There is no doubt that most of us feel a bit overwhelmed by the information in our lives. Where did we put our car keys, what did I come into this room looking for? Am I growing senile already, is Alzheimers setting in. Have heart, you are probably normal. Biologically speaking, we are simply trying to cope with a rapid acceleration of information in our lives, with essentially the same brain that our Cro-Magnum ancestors had. Surveys of today’s modern office reveal that personnel were interrupted and distracted roughly every three minutes and people working on a computer had an average of eight windows open at a time. Edward Hallowel has termed this “Attention Deficit Trait” to distinguish it from the more biologically based ADHD. Consider that when we read a book or newspaper there are few integrated distractions to the activity of reading. Now consider what happens when you read the same newspaper online. Flashing or scrolling banners, multiple colored hyperlinks, flash animations parading across a part of the page, popup windows, and multiple small ads changing over time we look at them, or think about today’s TV, with additional information scrolling across the bottom, and text and graphic overlays poping up to advertize the next show. Couple this with the fact that we are probably surfing the Internet on our laptop as we “sort of” watch TV and we begin to see the emerging pattern of informational attention deficit.
The problem is that memory has everything to do with attention. We remember that which we attend to. In our case, it has long been known (since about the mid 1950’s) that our working memory can only hadle about seven of anything (numbers, words, pictures, steps etc.) Ever wonder why there are the seven wonders off the world, or the seven deadly sins, or even the seven days of the week? (this list goes on if you think about it)
When we are holding information in short term storage (working memory) prior to getting it into long term memory (like where you put your car keys down) and something garners our attention, the information that was in short term memory vanishes, just like your car keys.
So what does this have to do with technology. If you are a learning designer, keep the rule of seven in mind as you create instructional sequences, or instructions, and give your learners and users ways to process those seven pieces of information into long term memory before introducing new instruction or elements. This will build success and continued participation which is, after all one of the points of the technology you created.