Often learning is described as interactive. This has become an adjective for good learning. It’s interactive, it must be good. It’s not very interactive means that it’s not very good seems to be the discourse in the world of learning. So, what do we mean by interactive and what is interactivity?

(of two people or things) influencing each other.

allowing a two-way flow of information between a computer and a computer-user; responding to a user’s input.

So, does this definition help?

Two people influencing each other, certainly in a classroom environment could be interactivity in a learning context. The second involving a two-way flow of information between computer and user. This makes sense in terms of a piece of online learning.

If we were to say that some learning was not interactive, this could be thought of as a one way flow of information. Somebody could be listening to a presentation in which the presenter delivers the information directly with no questions or involvement with the audience. In an online environment the user may be reading a static document. Neither example is interactive in accordance with our definitions but are they of no use to learning?

Based on thoughts in a previous blog of mine on the learner and content, users interact with content in a variety of ways. If the one way information delivered by the presenter or static document actually interacts with the learners previous knowledge and experience, interactive learning is happening. Of course if the presenter was to add some interactivity in the way their audience engage with the content being delivered, if this is done effectively, the learning will be more efficient. If some interactivity is added to an online piece of learning that means that the learner can engage with the content in some way this could also result in more effective learning. A word of caution here however, the novice and expert paradigm kicks in. Don’t over do attempts to make learning interactive, if a static document can be used by experts in a particular field, they will do the interactive work themselves. They will make connections to their existing knowledge and use it in that way. Adding interactivity could increase extraneous cognitive load which could hamper learning.

In the field of psychology, a famous study by Donald Broadbent can tell us much about how we focus our attention. Broadbent wanted to find out how the dashboard in aeroplane cockpits could be simplified to help RAF pilots. He may have been the first UX designer. Known as the cocktail party effect, Broadbent used a dichotic listening task (listening to two pieces of audio at the same time). Playing some audio that is relevant in some way to the individual, alongsde something that is nonsense or something that the individual has no experience of showed that the individual totally blocked out the content they had no experience of. It was called the cocktail party effect as it replicates a conversation in a croweded room. Picture yourself in a room full of people, having a conversation with someone. Someone next to you, having another conversation mentions your name or something you are intterested in and your attention instantly switches to this conversation, ignoring totally, the poor person you are speaking to. This is also known as top down processing. Top down processing theory says that we perceive the world based on our existing experiences. We pay attention and engage with content when it works with information stored in long term memory – the new content interacts with existing!

In terms of learning then, I think the interactivity happens cognitively, in the brain. Just like the active audience example, we cannot guarantee what the individual does with and processes content but we can give the interactivity a little helping hand. Novices and experts differ in that novices will need much more support in getting interactive as they will not have the existing schemas in place to make those important connections. Knowing who your audience are and their past experiences not only allows for the right content to be delivered but how that content is delivered to encourage interaction. It may be a case of small steps with lots of support and feedback for a group of learners who know nothing at all about a subject. For learners more experienced in a subject area, less support and self discovery could be the best solution.

I would like to add my own definition of interactivity in learning which can be used across all blends and modes (online, face to face, etc).

Interactive learning occurs when existing knowledge and skills clash and integrate with new knowledge and experience resulting in new skills, knowledge and behaviours.

Learning is more effective when individuals work with and manipulate content in an interactive manner to make sense and give context to new understanding.

Basically, get working with the knowledge and skills you are working with. Break it up, put it back together, look at it from different angles. Get active with the stuff you’re delivering.

Next time somebody tells you that learning is interactive ask them ‘how so?’.


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