Time management and Continuous Partial Attention

Online conferences Mar 24, 2020

By Terry Anderson; edited by Lucy Barnes

One of the often overlooked advantages of the virtual conference is the ease with which a participant can control the amount of time and mental energy they give to the conference.

Likely all of us have found ourselves sitting through conference sessions when our time and potential activities are totally controlled by others—regardless of our interest in being present at that time.

In a virtual conference I can exit any time I wish and return as easily. Of course, this license gives rise to abuse—and I just might not come back!  We observe the same phenomena in virtual conferences as in MOOCs, where significant numbers of registrants attend rarely and some not at all. However, this challenge is not unique to virtual conferences and has challenged distance educators using any medium.

An interesting development in professional development conferences is the increasing use of online media by delegates while attending the conference (virtually or face-to-face).  It is now possible for anyone to subscribe to the microblogging feeds and social media reactions of delegates, in addition to the audio/video from keynote or other speakers.  Thus, we see pressure from both the online and the face-to-face delegates to harness the affordances of online technology to enhance their professional development.

However, this simultaneous focus on multiple technologies and social contexts has created problems and cautionary warnings from researchers.

The speakers in virtual conferences often have challenges understanding the nature, the number and the reactions of their audience. Many systems provide means by which audience can share various emoticons, expressing laughter, applause etc. However, these are typically used only by a minority of the attendees. What of the majority?

It is likely that many participants are giving only partial attention to the conference while they are simultaneously engaged in other activities. Linda Stone labels this behavior “continuous partial attention” (CPA). Stone differentiates CPA from multitasking in that CPA goes beyond the efficiency of trying to accomplish more than one task at a time. CPA seeks to maintain connectivity at all times, thus making oneself open to opportunity, entertainment or whatever other potential benefits available within the (networked) environment.

CPA is just one of the manifestations of networked culture and economy in the post information age. Michael H. Goldhaber argues that “the economy of attention not information is the natural economy of cyberspace.” Organizers and presenters in virtual organizers must then design interfaces and produce content that knowingly competes with the audience for their attention. Ironically, presenters in face-to-face conferences face a similar challenge as large percentages of their audience typically are using their smartphones for a variety of tasks and entertainment while sitting in the physical presence of the presenters.

This series of blog posts is drawn from Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene edited by Geoffrey Rockwell, Chelsea Miya and Oliver Rossier, forthcoming with Open Book Publishers. Explore the other posts here.

Lucy Barnes

Lucy Barnes is Senior Editor and Outreach Coordinator at Open Book Publishers.