Most of what we learn about are processes and systems. Whether it’s social science or sound engineering; law, ludology or library science; in the end it usually comes down to the way that a thing progresses (a process) or the way many things interact with each other (a system). This is why I’m a huge fan of the idea of explorable explanations: Creating a guided tour through a simulation of the process or system, and both showing the student how the system works (and doesn’t work!) while encouraging them to playfully break the simulation themselves.

Coining the term in his 2011 essay, Explorable Explanations, Bret Victor laid out the argument for Explorable Explanations better than I could do:

Do our reading environments encourage active reading? Or do they utterly oppose it? A typical reading tool, such as a book or website, displays the author’s argument, and nothing else. The reader’s line of thought remains internal and invisible, vague and speculative. We form questions, but can’t answer them. We consider alternatives, but can’t explore them. We question assumptions, but can’t verify them. And so, in the end, we blindly trust, or blindly don’t, and we miss the deep understanding that comes from dialogue and exploration.

A side note: It’s worth reading his essay in full. He foresaw a lot of problems with the idea of explorable explanations as well as the benefits, spotting their potential for opacity and simplification.

He saw the idea of using interactive documents, or entire simulations, as a way to break this passive delivery. (Breaking passive deliveries, you may recognise, as being a huge part of learning.futures!) But he also understood the challenges these approaches would demand, calling for simple tools that would allow building these explanations for anyone. But it’s been seven years. Have the tools arrived?

At least to some degree, yes! We’ve already done blog posts for two terrific tools by Nicky Case, Loopy and Simulating the World in Emoji. But let’s look at a few other ones which are available.

More tools and resources

Tangled, created by Bret Victor, is a simple tool for creating what he called reactive documents. With very little scripting knowledge, Tangled allows you to create essays with interactive variables. Want to teach how various physical reactions work with different starting conditions? Write your description just as if it were a textbook, but then let students mess about with the variables in the equations and see what happens. You can even change the text to point out the consequences of such meddling!

A new tool, Observable, allows for similar documents to be produced with better visualisation and interactivity, albeit at the cost of requiring more coding knowledge. However, the possibilities are tremendous, as this introduction to sound theory demonstrates.

Graphical approaches aren’t left out either. Idyll is another reactive document system that allows for robust graphical interactivity and has a sandbox mode you can use to practice in that will run right out of your browser.

Now, so far, none of these yet work with our Blackboard or Canvas implementations. (Definitely a drawback!) But they do show the potential for this style of learning going forward.

New learning experiences

And as your coding knowledge goes up, the potential for truly amazing learning experiences also increases: Check out the amazing Parable of the Polygons by Nicky Case and Vi Hart, or a terrific economics teaching aid at EconGraphs. These sites are hand-built, requiring more knowledge than the simple tools we have shown above can offer. But they also demonstrate the power of explorables, and the value of them.

We’ve always known that we learn more and better by doing rather than listening or reading. Explorable Explanations ask why we have to choose between those options, and offer both in a single experience.

Sean and UTS Library¬†are at the Casual Academics Conference this Wednesday, so if you’re a casual academic come over and say hi! Sean will be showing off Loopy & Simulating the World in Emoji as well as a range of video resources in his display Awesome Resources to Flip Your Class!

This post is adapted from a presentation for the LX.lab Technology Showcase, part of the 2018 Casual Academics Conference. Check out more resources from the Technology Showcase here.

Feature image by Alexander Andrews.


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