Amongst many sensible things they bring up in their 'Discussing New Literacies', Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear relate an anecdote about 'multitasking' in the classroom. They tell the story of Zoe, a digitally empowered student who, while her teacher is managing a class reading and discussion of a poem by Robert Frost, is surreptitiously reading other people's (unrelated) blogs, and writing blog posts of her own. While the 'formal classroom' frowns upon Zoe's behaviour, Knobel and Lankshear applaud her 'multitasking'. They suggest that the workplace values this ability, and that there is no 'disrespect' in Zoe's behaviour as "she was able to provide at least as much attention to the tasks specifically associated with the official learning of the classroom to perform them adequately." (p. 83)
This all seems like a bit of a utopian, rose-tinted view of things. For one thing, many would argue that multitasking, simply, 'isn't'. As David Weinberger suggests in 'The Cluetrain Manifesto' (a text I hope would be progressive enough for Knobel and Lankshear);
"Humans can't multitask – we can't pay attention to two things simultaneously. You can multitask? Fine. Then read a book and write one at the same time. No, multitasking is really just rapid attention-switching. And that'd be a useful skill, except it takes us a second or two to engage in the new situation we've graced with our focus. So, the sum total of attention is actually decreased as we multitask. Slicing your attention is less like slicing potatoes than like slicing plums: you always lose some of the juice." (p.50)
Beyond this, its worth looking at their suggestion that multi-tasking is valued in the commercial sphere. Without doubt, the ability to successfully manage (or 'juggle') a variety of tasks can be a boon in the workplace. In terms of 'multi-tasking' however, it is more relevant to ask what the reaction is when one takes a Blackberry into a meeting, or continues to write an email while conversing with a colleague. As in other areas, the general belief is that attending to multiple tasks simultaneously is achieved by diminishing the quality of attention to each task.
Looking at Zoe's situation, if we assume that this is time set aside for her education, then even a die-hard anti-establishment liberal like myself would suggest that her focus be split (if it is to be split) between tasks related to her schoolwork. This feels less like a flaw in her teacher's understanding of her capacity to manage multiple tasks, and more like a flaw in their ability to inspire interest and enthusiasm around the topic at hand. If Zoe were more engaged by the material, she would perhaps still be 'multi-tasking', but would be pulling up imagery, analysis, and so on, around the Frost poem in question.
The situation does raise the question of how best to police behaviour in a laptop-based classroom. On the one hand, I believe there should be (at least at certain times) significant freedom to choose different applications, resources, destinations etc. to achieve the objectives of a learning exercise. On the other hand, it is perhaps unrealistic to assume that a class will operate without a degree of oversight. The solution that springs most readily to mind would be a capacity by which the teacher could view the screens of the students in the class at will. While this has some echoes of the Panopticon about it, it really strays no farther toward 1984 than the teacher who wanders up behind you in class while you are carefully sketching what your girlfriend would look like without skin.