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Elearning Course

October 8, 2002

The following is a summary of "content created" as a result of Week 3 of discussions using a non-traditional approach to learning (participants of "elearning noncourse"). This article is best understood as a collage of thoughts, rather than a cohesive essay. For a detailed perspective of a significant portion of the discussion, please see the dialogue posted at Stephen's Web (this is a good example of spiraling - the expression of an idea strengthened by subsequent discussion)

Contributors to the discussion: Jennifer Cowley, Sharon Chanley, Stephen Downes, Lisa Holstrom, Dawn Ressel, George Siemens, Mitchell Weisburgh

What is Interaction?
What does Interaction Accomplish?
Interaction Cycle
Instructor Concerns

Additional Thoughts on Interactivity

Interaction is foundational to effective learning. Often, however, the term interaction is used without a clear understanding. Interaction has at least the following components that need to be considered:

  • Interaction can be grouped by type/sort of interaction (human-human, human-computer, computer-computer)
  • The following influence types of interaction: time (synchronous or asynchronous), number of people, location (proximate, distance)
  • The uses of interaction types needs to reflect inherent characteristics (i.e. what each is best suited to achieve)
  • Degree of interactivity (the amount of information exchange between participants is one measure)
  • Amount of info conveyed is relative to the needs of the receiver (the learner)
  • "Thus, a measure of the quality of learning materials would include, first, the quality of information transmitted, and second, the degree of interactivity afforded by means of transmission."
  • "Greater interactivity tends to increase time spent"

What is Interaction?

The goal of interaction is to lead students to a point of reflection that causes them to evaluate existing assumptions and then choose to integrate or discard the new information. By itself, interaction has very little value. It is possible to interact at length with concepts, only to find that everything read or heard is a blur. Why? Because active engagement is defined by reflection and validation of the content being explored. Effective interaction, then, is a process of awakening a students' internal reflective processes.

Interaction can be defined as: ""Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another. An instructional interaction is an event that takes place between a learner and the learner's environment. Its purpose is to respond to the learner in a way intended to change his or her behavior toward and educational goal. Instructional interactions have two purposes: to change learners and to move them toward achieving their goals." (Wagner 1994) from: http://seamonkey.ed.asu.edu/~mcisaac/emc703/leah5.html

It is important not to confuse interaction with the goal of interaction (leading students to reflection) and the effective of interaction (changing behaviour). Interaction, as expressed by one participant, is nothing more than the exchange of information.

The suggestion here is:

  • effective learning requires reflection and validation
  • reflection and validation require interaction
  • therefore effective learning requires interaction

This sounds like a good argument. However, though the premises are sometimes true, they are
not always true.

  • Suppose, for example, I wanted to learn how to make microwave Kraft Dinner. I read the instructions, follow them, and assuming I've measured my water correctly, successfully demonstrate that learning. Reflection and validation are not required to learn how to make microwave Kraft Dinner.
  • Suppose, for example, I want to work out a concept for myself. I write a draft, review it, make changes, think about it, trace implications, and finally convince myself that I have it. I have engaged in reflection and validation, but have not engaged in interaction.

This is not to invalidate the original argument. But it is important to keep in mind that the need for reflection, validation and interaction varies according to context. Rather than simply say that we need them, we need to say why we need them. This in turn leads us to a greater understanding of the goals of interaction in a given context, and therefore, to the best mode of interaction to employ (as defined by my variables above.)

To expand on this a bit:

  • It is one thing to learn how to make Kraft Dinner and quite another to learn the essentials of integral calculus, and quite another to comprehend the importance of Descartes's Meditations, and quite another again to learn how to play darts.
  • Different types of learning require different methodologies (which is why I lose patience with people who say things like 'The key to learning is...' of that 'Learning is essentially about...'

Various accounts of different types of learning exist, the most quoted of which is Bloom's taxonomy. But we can approach the subject with a rougher taxonomy:

  • Learning of skills, methods, processes, etc ('knowing how')
  • Learning of facts, data, statistics, dates, etc. ('knowing that')
  • Learning of concepts, representations, abstract systems, etc ('knowing why')

To express the relation very roughly, imagine a gradient between learning by rote and learning by understanding. In the former, the emphasis is on observation and experience, recitation and practice, while in the latter, the emphasis is on the formulation of abstracts and the placement of new information within an overall mental model or conceptual scheme (and involves the construction and refinements of these mental models and schemes).

