Anyone who has watched young "power users" at a computer cannot have failed to notice two things; they have more than one application open at once, and the chances are one of those will be a communications channel. So gamers will be messaging about moves and strategies, homework on a piece of writing will be punctuated by emails to and from mates, internet browsing will be combined with texting. I have seen similar behaviours in lessons too. An able, engaged student happily worked with the science simulation she was tasked with using, checked her email, and read the feedback on the English assignment she got back in the previous lesson.
At the end of the lesson she had done what was asked of her, and what she wanted to do, and her teacher was happy about the first and none the wiser about the second. So is there a problem here? Clearly keeping learners on task is one of the major worries every teacher has, and off-task behaviours are to be discouraged. Digital environments are very threatening in this respect. From the early days of CD-Roms there has been an understandable concern that with so many options available, learners may deliberately or unintentionally, be "on the wrong page" for much of the time.
One response to this has been the development of surveillance systems that offer the teacher a view of everyone's screen all the time in the hope, if not the expectation, that this will ensure compliance with the lesson the teacher hopes is being taught.
But are these attempts to police learning really the answer? Personally, I doubt the role of these systems in a classroom. I do not want to be at a console watching the students' screens, I want to be circulating and interacting with learners as and when they need my input.
So back to the tricky question of multi-tasking. How much should I worry if learners are doing more than one thing at a time? Obviously, if the end result is that the objectives of a lesson are missed then there is a real problem. But if the natural learning style of an engaged student means they spend some time doing other things, should I worry? It seems to me that the key here is whether or not the learners have accepted responsibility for their learning, and are as committed to it as I am. Clearly the key stage 4 student I mentioned earlier is in this category. But she is not typical.
We do have a problem with the disengagement of too many young learners from both what and how we are trying to teach them. Although it seems that some technologies can help to re-engage such learners, the key is to offer a curriculum that is both stimulating and relevant to them, and that also helps them to become confident learners. My fear is that the 'Big Brother'
approach of making sure that everyone is in the right application at the right time is not really going to help with that one.
The current discussions around the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, and the QCA Futures debate recognise the need for a curriculum that develops learner responsibility and confidence. So the will is emerging at policy level. The hard bit will be turning these noble aspirations into reality, and choosing the right applications of the right technologies to support the change.
Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol