Whether or not the study itself has been used well is up for debate, but the headline-friendly "8 second attention span" line has made its way into a kind of conventional wisdom in the popularizing of neuroscience. Like many of the unhelpful generalizations about "the millennial generation," it has come to be accepted as true. If you do a quick search of the phrase "attention span" in posts on LinkedIn, for instance, you will see what I mean. We seem to have accepted that smartphones and video games have destroyed human focus.
In the world of L&D, the "8 second" claim has been used to support a conceptual shift in instructional design widely known as "microlearning." In its most generalizable sense, the term describes various instructional techniques used to break up information into smaller chunks, leaving behind day-long training seminars and wordy PowerPoint decks. We'll likely all agree that this is entirely a good thing.
I'm not sure our attention spans have anything to do with making the case for this shift, however. First, I wonder if the "8 second" claim, and the insistence that it is caused by increased use of technology, might not be a good example of mass confirmation bias (or a post hoc fallacy) about the rapid increase of information technology and social media use. Second, it's no secret in the education world that long lectures and training programs don't work effectively. Additionally--if you'll forgive the anecdotal evidence--I've seen little evidence for a difference in attention spans between the youngest and the mid-career to retired students in university classrooms.
What I think has changed since the latest information revolution is the impatience of learners with instruction that doesn't make use of the best tools now available, nor the current knowledge of human cognition. People are now accustomed to finding information quickly, on their own, when they need it. When they are confronted with learning that is not built with smart design and technology, they don't respond well; often, they just stop paying attention.
In our next post, we'll keep thinking about the concept of "microlearning," and see if we can figure out if there is a good common definition, and broad agreement about its effectiveness.