When I was a student back in the seventies there were plenty of distractions during lectures. Some doodled, some wrote notes to each other, some read a book or a newspaper and some even slept. Many actually took notes on the lecture but if that got boring we soon switched off. So there's nothing new with the current debate on digital distractions in class or at conferences; it's just more visible than before when the teacher faces a sea of laptops.
There's a good discussion going on the Learning Circuits blog (New Presenter and Learner Methods and Skills) about what you can do as a teacher in a classroom full of distractions. The use of back channels (instant messaging, Twitter etc) is now widespread at conferences and in class and the lesson is that if you don't provide an official one the participants will start an unofficial one themselves (or several). However it can be unnerving for the teacher to see the constant stream of comments roll in via Twitter as you speak. It's hard to concentrate on what you're presenting whilst keeping an eye on all the comments. Then again the comments are directed towards others in the audience not at you as presenter. However, what do you do then when laughter bursts out in the room at a tweet that you haven't seen? Do you immediatley realize that they're not laughing at you (quickly check that all clothes are still on, hair in right place etc)? Do you pause to let the laughter die down and continue uneasily waiting for the next witty remark to turn up in the arena that you are unable to participate in? Wait a minute, who's show IS this?
However back channel comments at least show interest in the subjetc of the session. What do you do when the audience has virtually left the room; the lights are on but there's no-one home. many will say that a bored audience will find other things to do and while that may be true to some extent, is audience boredom only the fault of an uninspiring presenter? Some concepts are tough to explain, some things take time to go through and simply cannot be full of stimulating content. Sometimes you have to concentrate hard and really struggle to come to grips with complicated theories. We tend to zap past channels that are not instantly appealing and risk losing a great opportunity of learning something really new.
I have read several pieces by Howard Rheingold (see several earlier posts on this blog) on how we need to teach the art of attention and how important it is that people learn to switch off the distractors and really concentrate. No significant learning takes place whilst multi-tasking (or pretending to). Read the discussion on Learning Circuits for more on this.