Monday, March 08, 2010

Educating the Distracted

One day recently, I stood before a room of students lecturing. I was discussing a topic they had requested. I had flown to their country on a Sunday to start the class, sacrificing my weekend. Their company had reorganized their schedules, and paid muchos dolares. And yet, they all sat before their laptops, engrossed in other tasks and conversations.

I paused to see if anyone noticed I had stopped talking. Finally, getting no response, I offered: "If you guys need to do other things, that's fine. I can wait until a better time."

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I often teach training classes to technicians who work at Phone Companies and Internet Service Providers. One serious problem is that they're often very distracted.

Usually, a student will bring along his laptop, find some way to get public Internet access, and then connect his VPN back to the home office. He has usually flown in, planning a week away from his family and regular work to attend the class.

All expenses included, his company is spending about $2 a minute to be in my class. I'm up in front of the class jabbering away, and he's busy troubleshooting some urgent customer issue.

There is a pro and a con of this situation:

Pro: He may have only been able to attend my class because he believed he'd be able to keep up with critical issues while attending the class.

Con: His distraction means he won't get very much out of the lecture, and he won't be very good at anything he's doing for work.

My situation is different from a college instructor. My wife, Hayden, teaches English. If a student in her English Composition class is totally engrossed in their electronics, she can tell them to put it away.

But in my class, the students are my customers. They're usually older than me. They're fully-grown adults, and in the professional training environment, there's no legacy of "in loco parentis" that gives me any real authority over my class. I have to find ways to convince them that it's in their best interest to focus on the class at hand.

It's rare that I have to come right out and ask for some change, as I did on my recent training trip. Before most classes, I give a short speech on the importance of focusing on the lecture; I had failed to give that speech this time.

Other times, the problem seems to correct itself. I call on people to give answers to questions. Or I circle around the classroom while talking; people sometimes don't want the instructor to see what else they're up to.

Sometimes, the exercises solve the problem. I give the students some work to do, and some struggle with it. Eventually they figure out that the exercises are easier if they actually pay attention while I'm talking.

It's a shame that they bother to go to training, but still pretend they can do their regular jobs. And I'm really not satisfied with my ability to convince them to focus.

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