Surprise! Our Attention Spans Aren’t Dead!

Interesting bit of analysis from Medium, the makers of Pocket (which, self-referentially, I used to save this link to read – and bookmark here – later), showing that users of Pocket save and read articles of 2000-5000 words more often than those of other lengths, equating to around 16 minutes of reading time on average. I don’t think this means that our attention spans are alive and kicking at all  – we save things to Pocket (and ReadItLater, EverNote, etc) precisely because we are busy being distracted by other things most of the time – though it does show that at least some of us do spend more than a second or two reading some things. 

The most interesting bit of this, though, comes towards the end, under the heading of ‘self improvement’. Pocket is clearly an important part of a self-directed personal learning environment (PLE) for many people and it is highly significant that a very high percentage of what people keep for later reading are all about learning, with psychology (actuall psychology, not self-help nonsense) topping the list of saved articles, with technology, current events, culture, science and history making solid showings.  

I have highlighted this role many times in presentations I have given on the subject of PLEs myself. Pocket and others of its ilk (from the more free-form Evernote, Microsoft OneNote and Google Keep to simple browser bookmarks or the elderly but still useful are important parts of the learning technology assemblies that we make to support our learning. They are a major feature of the teaching crowd, tools that allow us to make sense and meaning of the torrent of knowledge we swim in all the time. In the old days I used to keep paper notebooks but they were of limited use. Now I just have a physical whiteboard pad for odd quick jottings but, if they are important, they always make their way into my electronic notes. The fact that these notes are searchable, taggable, reorganizable in many ways, and all in one place, turns them into powerful and persistent learning technologies that are orders of magnitude more useful than the primitive self-directed learning technologies of the past. 

Apart from Pocket – a convenient, simple and very usable tool – having experimented with a great many alternatives I now almost exclusively use Apple Notes for original jottings because I like the simplicity, the cross-platform capability, the fact they are auto-saved in multiple redundant online accounts as well as locally and, above all, the fact that (underneath it all) they are actually saved as emails in IMAP folders, so are open, standards-based and not bound at all by proprietary tools. That matters: things like EverNote, Keep and OneNote are functionally great but they are built to lock you in. I forgive Pocket that flaw because it is a one-trick pony, does provide a useful RSS feed and little would be lost if I jumped ship to another tool at a moment’s notice. I stick with it because it is a high quality piece of software that does what I need. We need such things to build robust personal learning ecosystems: small, robust pieces, interconnected and replaceable. This bookmark is just another one of those pieces – part of the public face of my PLE. And it too is not bound to a single tool. You can also find it at (or will be able to when it gets harvested some time within the next 24 hours!).

Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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