Newsletter 622 – Two Growing Trends

Podcasts 3
This week I read two articles that describe growing technologies: one newer, the other well established. The first is the subject of the August 17 Time cover story (US Edition) titled “The Surprising Joy of Virtual Reality: And Why It’s [nearly upon us, better than you think… and] About to Change the World.” Put on those increasingly sophisticated virtual reality goggles and our whole perceptions change. This is not just about making video games more dramatic. It can be about treating the effects of trauma, dealing with various psychiatric disorders, and revolutionizing education. I wonder about its potential for changing how we lead, learn about God, or advertise. And are there dangers that we don’t yet see? Apparently we’ll encounter lots more about this come Christmas shopping season.

Much more familiar are podcasts, recently discussed in a Wall Street Journal article (August 8-9.) We’ve all seen podcasts and webinars, some very sophisticated, which move us beyond radio, television or weekly written blogs like this one. Friends have urged me to replace or supplement this Podcast 2newsletter with audio and/or video posts, especially since these tend to be favored by so many people who like to listen or watch rather than to read.

  • A good communicator knows the characteristics of his or her audience. Surely this includes knowing how the audience learns or prefers to get information. Most readers of this newsletter are older, educated, and presumably inclined to learn by reading. Like me. Would a different audience be attracted by a podcast or other non-written, video or audio format? What about using both formats?
  • Experienced bloggers have demonstrated the value of captivating titles, eye-catching images, and succinct introductory sentences. These are more likely to attract and hold readers to the end. Similarly, aren’t most of us grabbed and retained by articulate speakers in attractive settings telling interesting stories with practical implications? Boring podcasts may give us something to hear or watch but they make no more impact than boring blog posts.
  • Podcasts can be produced relatively easily. All you need is a computer with a camera. I have done these with my classes, replacing long lectures with video clips to be watched at leisure.
  • Podcasts and webinars can be produced from anywhere and allow feedback so observers are more involved with the action. Should you be doing this? Should I?

Please comment. Tell us how you have used podcasts, webinars or virtual reality.

Newsletter 576 – Controlling Distractions and Cognitive Overload

Interruptions 2How do you handle distractions and interruptions? According to one report “distraction costs billions of dollars a year in lost productivity.” Our lives are “being taken over by email texting, Facebook, Twitter, the Web, and other annoying electronic static.” One respectable research study found that “heavy online users….had less control over their attention and were much less able to distinguish important information from trivia…They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.” And for increasing numbers of us, this cognitive overload gets worse the more we give in to it. These sobering assessments begin a fascinating article in Inc. Magazine (May, 2014). Does this sound familiar? I once had a bell sound on my computer whenever I got a message, including spam. Eventually I could not ignore that bell and felt compelled to check every time I got a message. This week I’ve been looking for a new cell phone, meeting sales people who gleefully explain how I should be getting up-to-date email wherever I go, 24-7. In the midst of useful technological advances, we are letting distractions, lack of focus and interruptions become “insidious productivity sapping maladies” that zap our energy and gobble up our time. Agreeing with this assessment is easy. It’s much harder to do something to control it. Probably you have read articles on controlling cognitive overload.In his recent book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Goleman argues that “we must learn to sharpen focus if we are to survive in a complex world.” He suggests using mindfulness exercises (sometimes called attention training) and the development of new habits and skills to help us ignore and control the interruptions. In time we can train our brains to focus, to concentrate, and learn to bring back attention on demand. There also is value in blocking the disruptions by, for example, turning off those cell phone bells and vibrators that pull us away whenever new messages arrive. Try setting specific times to check messages. Then keep within those limits. Pull away from technology on a regular basis. Without this, cognitive overload controls us and innovation sinks. How have you dealt with interruptions and cognitive overload? Please comment.

Newsletter #547 – Keeping Up

Is this a struggle for you like it is for me: finding ways to Approaching the Futurekeep up to date and be informed enough to plan realistically for the future? Probably you will remember the term “Renaissance man.” This refers to a person (male or female) with a wide range of interests, knowledge in many fields and often a multitude of accomplishments. In our era of ever increasing information overload, few of these people exist. Most of us struggle to keep up with our own specialties or fields of interest and expertise. For each of us there are fields where we feel woefully ill informed and way out of date. For me this includes my understanding of popular culture and emerging technology.

