Interactive Media in Education: An Interview with Chris Dede
New interactive media are being
embraced both on campus and for distance education, but are we really using
these technologies to our best advantage? What d'es the future hold for
educators who use these media? Syllabus interviewed Chris Dede, Harvard
University's Timothy E. Wirth professor in the Graduate School of Education, to
S: You've said that new interactive media are not necessarily being
used in the best ways possible. There's a lot of amazing new technology out
there, but what do you see as the areas we should be concerned about, in terms
of how it is used?
CD: A lot of people—including
myself—are disturbed by what we see happening in the current educational
"reform" movement. There's a tremendous amount of testing for accountability at
the pre-college level, and there's also an increasing emphasis on this type of
evaluation for learning in college. Mandating superficial coverage of large
amounts of low-level information and procedures creates pressure to use
technology merely to deliver content—a sort of "teaching by telling" and
"learning by listening." But if learning via technology is all presentation, or
even all simulation, then it's not very powerful because this is passive
assimilation rather than active construction of knowledge. And while many people
are claiming that streaming lectures via Web casts and downloading
presentational materials from archives somehow makes learning much better, we
have many reasons to believe that's just not true.
S: Okay, so there's just presenting information and then testing on
it—that's like rote and drill. Is the need for accountability driving
CD: While I think accountability is a very good idea, often
it's expressed in a way that brings out the worst in teaching rather than the
best. Students can do okay on a test as long as we give the test right away
rather than a year later. Presentation as a primary method of teaching has a
number of problems associated with it, in terms of motivation, what students can
comprehend, how long they remember the material, and whether or not they can
transfer and generalize it. And yet, when we look at the uses of technology in
education today, a tremendous number of them are presentational—coating data
with multimedia so that it slips into people's minds more easily, then using
automated testing systems to quickly pull it back out again so that we can
document that "learning" has taken place.
S: I think most people would agree that there are more interesting
applications than that.
CD: What's frustrating about all this is
that the technology is really capable of quite a bit more. And we are facing a
time in which the limits of presentational instruction are highlighted by the
challenges that we have in preparing students for the 21st century. You know, as
a member of the Leave It to Beaver generation, I was brought up in a very
different time. I was prepared for what people thought would be a mature
industrial economy. As a result of that missed forecast, I learned a bunch of
things in school that are obsolete now.
S: For example?
CD: For example, I learned a kind of
decision-making that I never use. I learned that, to solve problems, you study
the situation until you understand it thoroughly, go to your repertoire of
standard problem-solving techniques, pull out the right mixture, and then apply
some kind of a synthesis of those solutions and your problem is solved. Of
course, today you and I face a very different kind of work life. We're
constantly faced with novel situations that nobody has ever seen before. If we
wait until we understand them thoroughly, it's much too late to act, because the
challenge has already "morphed," changed into something else. The pace of the
world is so fast that we don't have the luxury of completely understanding what
we're facing, and we have to act on the basis of incomplete
S: That's true!
CD: It's going to be true
for this whole next generation of students who are facing a 21st century world
driven by information technologies, and increasingly biotechnologies, moving
things forward very rapidly. Another thing I learned in my education was
individual competition. That's certainly still very valuable, but I didn't learn
teamwork and collaboration. And yet group efforts are at the heart of a lot of
the modern workplace, as you know.
S: And what about skills for the information age?
Well, yes, I learned how to find information when I went to school. Of course,
today in 15 seconds on the Web either of us can find 200 things we could
probably use. But we've only got the time and energy to deal with five or six.
So now we've got to filter instead of find—a very different and more complex set
of skills. And, in contrast to the kind of education reform that we're living
through, the point that I want to make is: It isn't just achieving traditional
educational outcomes better, it's giving students a whole different set of
knowledge and skills. We can't say to ourselves, well, if we can just raise
everybody's test scores 100 points, we'll be fine. Because the fact of the
matter is, there is an entire set of higher-order cognitive and affective and
social skills that has never been as important before in human history as now,
and this is central in preparing learners for the 21st century.
