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The Inter of Interactivity

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A child touches a touchscreen monitor
The Inter of Interactivity

In my playground of educational technology, when I speak of interactivity, I typically mean those activities that require the learner to actively engage with the content somehow. This might include something as complex as a virtual reality game, or something as simple as a "check yourself" quiz question after a reading or video. Anything that requires the student to take an action after encountering content qualifies when measuring interactivity.

That is, it qualifies if we're measuring interactivity in terms of digital engagement.

But this week, my understanding of the concept of interactivity was challenged. The inter portion of the word interactive can refer to the engagement between the student and the content as I typically intend. But leaving it at that misses another intention. Inter relates to an exchange or communication between people (Oxford Learner's Dictionary, n.d.). It's the same root of words like interact, interplay, and interview.

The reason this was a meaningful discovery for me is because it helped me connect two parts of the same goal. I almost exclusively work with asynchronously delivered content. I operate with the starting assumption that the student is encountering my lesson in isolation. I don't think of these activities in terms of communication, but rather as moments devoid of communication.

A student sits alone in a room with a laptop
Who's talking when we're learning alone?

I think I've been missing something important in these activities. The process of communication mirrors the process of learning when I think about it. When I create a digital learning game or other interactive module, I'm attempting to prompt the student to do four primary tasks:

  1. Take in new information;

  2. Distinguish cues to reinforce new concepts;

  3. Incorporate and build upon existing knowledge; and

  4. Confirm some degree of mastery of the new material.

I don't think of these as the same tasks that occur when we communicate with one another. But I probably should. Communicating about a new topic first requires us to encounter something we don't yet know. Someone shows or tells us something we don't know and, passively, we take in new information. If we stop there, for most of us, very little learning occurs. For learning to actually occur for the majority of us, we must engage in some way with the new information.

We must think about it, relate it to something we know, or ask for more information. This process triggers some kind of internal categorization of the new material. Typically, this connects the new information to something in our existing knowledge. For example, if we have only ever seen cats and then someone tells us about a dog and shows us a picture, we might instantly note the similarities of all the common traits with a cat, such as four legs, a tail, covered in hair or fur, etc. So, from then on, when we think of a dog, it's connected to our understanding of a cat.

A kitten and puppy beside each other
More of the same with a new name?

We also usually need to identify the differences, or the things that help us correctly classify this new information. In our conversations, we might explore how this new information conflicts with our existing knowledge, or how our current knowledge isn't sufficient to sort this into our current reality. We may need to extend current examples and metaphors to incorporate the new knowledge. And we typically end with some form of mutual acceptance of a new reality of shared knowledge.

When I think about interactive lessons, even in an asynchronous environment, I should take advantage of this natural flow of engagement by incorporating more opportunities for communication. Discussions are a common tool used in asynchronous courses to do this. But now with AI, I could incorporate a very human-like bot as a conversation partner that could enhance many activities.

This all makes me think about our overall goals for education. For me, I have a spiritual purpose that drives me to help others learn more, because I believe we each need the skills to comprehend this world in order to discover and then live out our God-designed calling. But even if I only consider the purpose of education from a secular worldview, we are creatures that naturally form communities to share our talents and skills. Education helps us learn how to engage with one another productively. And we do that by communicating and affecting one another. That is the definition of interactivity (Oxford Learner's Dictionary, n.d.). The more our lessons mirror their purpose and give our students opportunities to practice these skills, the more authentic and meaningful they will be.


Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. (n.d.). Interaction. Retrieved November 19, 2023, from


All images contained within this post are courtesy of Media from Wix.

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1 Comment

Nov 20, 2023

As always I enjoyed listening to this and brought back many memories of things I learned in undergrad when I majored in communication. Of course then A I was something not available. I am constantly amazed at people in so many situations who aren’t communicating. They appear to be listening and surely believe they are but what the person speaking and what the person listening are receiving are most often very different things. I know my one question in groups is often how do you define that information and it lets the speaker know or at least gives them the opportunity to see how they are being received.

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