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.