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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 find out.

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 this?
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.
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?
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 information.
S: That's true!
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?
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 important?
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?
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?
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 administration?
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?
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 instruction?
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 learning.

S: So then would you recommend mixing lots of different media, in an effort to cater to different learning styles?
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 everybody.

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 that?
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 uses?
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 future.

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