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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Interactive Learning: It's Pushing the Right Buttons

Software and multimedia shouldn't be judged by how many buttons students can push, but by whether or not they spark thoughtfulness and conversation in the classroom.

The history of classroom technology is both fascinating and a little depressing. Drop into your school media room or library and, if it's like mine was when I taught, you'll find a treasure of underused equipment. Projectors of all sorts—slide, overhead, opaque, filmstrip, movie (both auto and manual feed). Tape recorders—reel-to-reel and cassette. And aren't the old multimedia machines impressive, the ones that combined a filmstrip projector with a cassette player. You might even find some televisions, radios, and computers—Apple IIs, Commodore 64s, PC juniors—lying around.
Each technology has its own story, but most were pushed onto schools amid hype and high expectations. And this pattern is not unique to the 20th century. In the late 19th century, educators were urged to obtain “the magic lantern,” a rough precursor of the slide projector that used a flame to display big pictures on a blank wall. “The age of illustration is upon us,” promoters warned, “and illustrate we must if we hope to gain and hold the attention of young and old” (Monsell 1893, Dockterman 1988). Then the film projector came along, bringing to classrooms not only big pictures, but also big pictures that moved and, eventually, had sound. Thomas Edison himself predicted this of motion pictures: [They will make schools] so attractive that a big army with swords and guns couldn't keep boys and girls out of it. You'll have to lick 'em to keep 'em away (Inglis 1911, Dockterman 1991).

Interactive: Who Can Argue?

Now, the computer and multimedia claim to have the final fix: interactivity. All those past technologies were passive; computer-based technology is interactive. As someone who makes a living in educational technology at Tom Snyder Productions, I have a front-row seat.
As with all new technologies, companies like mine have established model programs to show off the innovation. Academic studies have validated the technology by demonstrating student enthusiasm. Technology coordinators have been enlisted (even as they were for the magic lantern).
With past innovations, however, the bubble burst: the revolution failed to happen. Filmstrips weren't the ticket. And neither were broadcast technologies—radio and television—which promised moving pictures plus immediacy: the real world could be cast into the classroom as it happened. And whenever a technology failed to revolutionize the classroom, it was the intransigence of educators that was to blame.
Will the computer suffer the same fate? Maybe, especially if we don't get our expectations right. Interactive. It's a great term and a great goal—who can argue with making learning interactive? But what does it mean? I remember teachers asking me whether a videodisc package I helped design was interactive. I wasn't sure how to answer.

How Interactive Is It?

If interactivity is something we want in the classroom—and I think it is—then we need some scale to tell us when we've got a good amount. So let's make one.

Experience Scale

In this blank interactivity scale, fill in the least interactive experience you've ever had, followed by your most interactive experience. These experiences needn't have anything to do with technology.
If you're like most folks, your least interactive experience would be sleep, or, more specifically, solitary, dreamless sleep. Your most interactive experience might be an intense conversation or debate. (For my part, dating, with all its subtle verbal and non-verbal cues, is the most interactive experience.)
This scale can be applied fairly easily to classroom learning. We'd certainly like to stimulate rich conversation and debate rather than lull students to sleep. (Dating is less desirable here.) Now, where would educational media fall along this spectrum? Is remote-controlled TV more interactive than a book? Does a computer fall to the right or left of a VCR? How about the chalkboard or the overhead projector?
To measure the interactivity of a particular technology, we obviously need a different kind of scale. What's the least interactive technology you've ever used in the classroom? What's the most? Are your VCR or videodisc movies more interactive than your old projector movies? Are the books students read always less interactive than the computer programs they use? Of course not. What's so special about technology anyway? A computer may be more interactive than a television in that you have more control over its use, but both may provoke either dreamless sleep or dynamic discussion.
The point is this: As each new marvel of technology comes knocking on your classroom door, look beyond the glitz and glitter. It's not how many buttons students can push, but whether we can use the technology to spark thoughtfulness and interaction. Does it get students to talk to one another? Does it generate a conversation within each student's own head?

Putting Fizz in Math

By way of example, consider products on three different platforms. The Wonderful Problems of Fizz & Martina, produced by Tom Snyder Productions, is a videotape math series for upper elementary classes. The object of this VCR technology is to get students talking math with one another in ways that rarely happen in the classroom. In a compelling story, the title characters encounter situations that require mathematical solutions. As each problem arises, the teacher stops the videotape. The students then work cooperatively in teams to help the characters along by answering several questions. The teacher selects one person from a team to answer a question. If that student is correct, the whole team wins; if wrong, the whole team loses. Consequently, the team has a stake in every member's understanding. It's a highly interactive experience.
Another math series, The Adventures of Jasper Woodbury (published by Optical Data), presents a fairly complex problem on videodisc in the context of a rich story. The story quickly engages students in a robust discussion. In attempting to solve the problem, students can access different parts of the story on the videodisc, but the technology is still mainly linear—that is, it presents a story. The experience, though, is highly interactive.

Brave New World

Finally, let's look at an interactive software package, Geography Search (also from Tom Snyder Productions). This computer game invites students to set sail for the New World, just like the early explorers. Working in teams of four, each student takes on a different role as a member of the ship's crew. At one point during each lesson, the computer displays information about the stars, the sun, wind direction, ocean depth, and so on—all the data the students need to determine where they are and what they must do next.
The catch is this: The screen of information appears for only about 10 seconds. Obviously, no one student can remember it all, so they have to work together. Inevitably, as soon as the screen disappears, the level of interaction skyrockets. But the students are not pushing buttons, they're talking to one another. And that's where the magic lies. Interactive technology is neat, but ultimately, it's interactive classrooms that bring the real breakthroughs in learning.

Dockterman, D. (1991). Great Teaching in the One-Computer Classroom. Watertown, Mass.: Tom Snyder Productions.

Dockterman, D. (1988). “Tools for Teachers: An Historical Analysis of Classroom Technology.” Doctoral thesis, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Inglis, W. (1911). “Edison and the New Education.” Harper's Weekly.

Monsell, W.F.C. (May 1893). “The Lantern in the School.” Education 13.

David Dockterman is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of the Leadership Team for Reach Every Reader. David has over 35 years of experience translating research into scalable practice in the educational technology industry.

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