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Cathy Davidson: How Disruption and Distraction Are Remaking Learning

Cathy is an author, professor at Duke University, and co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory). We asked her why distraction and disruption help to re-envision the K-20 classroom and learning and how "collaborative thinking" drives individuals' motivation and creativity in both education and the workplace. (Interview conducted: February 25, 2014).

There is little doubt why The New York Times has called Cathy Davidson “one of the nation’s great digital minds.”

Cathy Davidson

From the experiment of introducing free iPods to students taking her college courses in 2002 to her concerns about what attention skills matter most in the 21st century, the Duke University professor is a leading thinker about technology, collaboration, cognition, and learning.

Cathy is the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University and co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), a 13,000+ network dedicated to changing the way we teach and learn.

In July 2014, Cathy will be joining the Ph.D. Program in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She will also direct, from the Graduate Center, the Futures Initiative, a CUNY-wide program that will advance collaborative and participatory innovation in higher education, and involve both faculty and graduate students from affiliated institutions.

Her latest book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, has been hailed as required reading for anyone concerned with educational innovation.

PIL: You have taken a contrarian view from most about the impact of digital technologies and information overload. Why do you say that "multitasking is the ideal mode” for the digital age and warn against “attention blindness”? As an antidote to attention blindness, you pioneered a method you call “collaboration by difference.” How does this kind of cooperation work in the classroom, workplace, and beyond?

Cathy: My contrarian view is because the empirical science around multitasking is often very poorly constructed. For example, it often requires a laboratory experiment where a person stares at a screen, there’s some interruption, and then there is a measurement of the impact of that interruption on the original task. That’s fine, but it does not tell us much about how we interact in everyday life, it says little about the enormous variations, and it says little about culture, training, or the environment. So I took a contrarian path in my research. In addition to reading the latest neuroscience, much of which was part of my job when I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke and I worked with colleagues to set up our program in cognitive neuroscience, I also interviewed people in a number of fields that depend on attention and distraction: magicians, insurance adjusters, basketball referees, con artists, pickpockets, and advertisers and actors who make direct-to-customer TV prescription drug ads (where the FDA requires and regulates the reading of side effects during the commercial).

They all said the same thing: people are easiest to deceive when they are most convinced they are paying attention. That, of course, is the brilliance of the 1970s experiment by Ulrich Neisser (reprised with better film equipment by his student Dan Simon and his collaborator Chris Chabris in 1999) where you tell participants to count the number of basketball tosses in a mildly confusing situation and they are so preoccupied counting that they don’t even notice a young woman in a gorilla suit who parades into the tossers for nine seconds. It’s exactly how the magician woos your undivided attention in one direction—then surprises you by replacing the pretty girl with an elephant.

The point is that we only realize we are not paying attention when we get caught. And often we are most vulnerable when we are not multitasking—or at least we don’t think we are. This is why most accidents happen within five miles of home. We are quite confident we are paying attention when we are not. All of those people (insurance adjustors, magicians, etc.) know that we are pretty terrible at tracking our own attention, at paying attention to our attention, until there is a disaster, an accident, or a missing wallet.

Does this mean I think you should text while driving? No! That’s just plain stupid. But neither should you be driving right after an unhappy verdict in divorce court. Heartache and heartburn—one’s emotions and one’s physical condition—are far more distracting even than texting. We pay attention to one because there is a cultural and generational shift. I believe that we need to be better at paying attention to all kinds of situations where we think we are alert and, instead, we are actually quite vulnerable.

PIL: In a 2011 presentation, you discussed the efficacy of multiple-choice tests, using the sample question “What is a farm animal?” You have asked how a test with answer options A, B, C, or D could prepare a child for the more than 21 million answers that same question returns on Google. As you have participated in innovative educational projects around the globe, what activities have you seen that prepare students for the reality of the information available to them in today's world? What specifically can librarians do to foster the development of skills for finding, evaluating, and using information?

Cathy: Let students do it themselves. I don’t believe you can teach digital literacy—but, as librarians, you can create conditions where people practice digital literacy. Have them build their own website—and make sure they see what gets taken off it because there are no permissions. Teach them privacy and security through role-playing games. Have them do searches using two very different kinds of sources and compare the results. I wish we had better tools for teaching, not the process. Recently, two of my students built a new interface for community-sourcing oral history and family photos and documents. They built privacy questions into the site so, for example, every photograph uploaded required documentation of who was in the photo and what level of permission had been given to display it. You could not post the photo without addressing all the questions—questions that themselves had arisen from a community-based discussion about privacy. Everyone learns from such a process.

