Saturday, January 31, 2015

Interaction Entre Nous... NOT Machines

This blog post is prompted by a back-and-forth I had via email with a really nice person in my campus IT who wrote to ask me what I thought about a particular elearning authoring vendor. I wrote back to say that I didn't think much about the vendor (Versal) one way or another because authoring content was not something that interests me. Instead, I am much more interested in my STUDENTS as authors and designing classes in which the goal is to enable and encourage the students to be creating new, original content as part of the class. As a result, I think my time is better spent helping the students to create content, as opposed to creating content myself.

And here's what prompted this blog post: the very nice IT guy wrote back and said, "I think your focus on the student is correct although I've had at least a few faculty approach me with an interest in making their lessons more interactive."

ALARM BELLS RING: Interactive... do we all agree on what that word means? Clearly not.

To me, interactive means human beings interacting with each other. Inter-action. You do something, I do something that is somehow connected to your action: we are inter-acting. It is something that humans do together, and it requires humans to do that. Or, okay, cats. My cats are definitely interactive; they interact with me, they interact with each other (not nicely, alas).

But I do not believe that computers can interact with humans. We can use computers for all kinds of purposes, and one purpose of a computer can be to facilitate interactions with other human beings . . . like right now: I write something in a blog, and if you are prompted to comment here, and I comment back, glory hallelujah: we will have interacted, even if we have never met face to face.

But I am not prepared to use the term "interaction" for a computer's action in response to something that I have done. There is NO ONE THERE to interact with. If you say a computer is interactive because it makes a happy bleep when I answer a quiz question correctly would be like saying that Rice Krispies cereal is interactive because it goes "snap, crackle, pop" when I pour milk on it. Or like saying that the door to my house is interactive because it opens when I turn the key. And so on, ad infinitum ... and ad absurdum.

So, yes, it is essential that learning be interactive: we need human feedback of all kinds to keep our learning process moving forward. Making my online classes highly interactive is a primary goal for me. Just today, I wrote up notes on an important new strategy I am trying to improve the student-to-student interactions in my classes: New "Comment Training" Strategy.

But that does not mean I need an elearning vendor to sell me some product to create so-called "interactive" quizzes, etc. (scare quotes intended). Instead, I am interested in products that facilitate person-to-person communication online. Right now, for my classes that means mostly blogs and Twitter, along with that vintage standby: email. (I far prefer blogs and Twitter.)

So, what say ye, people? Has the word interactive become so empty of meaning that online quizzes now qualify as an "interactive" component of a class? Was the word "dynamic" not good enough? If so, heaven help us. It means I will have to find a new word to use for what I consider real interaction, if that word has indeed been kidnapped and emptied of meaning by the elearning vendors.


  1. Interaction means action between two entities, man-man, man-machine, machine-machine. Each is important. The inability to interact or the degree of interaction is dependent on Intelligence, Experience, circumstances etc. We do understand what it means. Perhaps it would be better classified as responsive, active and Pro-Active. Door Opening is Responsive, Door that opens on facial recognition is active, and a Door that would open by reading your Mood Maybe Pro-Active... Hence, many levels.

    In e-learning at the moment we have software that is developed using conventional constructs. But as AI becomes norm, and genetic algorithms become more robust we will see a very different e-learning environment.. For Instance, Based on an initial assessment (Baseline) and user actions, the software could very easily develop a custom e-learning material/program with learning outcomes, suited to the individual, and maximise his learning potential by "pro-active" interaction.

  2. Oh, I would settle for active and proactive responses (computers can re-spond, which is very different from inter-acting). Inter-action is different: it demands consciousness, and AI is not equivalent to consciousness. Moreover, AI right now is just pie in the sky, marketing hype, and if/when it really takes shape, I don't think AI is really going to serve the needs of elearning at all: if there is going to be AI, it is going to be a machine intelligence, not a human one. So, because machines will learn in ways COMPLETELY different from how human learn, if/when AI arrives, I don't think human learning is the field in which it will make its contributions. I continue to be discouraged by how eagerly many people, including some educators, want to endorse this technology pipe-dream. It has the unfortunate side effect of dismissing/discounting the real dilemmas we face as educators, the problems whose solutions we need to be talking about right now: social, emotional, economic, political. Machines with AI and other forms of technology solutionism strike me as pure fantasy, not fact, while we have real problems in education right here, right now that we need to work together to solve.

  3. P.S. If you ARE a machine, Rashid, you fooled me! :-)


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