I find it helpful to connect with people who have interests and experiences that differ from mine. I also read broadly, including the books and articles that form the basis of this blog every week. Most recently I read a book by journalist Ben Hammersley, a “British writer and technologist, specializing in the effects of the Internet and the digital network on the world’s political, cultural and social spheres.” Editor-at-Large of Wired Magazine, he also advises British Prime Minister David Cameron about digital and technological trends that have relevance to political decisions about the future. His new book, Approaching the Future: 64 Things You Need to Know Now About Then, is understandable as he explains complex technological and sociological topics to lay audiences. At the same time, the book is overwhelming in it’s diversity and descriptions of what’s here and what’s coming.

There is value in being as informed and updated as possible, but God alone is omniscient. He never expects his creatures or even huge data banks to know everything. Our challenge is to keep as updated as we can and to use what we do know to serve Christ and impact the world from where we are. How do you keep up to date, especially in areas where you lack expertise? Please comment.

Newsletter #534 – Digitally Unplugged

Until recently I had never heard of Baratunde Thurston. He’s a best-selling author, stand-up comedian, consultant, businessman, and New York Times columnist whose friends have called him “the most connected man in the world.” He writes about loving his devices, digital services, and never-ending connections with the global network. But the more connected he became, the more Thurston was aware of “the price we pay: lack of depth, reduced accuracy, lower quality, impatience, selfishness and mental exhaustion to name a few. In choosing to digitally enhance, hyperconnect, and constantly share our lives, we risk not living them.” For Thurston, “life was crazy” so he decided to completely disconnect for 25 days.”  His experience is told in the cover story of Fast Company magazine (July/August, 2013.)

A woman unplugs an electrical cordPerhaps this article has little relevance to most of us. We’re not teenagers or college students addicted to our devices. But are we as free as we think? How many of us would be willing to unplug for almost a month? The magazine editor notes that we all value our technological connections, even when we realize that “the triumph of digital culture hasn’t changed the fact that nothing beats face-to-face interaction with the depth and spontaneity that we can’t match via email, Skype, texting or video conferencing.” During his digital sabbatical, Thurston slowed down and rediscovered relaxation, reading, concerts and leisurely times with friends.

How do we keep connected and updated without being captured and controlled by the devices and messages that we love and sometimes hate? Here are suggestions:

  • Consistently unplug for shorter periods of time: Sundays, evenings after 8 pm, during church services, times when we are in meetings or in restaurants. Maybe the height of rudeness is checking messages when we are meeting or having a meal with someone.
  • Try making this a family rule: no devices including television allowed during mealtimes. What does this mean if you can’t do this?
  • Try an unplugged weekend or even a vacation. Recently my wife and I took a two-week trip and left computers and cell phones at home so we wouldn’t be tempted. We loved it.
  • Ponder how technological devices are adversely impacting your life.

What are other ways to keep the benefits without being controlled by digital devices? Please comment.

Newsletter #520 – Killing the Encyclopaedia Britannica – Relevance for You

Enclycopaedia BritannicaOK! The title of this post may be misleading. The 244-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) is not dead. In contrast it is viable and growing despite the publisher’s recent decision to kill production of the bound volumes. In 1990 a 2000 person door-to-door sales force sold 100,000 units but then sales began to fall. Decreasing numbers of potential buyers wanted a costly 32-volume book series that weighed 129 pounds filled with information that was losing up-to-date relevance every day. So EB reinvented itself in ways that are generating more profits and involving more on-line subscribers whose databank of information is updated every 20 minutes.

 How does this have broader relevance for educators, students, mental-health practitioners, churches, leaders and individuals like us? Consider what follows, adapted from an article by EB President Jorge Cruz writing in Harvard Business Review (March, 2013):

  • With the appearance of competing sources of up-to-date information available free, on line, EB could die or make radical change. EB determined to make changes.
  • The company determined to stay with their core purpose of providing content of impeccable editorial quality and accuracy. EB remained committed to their mission.
  • While the mission and brand recognition remained firm, the methods of delivering content changed radically. Door-to-door salespeople were gone, replaced by (currently 500,000) digital subscribers who pay for proven-quality content, updated continually with input from communities and proven experts. EB changed the way their services are delivered.
  • They learned from other information providers (like Wikipedia) who reach readers content with “good-enough” information that may be of unproven validity. EB focused on their strength of providing quality.
  • The company stopped thinking of themselves as encyclopedia producers and developed “a full-fledged learning business.” EB clarified their core business.

