My early thinking about successful web and web-based game design and has definitely shaped my philosophy regarding successful learning environments. More specifically, I believe that successful learning spaces — virtual and physical — should be interactive, and community-building.
But what do we/I mean by interactive? In this episode, I identify four key ingredients for interactivity in learning environments and discuss their significance with regards to the student experience.
Education Futures Episode 4: Four Ingredients for Interactivity in Learning Environment Design
I remember reading Brenda Laurel’s seminal work, Computers as Theater, back in the 90’s. It was extremely helpful as I worked out my own ideas about effective website and web-based game design.
The core of my early thinking was that successful web experiences should be participatory, interactive, and community-building. By participatory, I meant that what users do on a website or web platform must have some impact. Users should be able to leave meaningful footprints or make noticeable changes. In addition, I argued that websites needed to be interactive, allowing users to do multiple things in multiple directions (both send a receive). Finally, I saw successful web platforms as providing mechanisms for creating a sense of connectedness and community.
This triad of qualities served me well as I moved from academia into product design for different companies, and then again as I worked in organizational management. Coming full circle, now leading an organization focused on developing high-quality online learning, I find that many of my curriculum and design decisions are still driven by the need to create learning that is participatory, interactive, and community-building.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this focus places me within a comfortably large group of people who are focused on interactivity in both learning and entertainment. The challenge, of course, is that while we may all advocate for interactivity, we may mean something slightly or entirely different by the term.
Two recent articles reminded me of this.
The first was a post by Donald Clark on the importance of voice technologies for learning. Clark argues that, by abandoning voice in most of our online learning, we have lost touch with real human interaction and interactivity. He writes:
Online learning needs to be unmuted. Almost all online learning involves just clicking. Not even typing stuff in, just clicking. We click to navigate, click on menus, click (absurdly) on people to get fictional speech bubbles, click on multiple-choice options. Yet most other online activity involves messaging, typing what you think on social media and being far more active. Also, in real life, we don’t click, we speak and listen. Most actual teaching and training uses voice.
Stephen Downes commented on Clark’s post by suggesting that Clark might be missing the point when it comes to what actually makes learning interactive.
[Clark] also says, “in real life, we don’t click, we speak and listen. Most actual teaching and training uses voice.” First of all, computers are real life. Second, I’ve had a lot of ‘real’ learning that’s far less interactive than online – especially courses based almost entirely on (paper-based) reading. Again – there’s no denying the efficacy of voice. That’s why I give talks, create podcasts, give interviews
Two innovative and respected e-learning experts. Two different definitions.
We can see another example of this confusion about what interactivity is in a recent article about a new feature from Nextflix. According to the article:
Now you can now take your Netflix obsession to the next level. The streaming service said Tuesday that customers with the latest version of the Netflix app for iOS can share their favorite programs on Instagram Stories.
In this instance, “interactivity” seems to be a combination of interactivity with content and with people. This type of interactivity is passive by nature with the hope of becoming active through responses to content sharing.
These and other examples have made me rethink what I mean by interactivity in learning and course design. As a minimum set of requirements, I would suggest that real interactivity manifests these four ingredients.
Learner choice — This means that learning environments should allow learners to do more than one thing at any given time. Learners move about and process information in heterogeneous patterns and out environments need to support this natural activity for maximum efficacy.
Passive and active options — Learners don’t always want or need to be engaged in direct dialogue. They also need options for passive interaction, such as one-way sharing of information that may or may not receive a response.
Send and receive channels — In learning, interactivity should provide options for two-way communication. This applies to information being presented as well as different people participating in the learning environment.
Feedback loops — Systems cannot develop greater complexity without feedback loops. This suggests that interactivity in learning environments should be a primary mechanism for delivering the feedback learners need to improve.
Is voice a factor in all of this, as Clark suggests? Absolutely. But so are other technologies, such as texting, synchronous writing/editing, video, and AR/VR, to name but a few.
We have to be careful, I think, not to associate interactivity in learning with specific tools. At its core, interactivity not any single technology. It’s the design of the learning environment.
After all, for a voice to be heard, it must be allowed to speak.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library