Interactive Technology

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Interactive is a new buzzword, but its sense is ancient, a lot more ancient than that of the telephone or telegraph. The interesting scientific question now is: How long have people been using words and sentences to communicate with each other? Humans are not passive animals; they are very communicative.

The only 100 percent interactive (audio) technology remains today as it was at its beginning in 1875: the telephoneif interactive means truly equal two-way or multiple-way communication. Telegraphy, however, offers even more parallels with today's world than the telephone. It prefigured a major nonaudio trend in our current inter-activity: computer nets which range from those used in local libraries and college classrooms to the worldwide Internet. All these, like the telegraph, use digital coding, not analog words.

The interactivity of e-mail and electronic bulletin boards has contributed greatly to the popularity of the Internet. Mail or telephone communications are fine for a one-on-one discussion, but they are pretty expensive if one is trying to communicate with a group. It costs nearly a dollar to print and mail a letter and, on average, that much for a long-distance phone call. To make such a call, one has to know the number and to have coordinated a time to talk. So it takes considerable time and effort to contact even a modest-size group. On an electronic bulletin board, all one has to do is type a message once and it is available to all readers.


One way to understand the benefits brought about by interactive technology is to compare linear and nonlinear multimedia. An example of linear multimedia is the typical presentation that combines video and sound, but without choices. You watch it from beginning to end. Users are reacting to, not reacting with, what they see.

Nonlinear, interactive multimedia combine the same technologies as linear ones, but with a twist. The viewer is hands-on, controlling what is viewed. Nonlinear multi-media are more complex to produce, because cogent vignettes must be worked through and likely viewer choices must be logically mapped out before the presentation. Distribution is also then limited to technology that can be dynamic in the presentation. For this category, one must pay greater attention to the interface methodology used that will let the viewer control the experience.


The uses of interactive technology are varied. They are utilized in such varied circumstances as education, training, marketing, and information gathering.

Education and Training

Computers with social interfaces present information in such a way that it is customized for the particular user. Different learning rates are accommodated, because computers are able to pay individual attention to independent learners. Regardless of ability or disability, each user will be able to work at an individual pace.

The interactive network allows learners to quiz themselves anytime in a risk-free environment. A self-administered quiz is a form of self-exploration. A mistake will not call forth a reprimand; it will trigger the system to

help the student overcome a particular misunderstanding. As a result, students should be less apprehensive about formal tests, and such tests should contain fewer surprises, because ongoing self-quizzing gives a better sense of where we stand.

Interactivity is the key to successful online learning. Yet a survey of online instructional materials reveals a surprising deficiency in educational interactive programs, for three reasons: (1) cyber-courses are largely a combination of conventional classroom and textbook material, neither of which are conducive to interactivity; (2) instructors tend to think of interactivity primarily as a means of assessment, instead of learning; (3) the concept itself is extended to cover everything from navigational buttons to chatrooms to online games.


Interactive technology has two distinct advantages over traditional means of gathering consumer data. First, it allows the information to be gathered in real time, and therefore the response to the customer can be more timely than with traditional media. The more one orders from, for example, the more information about that consumer's reading tastes is acquired. This information is used immediately to update that buyer's "Recommended Reading List." This is critical; many sales are lost due to the lag time between the request for information and its provision.

Second, the information gathered is more specific, since the branching of questions can be as detailed as the marketer wishes. For example, if an initial set of questions asks the viewer to input his or her age and number of children, the next set of questions derives from the answer to the first, and so on. When this information is used to enhance a marketing database, marketers are able to respond to the individual needs of viewers, taking one-toone marketing to its limits.

Gathering information

Interactive documents add value to traditional methods. Surveys that attempt to gauge satisfaction with expectations of, and responses to, new products can be more effective when done with interactive multimedia. In the previous example, would have more reliable information about a consumer's selections than it would have from any paper survey it might ask the public to complete. These surveys may gather more information by being more interesting than the paper alternatives. Once you get used to this sort of system, you find that being able to look at information in different ways makes the information more valuable. The flexibility invites exploration, and the exploration is rewarded with discovery.


Using Marshall McLuhan's classic distinction between "hot" and "cool" media can make both the prospects and problems of interactivity clearer. In Understanding the Media, McLuhan (1964) explained that "a hot medium is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.' High definition is the state of being well-filled with data" (p. 22). A cool medium, by contrast, is one in which "little is given and so much has to be filled in" (p. 23). McLuhan was primarily interested in the media themselves, and had little to say about that process of "filling in"what today is called interactivity.

Learning is "cool" as a measure of the individual's involvement in the medium. One can easily recognize the difference between "hot" mindlessness of channel surfing and the "cool" absorption and involvement of learning. The challenge, then, is not only to produce a "cool" digital medium in which learning can take place, but to do so despite use of a screen that may remind us of television and the uninvolved behavior patterns it induces. The key to success in this challenge is interactivitythe activity of "filling in" the knowledge presented in the medium. Strategies for interactivity can be divided into three parts: passive, hyperlinked, and interpersonal.


Synchronous learning involves the simultaneous interaction of instructor and student. The traditional classroom is the traditional example of synchronous interaction where the instructor and students are in the same place at the same time. Distance learning, where the instructor and students are at different locations at the same time, frequently involves audio/visual connections and "chat rooms." Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, involves the interaction of instructor and student at different times.

"Passive interactivity" need not be a contradiction in terms, because one of the problems with digital instruction is the loss of contextboth physical and psychologicalthat a classroom setting provides. To compensate for this, online training needs to create a visual "focus" for the lesson at handa referential map of where the student has been, and where he or she is headed, to provide a context for where he or she is now. Such a context allows a student to relate the subject matter of an individual lesson to the larger scope of the course. Passive interactive page designs are thus "interactive" because the visual mapping succeeds in making the student actively aware of its importance by providing a broader context for the current lesson.


The key to asynchronous learning is "hyperlinked interactivity," a feature of HTML, which makes possible the creation of multiple-choice questions, expert systems, and other such branching-informational models. Branching models approximate the way people actually work through problems. Individuals take different paths, ask different questions, and need different information. While books can utilize limited branching schemes in a clumsy way, only computers have complex and speedy branching capabilities. Complete interaction, combined with accessibility at our convenience, exact repeatability, and uniform quality gives asynchronous online learning the potential, in suitable situations, of not merely replacing the traditional learning experience, but surpassing it.


Even asynchronous projects benefit from the variety of communication options now available on the Internet, including e-mail, listservs, and electronic bulletin boards. Such communication, which can be roughly grouped under the heading of "interpersonal interactivity," helps to reproduce online some of the advantages of collaborative peer learning. When utilized effectively, such communication can give people more direct and more convenient access to others and can make individual contributions more formal, thoughtful, and precise.


All learning is a function of interaction. In taking training onto the Internet, instructors have an opportunity to script levels of interactivity in ways previously unavailable. To do so, however, requires rethinking online activitiesnot merely as means of assessment, but as the primary way to involve us and make learning "cool."

see also Artificial Intelligence; Information Processing


Gates, William H., III. (1999). Business @ the Speed of Thought. New York: Warner Books.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding the Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shapiro, Carl, and Varian, Hal. (1998). Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy. Campbridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Varian, Hal R., Farrell, Joseph & Shapiro, Carl (2004). The economics of information technology: an introduction. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Philip D. Taylor