S: So I hope you are going to tell me now that new interactive media
do indeed apply here?
CD: We're facing the biggest gap between
yesterday's workplace and tomorrow's that any group of educators have faced
since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution a couple of centuries ago. And yet
the very technologies that are creating this challenge are also providing an
opportunity to meet it. In contrast to simply automating presentation, there's a
lot that interactive learning technologies can do to address more powerful forms
of pedagogy—based on learning by doing, collaborative learning, and mentoring
via apprenticeships. All these instructional approaches let students act rather
than listen, do things inside the technology world that are impossible in the
real world, and link to outside resources and communities of practice. So yes,
new interactive media give us a kind of opportunity that educational
technologies have not had until now—a chance to change our pedagogy in ways that
really open up powerful content to students.
S: What is it about new interactive media that will give us this
chance—what is the characteristic of these media that is most
CD: What is a medium? Partly, it's a channel, and that's
what everyone is excited about. That's what all the hype is about. People are
tremendously excited about the fact that we can reach almost anybody, anyplace,
anytime. But what we miss about media is that they are also representational
containers—that is, they shape not only whom we can reach, but what we can say.
A simple example is that we say a picture is worth a thousand words. What that
means is that some kinds of representations are better at conveying a particular
type of meaning than other kinds of representations. I can try to describe my
office to you and spend 15 or 20 minutes painting a verbal picture. Or I can
show you an image and, in about three seconds, you'll have a sense of what my
office looks like—much better than the verbal pictures could convey.
S: Will we be communicating new types of information that can only be
expressed with the new media—so in a sense our conversation would be limited or
nonexistent in certain areas if we didn't have these media?
Representations shape what we can think and what we can do. In his novel 1984,
George Orwell wrote about a ruling class that was simplifying the language by
removing words like freedom. Because, if you don't have a way to articulate a
concept to yourself or express it to others, it becomes much harder to find a
way to act on it. What the new media are doing is the opposite of what happened
in 1984. By adding new kinds of representations, they are unobtrusively widening
the range of messages and meanings that we communicate with our students.
S: And what about the role of the Internet and the new types of
interactions going on there?
CD: Well, even the metaphor of the
channel is falling apart because the channels are so big now that we ourselves
are inside them. There's a place called cyberspace where many of us spend a
little time, and some of our students spend a great deal of their time, in
contrast to real-world settings. Understanding what those virtual settings are
like and what they're good for is extremely important. Isaac Asimov once said
that the important thing to forecast is not the television, but the soap opera.
In the same way, the important thing to forecast is not the channels, it's not
the boxes and wires and switches, but instead it's the way that we can now sense
and act and learn almost magically across distance and time, and what that means
for our human capabilities in terms of teaching and learning.
S: What kinds of interactive technologies will have the most impact
in the future?
CD: There are three kinds of interfaces for
distributed interaction that are going to become increasingly important over the
next 10 years or so. Those three kinds of interfaces complement one another in
terms of moving to the sophisticated pedagogies for 21st century skills. The
first is the notion of bringing "the world to the desktop." Broadband and
collaboration technologies are becoming much more powerful, enabling increased
interaction with distant experts and archives.
Associated capabilities are
speech recognition, telepresence, and teleoperation technologies. In contrast,
the second interface is ubiquitous computing via wearable wireless devices. The
metaphor is not sitting somewhere and having the technology bring things to you,
but instead being able to wander through the world doing whatever things you do
in the real world, with the virtual world superimposed through "smart objects"
and "intelligent contexts." And the third interface is the user being inside a
virtual context, such as shared graphical environments like those in the
multi-user Internet games Everquest or Asheron's Call. There's a tremendous
number of things that might happen at the college level that could be very
intriguing for students, as we start to understand the kinds of design issues
that emerge when you're creating these learning environments based on these
three complementary types of interfaces.
