Instructional Design

Online Learning – Real Interactivity vs. Baby Interactivity

By Zachary Fruhling
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In today’s online educational environment, it is more important than ever to create genuinely interactive online educational experiences, above and beyond the out-of-the-box, cookie-cutter interactivity provided by most educational content development tools and learning management systems such as simple quizzing functionality and flashcards, which I often refer to as “baby interactivity.”

So if most out-of-the-box interactivity in educational content development and instructional design should be considered baby interactivity, what is genuine or real interactivity, and how can it be easily created and integrated into your online courses in your role as an instructional designer? Although there are numerous out-of-the-box-tools for creating interactive online educational experiences, genuinely novel interactivity that is highly targeted often needs to be engineered (i.e., programmed) because it cannot be created with out-of-the-box educational content creation tools.

My own view of online educational interactivity is that should allow students not only to learn about the topic, concept, or process in question, but also to actually do or experience the relevant activities associated with genuine mastery. A few examples:

  • When learning about Ohm’s law in electronics, it is not enough to memorize the equation E = I ✕ R (voltage equals current multiplied by resistance). Students should use the equation to calculate an unknown value from the other two values. It is even better to set up an experiment with a simple electrical circuit in which students can actually feel the heat given off by the resistor as the current increases.
  • When learning about supply and demand in economics, it is not enough to memorize the concepts of supply and demand. Students should be able to draw their own supply and demand curves and graphs, seeing the effects on price by shifting the supply curve or the demand curve from side to side. It is even better to engage students with a simulated economy in which they can buy and sell, seeing the effects on price as the supply or demand is modified.
  • When learning about natural deduction in logic, it is not enough merely to memorize the various natural deduction rules (modus ponens, modus tollens, disjunctive syllogism, and so on). Students should create their own logic proofs using the various natural deduction rules to demonstrate that a particular conclusion follows from a given set of premises, being able to check the correctness their work at every step in the proof.

Notice the pedagogically rich action verbs in each of the above examples: “use,” “calculate,” “feel,” “draw,” “create,” “shift,” “demonstrate,” and so on. These action verbs are much higher on the Bloom’s Taxonomy scale than lower-level verbs such as “memorize,” “understand,” or “remember.” The key insight here is that genuine educational interactivity is most pedagogically useful when it is aimed at higher-order cognitive tasks and skills than lower-level cognitive tasks such as mere memorization or understanding.

This means that the central challenge of educational software development is to recreate, or at least simulate, the relevant educational activities (experiments, tools, experiences, and so on) associated with the higher-order cognitive tasks for the specific topics or concepts in question. This also means that the specific types of user interactions needed to bring about these more immersive and higher-order online educational experiences must be very specific and highly tailored to the relevant activity or activities associated with mastery of a particular topic, concept, or process. In general, this means that the “out of the box” functionality of most educational content development tools or learning management systems is inherently inadequate to create these higher-order, more immersive online learning experiences.

Designing genuinely engaging and higher-order learning experiences need not be a herculean task, but those learning experiences must have topic-specific pedagogical goals in mind. A simple example of this is learning to represent categorical statements (“All S are P,” “No S are P,” “Some S are P,” and “Some S are not P”) with a Venn diagram in a logic or critical thinking course. Although you could simply ask multiple choice questions of the user (i.e., baby interactivity), asking which diagram best represents a particular categorical statement (such as “All S are P”), the real pedagogical goal is for students to learn to create and mark up their own Venn diagrams, an inherently creative and hands-on interactive activity.

Using the following link, you can see an example of this genuinely interactive Venn diagram tool in action, allowing you to mark up a Venn diagram with shading regions and and placing Xs, just as you would do on paper when learning to represent categorical propositions with a Venn diagram:

Click or tap the Venn diagram image for the interactive version.

As you can see, this is a remarkably small and self-contained but still pedagogically useful learning tool, yet one which is highly targeted at bringing to life a specific learning objective and the activity, leading to genuine mastery of Venn diagram construction instead of rote memorization of Venn diagram forms.

Similar interactive online learning experiences could be conceived for a variety of other constructive activities, such as the following interactive number line to teach the concept of subtraction in arithmetic:

Click or tap the number line image for the interactive version.

The power and the promise of 21st-century educational content development is the ability to provide learning experiences that allow students to do, create, manipulate, and otherwise interact with the processes and procedures that promote genuine understanding, above and beyond the lower-level types of (supposed) interactivity provided by most content authoring environments and learning management systems.

As I see it, the challenge and the reward of 21st-century instructional designers are to find these and other new opportunities for genuinely interactive online educational content on a topic-by-topic-by-topic basis, to create microlearning experiences that are highly targeted but an order of magnitude more interactive and pedagogically useful than their lower-level counterparts and less-inspired approaches to educational interactivity. Happily, these microlearning experiences are not difficult or time-consuming to create, once a well-defined idea for an interactive micro-learning experience has been conceived. The interactive Venn diagram tool and the interactive number line tool at the links above took about 4 hours each to program, once the spark of inspiration (thank the muses!) had occurred and once the initial idea had been well-defined.

We instructional designers sometimes think of genuine interactivity as a type of unicorn, a mythical creature that we speak of in the abstract but never take the time to bring into fruition. But this is the magic-like quality of genuinely interactive online educational experiences, they bring the best of the tangible into the virtual without sacrificing any pedagogical rigor or creativity in the process—as long as technology is used for higher-level pedagogical purposes and for the sake of genuine interactivity.

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