Then from the list above, the first relies most of all on learning by rote, and the best means of learning is by doing - by repeating multiplication tables, by memorizing key dates, etc. Reflection and validation are of minimal importance; repetition is the order of the day. The second relies on learning by association - one thing is like another in just this way. In such cases, reflection and validation are of maximal importance as it is necessary to constantly refine and adapt one's conceptual model.

While interaction has a role to play in rote learning ("watch and then repeat after me") most discussion of interaction deals with its role in learning by understanding (hence the argument that began this section).

In such cases, interaction plays a role in the four major forms of reasoning:

  • Definition - acquiring, through conversation, a common understanding of language and syntax
  • Description - acquiring, through conversation, a common understanding of reference and representation
  • Argument - acquiring, through conversation, a common understanding of what beliefs may be inferred from definition and description
  • Explanation - acquiring, through conversation, a common understanding of the theoretical constructs, world views, or models within which definition, description and argument operate

Again, as in the previous case, we obtain a gradient. Definition, for example, may proceed by stipulation (in a learning environment, it almost always operates by stipulation). Description involves a mutual sharing of stories and other experiences, but the contents of each person's message are (typically) unrelated to each other. In argument and explanation, the messages begin to inform each other, affecting the truth or meaning of previous messages.

To approach the question of interaction, then, is to take the following steps:

  1. To identify the type of learning involved, and therefore, the degree of reflection and validation required
  2. To identify the type of reflection and validation required, and therefore, the degree of interaction required.

The typical learning scenario will not be unidimensional. That is, it may involve a bit of 'learning that' and a bit of 'learning why'. It may involve some definition of key terms and a bit of argumentative reasoning in order to derive a new statement of fact (a typical math class, for example, is very much like this. Then you get a list of problems to solve, learning by rote the concepts you explored in class).

What does Interaction Accomplish?

Interaction plays a variety of roles, most notably to stimulate learning. An initial definition of learning as "communication with an objective or goal" was rejected and replaced with "the acquisition of new knowledge".

Additionally, interaction can play the following roles:

  1. Getting a learner's attention
  2. Keeping learner's interest
  3. Transferring information
  4. Aiding in retention
  5. Sparking reflection
  6. Evaluation - both formative and summative

Interaction Cycle

An interaction cycle was initially proposed as follows:

  • Sender - this can be: content (content has two components - the content itself, and the expression of content - i.e. html document - in this case it is the latter. Content itself is the message), student-student discussions, student-instructor, or interface (i.e. computer/software)
  • The message (generally content expressed via one of the four senders listed above).
  • Receiver - this is the learner who receives the message (content)
  • Interference/distractors - these are concerns that can obstruct the intended learning. Some are controllable by the sender (e.g. through good design (content), instructor training) others are controllable by the receiver (the state of mind of the learner), and others are not
    controllable (i.e. internet traffic).
  • A process for feedback/validation/correction to ensure that the intended message (learning) has been received and integrated/validated/rejected by the receiver/learner.
  • The manifestation of learning through some type of change/expression by the learner (this validates not only that reflection occurred via interaction, but that the reflection was significant enough to evoke a change in behaviour in the learner). This is often neglected in many learning models...because learning is evaluated via a test/essay, rather than through a more authentic assessment approach - like performance, portfolio, presentation

This cycle was then suggested to be amended as follows:

Interaction Cycle
The agents These are the entities (the people or the computer programs) that are actually doing the communicating
The medium The means by which the communication takes place (e.g., by internet, by telephone, by tapping on a water pipe)
The data The actual message being sent - binary code, analog audio transmission, tapping noises)
The expression The manner in which the data is encoded. It has the following components (in many communications, these are implied):
- structural information - message headers, chapter headings, spaces
- syntactic information - an account of the language being used, e.g. text/html, pdf, gif
- presentation information - e.g., font size (may be empty in some communications)
The content The part of the data that is not part of the expression and is identifiable by having a semantical rather than a syntactical or structural import (that is, we recognize content by the fact that it has meaning)
The information The part of the content that is new to the receiver, that is, the part that (to allude to my previous posts) reduces in the receiver the number of possible states of affairs in the world

