Thoughts about how we can use Active Personal Technologies (APT) to interact with our audience and enhance learning opportunities.

When you were young, what distracted you in class? Was it looking out a window? Doodling? Glancing around the room? Testing the tensile strength of a #2 pencil?

Today, participants have so many more distractions in the form of active personal technology (APT) (i.e. cellphones, tablets, and computers, along with installed apps that are “actively” connected to a network). The “instant response and notification characteristics” of new technologies we carry with us means we may not be able to escape the distractive properties (as long as the device is connected/turned on).

The problem of distraction exists in every learning environment. David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan discussing the brain’s ability to multitask, tell us “under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks are both very simple and when they don’t compete with each other for the same mental resources. An example would be folding laundry and listening to the weather report on the radio. That’s fine. But listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

More than 90 percent of students according to Barney McCoy (2013) admitted to using their devices for non-class activities during class times. Asked why they were using their devices in class, the top answer was texting (86 percent), followed by checking the time (79 percent). e-mail (68 percent), social networking (66 percent), web surfing (38 percent) and games (8 percent). The top advantages they cited were staying connected (70 percent), avoiding boredom (55 percent) and doing related classwork (49 percent).

So, how do we effectively teach or train in a learning environment where APT disrupt, distract and disturb? We know from recent studies that the use of technology and the Internet in learning environments can result in positive experiences for the learner (Pew Research Centre, 2014).

The question is, can take advantage of reported positive experiences to design active learning experiences for participants? Can we attack distraction using the very same tools of distraction that are in the hands of participants? Can the presence of APT be viewed as an asset?

It is rare today that a participant shows up for a training session without at least a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer. Therefore, we must embrace this as we prepare training/learning opportunities and to maximize learning potential.

The first step is to realize the potential of these APT. Each one has the ability – at any moment in time – to actively engage with Internet content and other individuals. They can provide instant updates about their family, friends and the arrival date of recent online purchases, entice with games, and provide current sports statistics, all of which may appear more interesting than the session they are currently attending. Armed with this information, it is possible to design a training session that requires the participant to use their APT to engage, interact and connect.

Designing a Training Session

Methods of instruction common today often take their structure from Bloom’s Taxonomy (cognitive, affective and psychomotor). The idea is to create learning objectives and then design instruction based on meeting these objectives. Learning objectives are turned into topics to be covered over the span of the course and presentations, lectures, and activities for the participants.

A problem with this method is that it does not always take into account situational factors (what and how participants learn) and the multi-modal learning styles of participants. A suggested alternative approach would take advantage of a “Systematic Learning-Centered Design” model (Fink, 2003). Fink’s model addresses new kinds of learning, such as “learning how to learn, leadership and interpersonal skills, ethics, communication skills, character, tolerance, and the ability to adapt to change. This model asks what and how participants should learn.

For this model to be effective, we would need to spend time learning about how our participants learn, interact and communicate. This can be difficult and time-consuming to achieve. Therefore, it is may be reasonable to assume that any participant population is likely to contain a variety of learners and learning styles that need to be considered when developing effective instruction.

Using carefully selected instructional technologies; it is possible to address multi-modal learning needs as well as individual learner needs. If we accept the following assumptions, we can design technology enhanced learning experiences that support meaningful interaction and engagement.


  1. No two learners have the same learning needs

  2. Offering multi-modal learning opportunities meets the needs of most participants

  3. Opportunities for real-time interaction and expression by participants will help to sustain interest and connection with the content being presented

  4. The use of visual media (images, video, audio) is essential to meeting the needs of a variety of learners

Guidelines for developing more interactive training sessions (correlated with Fink’s Six Taxa)

  1. Increase the frequency of interaction.

    1. Learning How To Learn. Carefully consider how, where, and when you can engage your participants with questions, surveys, polls, brainstorming, etc.

  2. Establish a meaningful interaction with participants within the first 5-10 minutes

    1. Foundational Knowledge. Bring your participants into the session early. Allow them to share and contribute to the session.

      1. Continue to interact at frequent intervals – keep your audience engaged

  3. Support and/or encourage the use of personal technology for interaction.

    1. Application. Take advantage of participant skills, and practical thinking skills. Require participation using APT.

    2. Integration. Participants can connect, share and imagine using available technology tools.

  4. Offer multi-modal solutions whenever possible.

    1. Use graphics, audio and video to enhance sessions.

  5. Establish learning centers (groups) to promote more in-depth understanding and exploration of content.

    1. Integration. Recognizing and understanding new connections. Realizing cause and effect, discovering new relationships, constructing new knowledge.

    2. Human Dimension. Working effectively with others. Sharing information, discussing information. Working collaboratively.

    3. Caring. Change and support the way participants work with each other and the way they share information.

  6. Offer opportunities to “learn more” independent of the session. Give your audience something to “take away” from their experience.

    1. Learning How to Learn. Developing skills that enable self-directed learning. Using technology they have access to all the time in a way that embraces discovery.

Changing our ways

We can observe differences in the way in which we approach learning. To do this, we may have to abandon previous methods, approaches, and techniques for delivering training in order to embrace new ideas and concepts that leverage APT.

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