interaction around a resource or proceeding. Live concerts, court summons and webinars can all be examples of attendance as community.

If attendance is best conceptualised as attention-based and community-based then what does this mean for learning organizations? Does it mean the death of the lecture? Is it possible to measure these types of attendance in the way that you can with the service-based conception?

A while ago, John Popham got me thinking when he mentioned, almost en passant, that learning organizations coud be using something like Foursquare or Facebook Places for registration. This fits in well with, for example, Jesse Schell’s work on the ‘gameification’ of life that’s happening through Facebook, iPhone/Android apps and social media in general.

Technology, therefore, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for social changes to take place. For example: there were mobile phones powerful enough to do what the original iPhone did before 2007 but it took the idea of ‘apps’ for the use of smartphones to really take off. In that sense, it’s the culture and social norms around technology that matter rather than the devices and communications technologies themselves.

Increasingly, and especially in a market-driven learning organizations like that being created in the UK, educational institutions are going to be forced to go where they can get the most engagement. Take the London School of Business and Finance, for example, who have recently launched a Facebook MBA Application. As ReadWriteWeb puts it:

When Bill Gates said recently that in the next five years the best education will be found online, I’m not sure he was thinking about Facebook as the educational platform of the future. But the London School of Business and Finance is, and today the school announces a new course that will make its MBA course materials available online for free, delivered via a Facebook app.

Of course, if you want to actually get your MBA, you’ll have to fulfill the pre-requisites for the program (you need the equivalent of a Bachelor’s Degree) and you’ll have to pay for the credits and examinations, offered through the University of Wales. The LSBF MBA will cost you £11,500 for British students and £14,500 for overseas students.

The three areas I’m researching at JISC infoNet** – Open Educational Resources (OERs), mobile learning and digital literacies (the latter also for my doctoral thesis) – are part of wider changes that I think can be understood using the ‘attendance framework’. Constant contact, previously only possible through physical co-location, leads to interaction, and interaction to engagement.

The first thing from my research is that I think we’re seeing a move away from the educator’s right to lecture towards the learner’s right to learn in personalised and tailored ways. This, along with the ability to use OERs within iTunesU, OpenCourseware, etc. for marketing purposes means learning organizations can justify less face-to-face ‘broadcast’ time and more interaction time. There are, nevetheless, proscribed numbers of ‘contact’ hours which, unfortunately only count if face-to-face. That will undoubtedly change and, as with the example of Michael Sandel’s Justice course at Harvard, prospective students will be able to base their decision on which learning organization to attend based on observable teaching and learning experiences.

The second area, mobile learning, is – as I mentioned in these video interviews – a trojan horse for new ways of working and learning. We now take for granted having a device in our pockets that can help us communicate with or broadcast to almost anyone in the world. The opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, as Graham Brown Martin points out in The Napsterfication of Learning, are huge. If post-compulsory learning organizations don’t ensure they have a compelling value proposition, mobile learning could propel them towards a crisis of relevance.

My third area of research is digital literacies, a much-misunderstood topic and one which will soon be the subject of a JISC call for funding. Two of the key things holding back learning organizations from embracing new ways of teaching and learning are the inter-related issues of institutional culture and staff competencies in the digital arena. The two go hand-in-hand: there’s not need for the latter if the former decrees it’s ‘business as usual’. It’s up to those in the senior leadership of learning organizations to convince staff that it’s certainly not ‘business as usual’ and that we’re entering a brave new world where we’re making up the ‘rules’ (if there are any) as we go along.

In conclusion, then, the future isn’t in ‘virtual attendance’ via some kind of Second Life-style ‘avatar as self’. The future of learning institutions is in moving away from service-based definitions of attendance and towards attendance as attention and community. Using that kind of framework or organising schema will help whether there is a business case for continuing existing practices or, indeed, encouraging new ones. Embracing OERs, mobile learning and digital literacies looks to me like the mark of a forward-thinking learning organization.


* I prefer the term ‘learning organizations’ to ‘educational institutions’. Feel free to mentally substitute the latter for the former if you wish.

** A reminder that my research is available at: http://dougbelshaw.com/research

css.php