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Technical Writer Discusses Dealing with Short Audience Attention Spans

Stephen Calhoun works at Diebold, Incorporated as a Technical Writer and Online Training Developer. His job primarily consists of taking information and then incorporating it into computer based training and distributing it to their associates. He also does contracting and eLearning development personally on the side.

If you’d like to contact Stephen, feel free to look him up on LinkedIn.

Q. From your perspective, what are a few of the greatest challenges facing the training profession today?

The greatest challenge to training will always be its audience. Studies have shown that adults are far less receptive to new information to than children and teenagers, and in fact it’s somewhat physiological as the portions of our brain that are linked to learning stop developing around the age of 22.

The other, more modern day challenge is simply attention span. Trainees are less willing to sit in a classroom for 8 hours or sit at a computer and take eLearning for even 1 hour.

While this is generally seen as a bad thing (trainees losing focus), it doesn’t have to be and that’s one of the areas training organizations need to embrace and improve upon.

Q. Why are the challenges you mentioned different from those of the past?

The attention span problem derives largely from current media influence and simply how we live our lives. Television, movies, and even food is on demand as we simply download the latest flick or drive through the nearby McDonald’s. What are my friends doing tonight? Check Facebook. Where are my kids? Send them a text.

As our lives become accustomed to this kind of lifestyle, we become less and less willing to sit and learn at someone else’s pace or for the amount of time someone else has allotted. It opposes how we live most of the other aspects of our lives.

Q. What are some technology and research trends today that will have an impact on tomorrow?

The web as a training platform—while that isn’t new necessarily—will continue to grow. In general our world has become much more interconnected and that means more web conferences, video calls, etc.

The new wave of touchscreen devices could add an interesting dimension to training. A current problem with most e-learning is a lack of interactivity. Touchscreens allow users to physically interact with a screen in a much more visceral way than a mouse ever can.

Q. Could you envision a 21st century training program for us? What might it look like?

It would come in short, bite-sized chunks. Already organizations are pushing back concerning hour long eLearning courses. A recent client of mine wanted the information broken down into 4-6 minute modules.

Rather than having one module that takes an hour, more and more companies are going towards 20 modules that each take five minutes. I believe this trend will continue as the old way of watching a slide then clicking next has become antiquated.

Q. What do you read to stay updated in your line of work?

I really liked Wired Magazine but it’s not a training specific publication. It’s more geared towards those generally interested in technological developments and how they impact society.

I attended an ASTD conference two years ago that was one of the best and most eye opening experiences I’ve had in relation to learning about training. I’d definitely recommend what ASTD offers whether conference, their blogs, or their magazines.

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