This part of the taxonomy is intended to distinguish between those parts of the communication that are not a part of the message and those parts that are. An account of interference is not something which is described as a part or a step of the interaction cycle, but rather, is an additional layer of description applied to all parts of the interaction cycle. We can identify the following types of interference or distractors:

Interference concerns in the Interaction Cycle
The agents Either in the sender (speaking without thinking) or in the listener (not listening, busy elsewhere)
The medium Non-data noise that is a property of the medium itself and not the data being sent (though it often becomes a part of the data received): the hiss of a tape recorder, packet loss, pipe noises caused by the movement of water
The expression May include the effects of encryption, but also includes those meaningless strings of HTML text that MS word imports into HTML documents; it also includes coding errors, grammatical and spelling mistakes, mispronunciations
The content A variety of logical fallacies including vagueness, ambiguity, faulty reasoning, personal attacks, and the like
The information The part of the content that is not information - restating the obvious, for example

As in the case of interference, feedback / verification mechanisms operate at all points in the cycle. Specifically:

Verification of the Interaction Cycle
The agents Introductions or handshakes (in both the technical and non-technical sense), presentation of identification or authentication (PGP, coded 'shave-and-a-haircut' taps)
The medium Test patters, pings, and other sorts of calibration
The expression Syntax checkers, people who complain about grammar and spelling, requests for resend
The content Parity bits, acknowledgement (by restating) that the content received was the content sent
The information Application against known information, response in the form of questions or requests for clarification, assessments of verisimilitude (e.g., a response asserting that the information sent is false)

Evaluation lies outside the interaction cycle. Arguably, evaluation of learning by changes in behavious are useful in learning, but are not essential in interaction. An interaction may occur with no manifest change in the receiver (this is why we need a separate testing or evaluative process).

That said, there are two very different forms of evaluation (as is well known), and they play very different roles:

  • Formative, or corrective - this is the sending of information in direct response to the display provided. It is best thought of as 'back propagation' - a reflection of the original content
    with an evaluative addendum to be integrated into the learner's thinking
  • Summative, or evaluative - this is an assessment for external purposes of the degree of learning attained. It is best thought of as 'forward propagation', and may consist of the evaluative addendum (a grade, for example) alone (that is, not containing any part of the learner's display

The mode of evaluation - test, essay, portfolio - most usefully employed depends on the type of evaluation being performed and the type of learning being assessed. In general (and with exceptions):

  • 'learning that' is usually measured with some sort of test
  • 'learning how' is usually measured with some sort of demonstration
  • 'learning why' is usually measured with some sort of creation

Instructor Concerns

One concern expressed relates to whether active participation of the instructor in discussions online puts a damper on student-to-student discussion. Instructors find that when they pull back, the students don't pick up the slack. When students are asked, one instructor received consistent feedback asking her to be involved and active. In fact, students felt they were more likely to participate in discussions because of the interesting alternative views and ideas raised by the instructor.

One potential approach is to design discussion forums to meet student needs. In addition to the regular content-type discussion questions/forums, one instructor used two types of forums: One similar to what I assume is typical is the student questions/feedback forum, with the option for students to submit their comments and questions anonymously. The second forum is a "student-to-student ONLY" forum.

While these are good provisions for student-to-student interaction, some course participants felt that student-to-instructor interaction is key to the learning process. New on-line instructors are always inclined to respond to EVERY posting (20 students often post up to 100 comments per week), but like any good facilitator, they quickly learn (and are trained) that there's a time to summarize and/or redirect and a time to let the conversation roll. Some instructors, unfortunately take the opposite approach – they only check emails once a week.

The level of instructor-led interaction may be a function of the level of learner. At the associate's degree level, an on-line facilitator must stay engaged in the conversation and participate frequently.

