Mindfulness, attentiveness & learning online

I’ve started HumanMOOC this this week and the discussion by Kate Bowles on mindfulness and attention really resonated with me. Early in the discussion Kate says ‘mindfulness simply asks us to be less judgemental and to be attentive to the details of our lives.’ She problematises the way in which mindfulness is linked to tidiness and is part of the productivity agenda. She suggests that mindfulness may not increase productivity, rather, it is a slower way of being in the world. She critiques the situation where ‘both mindfulness and attentiveness, which are reflective practices, have become harnessed to an agenda of productive practices’.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about inattention problems I’ve been noticing with my students. Over the years I’ve been teaching online I’ve disciplined myself not to become frustrated when students ask questions that have already been answered, often in multiple modes (print, video, audio, synchronously, asynchronously) and where the information they seek is clearly available in the course materials, emails/announcements etc.

I understand that learning online is an isolating experience, and that students become anxious that they might have missed some information or that they have interpreted the information differently to others. My students are busy professionals, most of whom are mothers raising young families. Their lives are messy and complicated and they are often rushing to fit in all their commitments. As external students, they don’t have the security and reassurance of checking details with classmates as they wait for the lecture or tutorial to start, or going to have coffee after the class. Their anxiety is exacerbated by the inquiry-based and connected learning design of my courses. The learning environment (a suite of social media) and assignment formats (digital artefacts such as blogs and websites) are often new to them, and the fuzziness of inquiry learning (no ‘right’ answer’, no ‘set’ pathway) is a challenge to those who are more familiar with traditional approaches.

To address their anxiety, I use a number of strategies to create an environment where students can freely ask ‘dumb questions’. I have set the class community as a ‘brain’s trust’ where they take responsibility for asking and answering each other’s questions. This includes an ‘Ask a Dumb Question’ forum and using Padlet walls where they can post questions and comments anonymously.

Despite these measures, I have noticed that many students simply do not pay attention. Recently I was gobsmacked to notice a discussion on our G+ Community where two students misread information in a very simple and brief email I had sent to the class the day before reminding them that the semester break was the following week. Their confusion over the timing of the break was all the more bemusing because it was listed in the semester schedule that they need to click on every week to access the materials and web conference links for the week, so they could have easily verified the information in my email by going to the schedule.

The same day I had a Skype meeting with one of my students based overseas because he was worried about his interpretation of the assignment due to something I had said in a Collaborate (webinar) tutorial. He admitted that he watched the Collaborate tutorial recordings while cooking dinner, so it was easy to miss information. The problem with the Collaborate tutorials is that they are between 60-90 minutes, and I realise that it’s a very big ask to expect students to concentrate for that period of time, especially given that they’re participating/viewing the tutorial at home, where they are easily distracted by their home life.

So, this is the messiness of online learning. And I have exacerbated the messiness through my connected learning approach.

In her HumanMOOC discussion, Kate Bowles reminded us that we shouldn’t make any assumptions about our students’ behaviours. She advocates for an ‘accountable presence’ which she describes as:

I see you, I recognise you, I recognise that your place in the world if different from my own. I recognise that your place in the world is distinctive and dear to you, and I won’t assume anything about you on the basis of the things I know about myself. I won’t rule in or out any possibility of what is critical for you at the moment. But I will pay attention. And then if you choose to identify to me that this thing I’ve been observing is also important to you I can accept that, I can take that onboard.

My challenge is to build in ways for this reciprocity to occur in my courses, to incorporate an ‘accountable presence’ and attentiveness into the ways in which my students and I connect online.

4 responses to “Mindfulness, attentiveness & learning online

  1. Hi Mandy! I had seen your blog when you shared it at Twitter, and I am glad to find it now in the blog hub… connecting at Twitter is fun, but I’m glad for the more spacious blogosphere for sharing ideas and conversations. I’m looking forward to the next weeks of HumanMOOCing…! Blog on! 🙂


    • Yay, Laura, I’m definitely up for more extended conversations 🙂 I’ve been following your work for some time, and I recognised a simpatico soul 🙂 I’m planning a research project around students’ perceptions of developing their professional digital footprint via creating digital artefacts such as blogs, websites, video, curation collections etc. I’d love to chat further with you about the project as you might be interested in being involved..?


  2. Hi Mandy
    This is intriguing! I feel it’s a real challenge for attentive educators to foster attentive reciprocity (?responsive connection) with and between students. Developing an attentive community of learners who respond thoughtfully to each other, as individuals and as a whole group, would seem fundamental to truly productive online learning. How do we collectively set an attentive learning environment? What would a pedagogy of attentiveness look like?


    • Great question, Hilary! It would certainly be a strong student-centered approach, with mindfulness at its base. Mindfulness is a way of being, so it would need to extend throughout our lives. Howard Rheingold has an interesting chapter in his book NetSmart where he discusses attentiveness and mindfulness. He uses ‘attention probes’ with his f2f students to create attention awareness.

      One tension I always feel is the rushed nature of my teaching – in my Collaborate sessions there is so much to talk about, and its very difficult to ‘listen’, especially with the text chat backchannel going so fast. And because the text chat isn’t threaded it’s difficult to follow the simultaneous conversations. I’m sure my students find the same problem. At one stage I experimented with creating breakout rooms so that students could talk in small groups, however that excludes the students who can’t attend the session, as the breakout rooms can’t be recorded. In analysing my teaching against the SAMR model I can see that for the most part I’m simply trying to use digital technologies as a Substitute for a f2f tutorial, rather than Augmentation, Modification or Redefinition. But even then I fail, as it’s usually me taking most of the air time. I resolve that in the future I will stop talking and start listening!


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