S: Expanding on that idea of ubiquitous computing—of course, that's
tied in with miniaturization and distributed personal computing—d'es this have a
particular significance for learning, beyond educational
CD: Having information technology
distributed throughout the real world allows something that in cognitive science
is known as distributed cognition. What that means is that an object has a
certain kind of intelligence or the context has a certain kind of knowledge and
you can do your tasks more easily because the objects and the context understand
what you want to do and they can handle a lot of the low-level parts of it.
Embedded smart tags and wearable devices fall into this category. Most people
don't know how many microprocessors they own.
These things are literally
disappearing into the woodwork. In a future time of ubiquitous computing, smart
objects that may exist for very different reasons than learning offer some very
interesting opportunities in terms of learning. The overall claim that I want to
make is that information technologies are becoming more complex in sophisticated
ways, and over the next 10 years we're increasingly going to see all three of
the interfaces I referred to c'existing in the new interactive media. The
ubiquitous computing and the multi-user virtual environments both are interfaces
that lend themselves much more strongly toward interactive inquiry pedagogies
than the presentational pedagogies.
S: What is the potential for automating data collection about
learners as they wander through and interact with their real or virtual worlds,
and putting that data to use either for remediation or to present them with more
assistance in line with their learning styles and habits?
CD: A very
rich stream of information can be automatically collected about learning
patterns just by archiving—forming sort of a cognitive audit trail of what's
going on. And as we develop our sophistication about how to interpret those and
what that means in terms of learning styles, it opens up a lot of profound
possibilities for individualization.
S: There are going to be lots of possibilities and choices in terms
of interactive media that faculty can select for any given pedagogical goal or
instructional setting. What do you think about the selection process, in terms
of pedagogy and also relative to face-to-face
CD: I have learned that teaching with
multiple interactive media is more powerful than teaching with any single
medium, including only face-to-face—I'm now referring to face-to-face as a
medium, which it is. So I'm claiming that, even if you could teach face-to-face
all the time, students' learning would be deeper and their engagement higher if
some of the time the group deliberately didn't meet face-to-face and instead
learned across distance. This claim underlies the whole concept of distributed
S: So then would you recommend mixing lots of different media, in an
effort to cater to different learning styles?
CD: Some of my
students who are relatively silent and passive face-to-face come alive in
mediated interaction. Some "find their voice" in asynchronous threaded
discussions. Some of them are very active in shared virtual environments. Some
of them lead the class in interaction when we move into groupware. Some feel
more authentic in mediated interaction than they do in face-to-face interaction,
because their physical appearance d'es not express their inner personality. So
what that says is to use multiple media so that you can reach almost
S: With the adoption of interactive media, people talk about the
"sage on the stage" becoming the 'guide on the side.' What do you think about
CD: As a teacher, I don't attempt to play the sage on the
stage anymore. Peer learning, when students mentor each other, sharing ideas and
collaborating together, is hard to foster when the instructor is always right in
the middle of things, and in a physical setting you are always in that role.
Even when you try to step off the stage, you're there. But in a virtual setting
it's easier for the instructor to "fade," and over the course of the semester
it's interesting to watch how the balance of interaction shifts from queries
directed to me, to hypotheses directed among the students to each other, with me
being brought in as a guide, or a facilitator, or an expert, or a mentor when
I'm needed. That is very powerful in terms of learning.
S: How far away are we from taking real advantage of multiple
media—from putting new interactive media to the best possible
CD: One of the things I've been heard to say is that, within
my lifetime, people who don't teach with multiple interactive media will be
guilty of professional malpractice. Now I'm obviously expecting to live a long
time, but I think a major shift in pedagogy could take place sooner rather than
later if we take advantage of the new kinds of media that are emerging, if we
start to really understand these three complementary interfaces and what they
mean in terms of learning styles and individualization and equity. If we really
think about learning as an affective, cognitive, and social experience that is
shaped by media, including the medium of face-to-face, there are some
tremendously exciting things that can happen right away to open up a bright new