Saturday, May 13

The act of interacting: is it interactivity and/or interaction?

Historians of technology assisted learning -- if such people exist -- should by now have noticed that there have always been two alternating and possibly opposed trends. (I say possibly because I believe they can be reconciled, but I can see that the tendency to align with one side or the other in the aim of promoting a simple, saleable solution is as strong in the "learning industry" as it is in politics).

I call these two contrasting (and potentially converging) trends interactivity and interaction. Apparently the general idea of interacting has convinced everyone that that's what technology is all about. That's where we expect our payback for supporting and investing in technology. But what does interacting mean? To answer that question we have to ask another question: "who is interacting with whom or with what"?. Beyond that (i.e. at the heart of everything) are the whys and wherefores, long before the how. The fact that no one seems willing or able to formulate clearly why we learn or why we should learn may explain some of the confusion.

Depending on how you answer the question "interacting with whom or with what?", you are likely to align yourself either with the humanists (salvation will come from dialogue, social learning, facilitated by flexible user-friendly networks) or the technologists (salvation can be found in computing power: expert systems, realistic graphics, animation and simulations). It's possible to embrace both, of course, but the trend is to opt for one or the other. Personally I give priority to the humanist side, considering everything else to be a flipchart, an immensely valuable instrument that can provide specific services in the interest of improving and refining interaction. Giving priority is not choosing one against the other: it is simply taking a first step towards recognizing the importance of why rather than deciding in favor of one with whom or another. And priority should be determined by finality not by personal preference.

Technological innovation in interactivity has driven the marketplace over the past 30 years, laregely on the basis of
1) fascination with technology in the press and general public
2) the visibility and marketability of finished products as compared to the unmarketable nature of processes to be learned, acquired, spread and applied by groups of people.

Can the two worlds converge? The promise of the Web 2.0 seems to indicate yes, as we move away from a product and broadcast based model to one of dynamic networks that includes all forms of innovation. It's similar to moving from a Ptolomaic (mechanically organized) to a Newtonian universe (organized around gravitional cores, to borrow Tim O'Reilly's notion), while waiting for some future Einsteinian revolution (where gravity is still the fundamental force but where we all become relatives in the same family!). Ptolomy's planets and stars are still there to be observed as units, but they are no longer confined to their set spheres. Morevover, in a gravitational universe, we finally recognize their own principle of power and influence (gravitational force) rather than seeing them as simple objects placed in a set position in a stable and totally repetitive machine.

The real hope of interacting -- at least for those who see the finality as dynamic and evolutionary -- is to escape the logic of pure repetition that is so pleasing to both the representatives of the establishment, where the function of instructing is more important than the reality of learning, and to the marketing people who want you to believe that using their product will solve all your problems.

I believe the next couple of years will bring about some serious changes. A lot has already been accomplished, but below the level of most people's radar. Some things are now coming to light that will change our vision of the relationship between interaction and interactivity.

More news on this in July!

No comments: