Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Interactivity and Best Practices in Web Based Training

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 27, 1998

In this series:

- Interactivity and Best Practices in Web Based Training
- Interactivity: Another Tack On It (Part 1)
- Interactivity: Another Tack On It (Part 2)
- Interactivity: Another Tack On It (Part 3)
- Interactivity: Another Tack On It (Part 4)

Posted to WWWDEV on 28 Jan 1998

Jennifer Hoffman asks, I am finding that everyone has a different definition of "Interactivity". Some consider an HTML page with click throughs interactive, while others feel interaction with people or some kind of artificial intelligence is required before something is considered to be interactive. My question is: What is YOUR definition of interactive in relation to CBT or WBT?

I think that we need to be careful when tempted to convert an ordinary word such as "interactivity" into a technical term. This happens a lot in academic circles, and tends to produce a discussion which generates much heat but little light.

"Interactivity" is, in common usage, the capacity of a system to enable interaction between two or more entities. I deliberately use vague terms such as "system" and "entity", because ordinary usage is not more precise.

It is because our common understanding of the term is so vague that it is used by those promoting various products to state that their product is "interactive". Approaching such a dialogue, we should ask "How is such-and-such a product interactive" instead of asking "What definition of 'interactive' are they using" (following this approach would in general produce much light, and much less heat, than today persists in academic circles).

When we ask, "How is such-and-such a product interactive", we are asking for specification of two major elements, with a focus on the second:

  1. To what sort of system are we referring? and
  2. What (and how many) entities interact by means of such a system?

Any system which is based in a computer is a computer-based system (a truism about which I will *not* boast to my grandchildren). That said, computers are by no means the only sort of system which may generate interaction. "Interactive television" is a system whereby the interaction is generated via video and audio signals. "Interactive Media" is a system whereby the system is one which falls under the classification of "Media" (another usefully vague term).

In this discussion, we are taking almost exclusively about computer-based systems. Thus, we are taking about computer-based interactivity. All forms of interactivity in which the mediating agent is (or is based in) a computer would fall under this rubric.

Where the debate turns is on the question of what sort of interaction is being mediated. The sort of interaction is dependent on the nature of the entities which interact. Obvious candidates surface:

human-to-human computer-based interactivity
human-to-computer computer-based interactivity
computer-to-computer-based interactivity

Examples of each sort abound:

Human-to-human computer-based interactivity:

- normal email, mailing lists such as this, discussion lists, news groups, ICQ and other paging programs, web- and other internet based chat forums

Human-to-computer computer-based interactivity

- email auto-repliers, javascript quizzes, auto-marked tests, web sites, video games

Computer-to-computer computer-based interactivity

- web spiders and crawlers, DNS servers, Time servers

If further distinction between types of interactivity are needed, we can further subdivide among other sets of classification:

  1. Time: asynchronous vs synchronous interactivity, and
  2. Number: one-to-many, one-to-one, many-to-many
  3. Location: proximate, distant

I am alsolooking for information on best practices using the following tools in WBT. When is the best time to use them? Do your students need training? etc..

In general, the approach I prefer to follow is to identify different types of interactivity required, and then select one tool for each type of interactivity. In an on-line learning environment, it is likely that many sorts of interactivity would be required, just as is the case in a regular classroom.

Consider the sorts of interactivity which occur in a classroom:

One-to-many human-to-human human-based interactivity

- teacher lectures, student presentations

One-to-one human-to-human human-based interactivity

- personal help, interviews

Many-to-many human-to-human human-based interactivity

- class discussions, the generall melee which precedes and follows classes (hey, this is a valuable part of the learning experience: some of my deepest lessons were learned in the general chatter before and after class)

One-to-one human-to-human sport-based interactivity

- (by 'sport' I will include games) - tennis matches, chess matches (again, for me, a very formative learning activity)

One-to-many video-to-human movie-based interactivity

- videos, movies, etc, in which the student is expected to respond or react in some way (to be contrasted to recreational television, in which no response is required)

And so on... you get the idea.

To determine which tools are best used in which context, it is useful to enumerate the forms of interactivity which would be employed in a traditional classroom setting in which a given subject is taught. Then, considering the limitations of the traditional classroom and the potential of current technologies, examine ways in which traditional forms of interactivity could enhance existing forms of interactivity toward the promotion of learning objectives.

* Email
is one-to-one human-to-human computer-based interactivity, asynchronous (except mailing lists, which are one-to-many, or even many-to-many)

* Bulletin Boards
are many-to-many human-to-human computer-based interactivity, asynchronous

* Chat Rooms
are many-to-many (though, on occassion, one-to-one or even one-to-many) human-to-human computer-based interactivity, synchronous

* Web Pages
are one-to-many human-to-computer computer-based interactivity

* Graphics
are one-to-many human-to-computer (though, of course, graphics may be presented in many other media) computer-based interactivity

Regarding the best use of any of these practise: my recommendation is that the type of interaction, rather than the technology supporting it, be considered. We have experience with all of these types in other media. So we have an experiential basis from which to draw.

Consider, for example, chat rooms.

Chat rooms are, as I said, many-to-many human-to-human computer-based interactivity, synchronous. Looking at the different aspects of chat rooms, therefore, we get:

- many-to-many
- human-to-human
- computer-based
- synchronous

Each aspect of this form of interactivity poses its own set of opportunities and limitations. A logical procedure would be to enumerate the opportunities and limitations, and then examine them as a group to identify conflicts or synergies. For example:


- provides various points of view
- no single dominating force
- can be used to identify trends


- reactions may be unpredictable
- reactions based on human experience
- participants have the capacity to learn through interaction (Contrast this to (almost all) computers, which do not learn through interaction)


- may be conducted in either proximate or distance mode, or both at once
- permits multi-tasking (ie., allows threading of other forms of interactivity - an example of this is chat touring)
- phsyical contact is not possible (can be either an advantage of disadvantage, depending on your purpose)
- may mask identities


- disallows multi-tasking (ie., because it occurs in real time, only one discrete event can occur at any given time)
- requires coordination

Having obtained these properties, then match these with forms of interactivity desired by educational outcome (as discussed above, obtained by examining traditional classroom interactions). We would find through such an examination information like:

  • chat rooms are good for free-wheeling class discussions
  • chat rooms are not good for lectures
  • chat rooms can be used with other media
  • chat rooms should not be used for exams (I guess that one is a bit obvious) etc.

> Thanks in advance for your feedback.....

You now have a dissertation topic and structure. I expect credit. *grin*

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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