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Monday, June 9, 2014

What does it mean for education to be interactive? an examination of the creation of a meaningless term

One problem that keeps coming up when I look at what is happening today in online education is the notion of “interactivity.”  Every course online is advertised as being “interactive.” So, I began to wonder what the word meant.
The word has been used with respect to toys for a long time. A toy helicopter that a kid can fly is described as interactive. LEGO has an interactive division which means it is producing video games. Why aren’t LEGOs themselves interactive? Kids certainly interact with them. The Smithsonian has an interactive dinosaur dig.
In fact, according to Timeout Magazine, New York City has nine good interactive museums:
These include the Museum of Sex which certainly leaves one wondering even more about interactivity.
Interactivity is a term used in education constantly. Here is a you tube from a German company on interactive learning via interactive whiteboards:

So interactive must be pretty good stuff. Everyone wants what they produce to be interactive and education should certainly be interactive. 
Here is Wikipedia’s definition of Interactive courses:

The term interactive course typically describes material of an educational nature delivered in a format which allows the user to directly impact the materials' content, pace, and out-come. Interactive, as defined by Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is "involving the actions or input of a user"[1]
An example of such material would be a computer based presentation requiring a user to select the correct answer to a give question before proceeding to the next topic.
These types of courses are almost always computer based and most likely to be delivered to the user thru the internet. Due to their convenient delivery, availability and almost endless subject matter, interactive courses have become a major tool for those seeking to provide as well as those seeking to obtain education, training or certification in a given area of study.
With growing access and availability to computers and the internet, many schools, universities, businesses and government agencies are turning to interactive courses to train and educate their students and staff.

So, if you get to determine which page comes next, your course is interactive apparently. Harvard and MIT seem to agree with that definition but they have added some new kinds of interaction:

Harvard and MIT have just announced a $60 million partnership that will put many of their classes online for free starting this fall. The EdX program is an expansion of MITx, which began teaching its first interactive online course in March. MIT has long offered material online through the OpenCourseWare project, but it describes EdX as a more interactive experience, with online discussion groups, collaborative course wikis, and other tools that move beyond simply reading or watching video. As with MITx, students who complete EdX courses can receive a certificate, albeit not one from Harvard or MIT.

Online discussion is also interaction, but with whom exactly? Not the teacher for EdX.

I like this advice I found on how to Create Interactive E-Learning from:

In this first example, we could just create four screens and have the learner go through them in order. But instead we give them the freedom to select a tab. This does two things: it lets them touch the screen and they get to choose what they want to review. It’s simple, but it’s an easy way to convert your click-and-read content to something more interactive.    

Interactivity then, in online education, seems to mean that the student does something other than sit quietly, maybe pushing a button every now and again.

Now lets think about what interactivity actually means in education.

1.           Lectures: there isn’t any. You might get to ask a question. That’s it.
2.           Small classrooms: there can be. A good teacher allows students to argue and debate ideas. But typically, there is lesson to be gotten through and these debates, while fun, rarely deter the teacher from the intended lesson.
3.           Seminars: good seminars are highly interactive, but it does depend on the teacher’s goals. If the goal is to get students to think clearly and defend their arguments, then a case can be made for the idea that not only is this actual interactivity but it is the interaction that is actually the point of the lesson.
4.           Projects: it seems kind of silly to call a project (maybe worked on by a group of students) interactive, because what else could it be? The students are doing something and producing that something is the goal. No one is faking interactivity.

My conclusion from all this is that when you hear the word interactive  -- run. Interactive has become a meaningless word meant to convey its exact opposite. Interactive means the lesson will proceed as it usually does with the teacher teaching the lesson. But there will be the pretense that the student is doing something when he or she is, in fact, yet again an unwilling cog in the education machine, but this time the student may get to press a button.

As I have said many times: Learning is a conversation. The goal of one of the participants in this conversation may or may not be to teach. But at least one of the participants needs to have learning as their goal. A conversation which is just meant to pass the time is interactive as well but learning is not its intended consequence.

Interactivity in education should mean something, but its doesn’t anymore. What interactivity should mean is that a student in pursuit of a goal has someone or something that can help him or her achieve that goal. That is the definition of interactivity.

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