PIL: In PIL’s most recent research, The Freshmen Study, we found that first-year college students claimed to be both “excited” and “overwhelmed” by the complex information landscape they are required to navigate for their research assignments. Students we interviewed at six different US colleges and universities reported feeling lost in a sea of academic articles. They struggled with reading across sources so they could pull ideas together to meet the demands of college writing. In a podcast interview, you have argued that today’s students read in an entirely different way, yet as educators, we assign students so many readings that not really written in a way that students read. What makes a digital age text different from the printed ones that instructors have relied on for so many centuries? What can educators and librarians do to re-think research assignments for term papers and the resources that are often required?

Cathy: That was a study about freshmen taking full professors, right? I’m being facetious but the serious part is that it is not just first-year students but all of us who feel overwhelmed. My partner is, Ken Wissoker, editorial director at Duke University Press. On a professional level, he and his colleagues now spend a lot of their time on exactly the issue of permissions, copyright, fair use, and other issues that have been both unsettled by recent information overload and nailed down, often in inconsistent ways. If students are overwhelmed it is because we are in a time of tumult much like the late 18th century—the last great information age, the age of steam-powered presses, machine made paper, and machine made ink—where books became much more widely available than previously. Many of our current copyright laws have their origins in that last information age. We are a system in flux. Perhaps the best thing educators and librarians can do is contextualize students issues by saying: “We are in one of the great eras of change in human history. Isn’t that great? And no wonder we’re all a bit confused right now. Let’s see how we can tackle this together.” Again, make it about the process, not the product. And that means educators have to rethink such things as “plagiarism” too. It’s not nearly as clear as it once was—or at least it is not as clear as our previous rules and laws made it seem as if it was. We are in a great unsettled time, and that is wondrous and frustrating. Both.

PIL: In one of your blog posts, you listed ten 21st century literacies that everyone needs to live in the digital age1. How do you think people should acquire these skills? What is the role of formal education versus the role of lifelong learning in helping people master these skills? Are there any skills you would add to or remove from your list that you created and when did these changes occur?

Cathy: I’ll repeat what is almost a mantra in this interview. You learn by doing. Until you run an open access online community like HASTAC, an organization with 13,000 network members and 400 institutional affiliations, you have no idea what open access, security, privacy, community standards, and so forth really mean in social or technical terms. That is true with just about everything. Until you practice, you can’t preach.

PIL: You have sparked innovation in higher education in variety of ways, such as the Duke iPod experiment which led to new applications for technology in education, the creation of HASTAC to connect scholars worldwide across disciplines, and most recently, the massive, multi-course MOOC on re-envisioning higher education you are currently teaching. Now you are in a position to affect national policy as an appointee to the National Council on the Humanities. With all that you’ve discovered through innovation, what is the biggest takeaway for the future of learning?

Cathy: The biggest takeaway for the future of learning is most of our apparatus of higher education—the ways we test, the ways we grade, the way we give credit, the way we divide knowledge into disciplines, and the ways we accrue expertise—were developed between about 1865 and 1925. They have evolved since then but, structurally and epistemologically, these are industrial age forms of standardizing what, in previous eras of history, defied standardization. In my view, it is time to reconsider just about all of those systems. Even if we decide they still serve us, it is important to reconsider them in terms of what we believe is possible, necessary, and important to the world we live in now.

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The original 21st century literacies were attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, design, storytelling, critical consumption of information, digital participation, ethics and advocacy, and learning, unlearning, and relearning. HASTAC blog post, Cathy Davidson, February 2, 2010.

Cathy Davidson lives in Durham, North Carolina and is on the faculty of Duke University. In 2012, she was the recipient of the Educator of the Year Award. In July 2014, Cathy will be joining the Ph.D. Program in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), where she will also direct, from the Graduate Center, the Futures Initiative, a CUNY-wide program.

She is the author of more than 20 books, including The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (with David Theo Goldberg, MIT Press 2010). She is a contributor to Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, and Inside Higher Education.

As co-founder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), Cathy has led a virtual organization dedicated to innovative new modes to innovative new modes of learning and research in higher education, K-12, and lifelong learning.

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of educating and preparing college students to succeed in school, the workplace, and as lifelong learners in the digital age. The interviews are an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL).

PIL is an ongoing and national research study about how college students find and use information for courses and for use in their everyday lives. PIL is conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington’s iSchool.

This interview with Cathy Davidson was made possible with the generous support of a research grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. Smart Talk interviews are open access and licensed by Creative Commons:

Creative Commons License

Cathy Davidson: "How Disruption and Distraction Are Remaking Learning," (email interview), by Alison J. Head and Sarah Evans, Project Information Literacy, Smart Talk Interview, no. 18 (25 February 2014), is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.