In one example, in order to facilitate student-to-student interaction and to foster a sense of community, all students in a program (400+) are enrolled in one Blackboard community. Discussion forums are set up, access to syllabi and programmatic information, virtual classroom, and other information. Email functions can be used to send out notices about registration, drop-dates, “good luck during finals week” notes, etc. Course evaluations and program evaluations/surveys are also used in the site. Students consistently mentor one another through this site.

In some cases, a transition process needs to be established. Learning online (or exploratory learning in general) is new to many. As a result, the traditional classroom crutches (i.e. teacher reminds students of exam dates, sets all classroom rules, feeds course content etc.) are gone and learners find this disorienting. Basically, learners need to be taught how to learn online. A good resource: Teaching Learners to be Self-Directed

Learners who are used to instructor lecturing, need to be weaned. This may mean an interim stage where the instructor is more active than she/he would like to be. Then, after several weeks of conditioning students in this approach, the instructor can slowly reduce his/her active involvement. It is important to note, however, that when students do not know how to learn online, it is the instructor's problem (not the student's). Instructors can abandon students new to the environment by not providing transitional support.


Another significant challenge is group connectivity. With a well presented course the student and instructor can have a good degree of interaction. However, how can group interaction be encouraged. This is a problem even in classroom classes. How do you encourage everyone to participate?

Learner-learner interactions can be viewed as a four stage continuum:

  • Communication - people 'talking', discussing
  • Collaboration - people sharing ideas and working together (occasionally sharing resources) in a loose environment
  • Cooperation - people doing things together - but each may still have their own purpose
  • Community - people striving for a common purpose

This is very simplistic, but it does help to see learner-learner interactions as existing on a gradient. What level should be expected in an online course? Probably not beyond communication/collaboration. Community doesn't’t happen in many courses (or even programs). In masters program, for example, with high learner-learner contact would probably create a community. It is not realistic in most courses.

Additional Thoughts on Interactivity

  1. There should be many ways to access learning information, serially, as in a course, or directly as in a reference, or through links as in "let me see topics similar to this."
  2. As a student looks at material, s/he should be able to see a summary, then interact some way to get additional material (an alternative explanation, a demonstration, audio, multimedia, whatever).
  3. At some point (after not too much information) a student should be able to test his/her knowledge with some interaction which is immediately scored by the computer. The feedback should be not just "right or wrong" but what is the likely reason an answer was wrong, how others solved the problem, and what specific skills are involved in solving the problem.
  4. The system should track what the student does and what s/he gets right or wrong so it can recommend interventions to the student (and possibly to the instructor).
  5. There should be some way of the student notifying someone if s/he is having particular problems and/or disagrees with some lesson.
  6. The system should track what students in general are doing so the instructor of course developer can act on issues where a substantial number of people seem to be having problems (or are skipping because it is too basic).

One focus of online learning has been to use technology to replicate or leverage student-teacher and student-student interactions. Examples are streaming video, IM, threaded and unthreaded bulleting boards.

A second has been to reduce the time of the teacher on administrative details, hopefully so that he/she can spend more time on student-teacher interactions. These might include SIS systems, or systems like Blackboard or WebCT which allow for papers, assignments, etc. to be posted in one central and accessible system.

A third, and potentially defining focus, will be on improving the student-content interaction. Terry Anderson's article: An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction does not directly define content, he includes assignments that can be completed online, FAQs, virtually any asynchronous material, agents that can assess, prescribe and customize the learning experience.

Teaching that provides this increasingly sophisticated student-content interactions could be highly effective and cost efficient.


Interactivity and Best Practices in Web Based Training
Interactivity: Another Tack On It
Interactivity: Another Tack On It (2)
Interactivity: Another Tack On It (3)

elearnspace: Interactivity

Concepts and ideas expressed in this module derive from Bloom's taxonomy, concepts that are original to the group participants, and "previously stated in other works about which I [we] have no knowledge". The communication model is based on generally accepted constructs such as Model of the Communication Cycle . Four stage continuum for learner-learner interactions is based on content in NAIT's Active Learning in Virtual Environments.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License