The article concludes with these words: “We don’t want to be like an old actor trying to hold on to his youth. You get on with the times and our times are digital…. We no longer have a stake in the old education model of textbooks and printed classroom curricula…. It makes no sense for us to print books. As an organization, we’re over it.”

Look at the above conclusions in italics. How might any of this apply to your work and business? Please comment.

Newsletter #489 – Does the Internet Make Us Crazy?

What is the Internet doing to our relationships, mental functioning and brain physiology? Does the surge in portable, all-pervasive texting turn millions of us into people who are “not just dumber and lonelier but more depressed and anxious,” more susceptible to obsessive-compulsive disorder, with shrinking brains that can look like those of drug addicts?

The July 16, 2012 issue of Newsweek magazine tackles issues like these in an article that is more serious and less sensationalist than the glitzy cover would suggest. The magazine does not conclude that the Internet can make us crazy but shows that research from around the world points in that direction. In some countries “Internet Addiction Disorder” is an accepted diagnosis especially relating to gaming, virtual reality and social media. One American neurologist describes the computer as “electronic cocaine” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches. Admittedly, some people need to keep connected as a part of their jobs, but consider how many among us cannot even turn off their devices for a few hours. When we can’t control the Internet, then the Internet controls us.

Amazon lists a number of recent books, some with disturbing titles like Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us or iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. I’ve read similar books and perused the Amazon descriptions and evaluations of others. Most appear to be research-oriented, written by professionals, and not especially sensationalist.  Like the Newsweek article, there is recognition that the Internet, including social networking, has tremendous value but these writers express concern about the possible implications of continuous Internet use. There is growing evidence that this adversely impacts our brain structure, cognition, stress levels and relationships.

Is this our latest god that we submit to and worship? Despite the brain scans and respected research is all of this an over-reaction to a new social trend? “Our world is not going to change, and technology will continue to penetrate society even deeper leaving us little chance to react” writes one critic. Left unanswered is the question of how we make maximum use of technology without letting it destroy us.

What is your reaction? Please comment.

Newsletter #484 – Learning from a Distance

About twenty years ago I recorded an introductory psychology course. For thirty hours I faced a camera and gave lectures—same teacher, same setting, same camera angle, different topics. Students later paid to watch the videos, took multiple-choice exams and accumulated credit hours toward their degrees. I tried to make this interesting but even I was bored with my lectures. This wasn’t a high point of my teaching career but it was something new and we did the best we could.

Today distance learning is different and mostly better. Top universities, medical and business schools, organizations and professional associations all offer online courses, information and updates. Least effective are programs involving passive watching or listening to pre-recorded lectures like the ones I recorded. In contrast, evidence-based research shows that highly effective learning can come through interactive educational experiences where students and teachers connect face-to-face in virtual learning environments. “Putting information on line is not the same as educating,” says an article in Fast Company (June, 2012). Instead “we have to build communities… between teachers and students but also among students.” Monitor on Psychology (June, 2012) cites a US Department of Education finding that “students whose programs combined both online and face-to-face elements had better learning outcomes than those in purely online or purely face-to-face programs.” Like my colleagues I now lead online courses that involve live class meetings, small group interactions, frequent student-teacher contact, video clips. live demonstrations and sometimes stimulating discussions among people logging in from around the world. Here is more from the Monitor:

  • Effectiveness depends on the subject matter. Online learning of facts can be good; online skill learning is much less effective unless there is also ongoing,  face-to-face supervision and experience.
  • Frequently, online degree programs are not eligible for professional certification. “Most licensing boards won’t allow people to be licensed if their education has been conducted primarily or substantially online.”
  • Blended training (combining both online and face-to-face components) is not light-weight education. When done effectively this takes more faculty and student preparation and time than traditional learning.
  • Researchers, educators, universities and training organizations are developing partnerships and guidelines to insure high effectiveness in distance learning.

What are your observations or experiences with distance learning? Please comment.