In the most recent UTS Student Digital Experience survey (which collected responses from over 900 students) one of the things that students highlight most predominantly is the desire for ‘interactivity’ as part of their digital learning.

While we could move forward and action quizzes and other elements into course design in response to this, perhaps we should take a moment to consider what students mean when they say ‘interactivity’ and why they see it as a desirable outcome. This may be wise as recent research around feedback has shown that there are significant differences between what students think feedback means and what teaching staff consider it to be.

By considering the range of qualitative answers from the survey that deal with ‘interactivity’, it’s apparent that it means a range of different things to learners. In many cases, the term is used as a marker for how they want to feel as part of their learning experiences, rather than denoting a specific actionable outcome. The following provides a range of viewpoints on the student meanings behind ‘interactivity’ and some suggestions for associated changes in teaching practice.

Active learning

Because I have experienced active learning in other classes/situations and I have felt how that makes it easier to learn concepts, I would like to have this more frequently. 

The first interpretation here is the one that you would generally expect – students are asking for more active learning because they find it more useful for learning the topics at hand. They would prefer their learning to exist in more than a simple transmission/consumption mode because they know that active learning is more sticky from prior experience. 

Potential responses

Provide motivation

I want a reason to care, to be interested in the topic. Can you give me one?

As learning can be difficult, learners appreciate any work done to make it easier to engage with and find interest in the content at hand. This might also be a signifier that learners can’t see the connection to their wider values and goals. Helping to map and visualise the connection between the content and their goals may assist here. 

Potential responses

  • Understand student goals – check in and take the time to help them create linkages; a structure of achievable goals will add value and interest to the materials at hand
  • Consider how you frame the ‘less interesting’ parts of domain knowledge – for example, talking about gaining these skills as ‘a bit tedious but a rite of passage for becoming a member of a discipline’ creates a clearer understanding of how they need to approach this and will hopefully make this type of learning more palatable
  • Ground content in reality – use real-world case studies or link to their personal experience 
  • Use narrative tools to create curiosity and infuse interest – by your foreshadowing and embedding mysteries you can draw in individuals through intrigue; consider a range of classic storytelling techniques

Avoid distraction

I’m getting distracted and I can’t learn. I’d like it if there was a way to make sure I’m paying attention.

There is potentially something to be learnt here from online content providers such as YouTubers. Because they know that they are only one click away from losing a viewer, they structure content with layered goals and clear signposting.

Potential responses

  • Minimise ‘dead air’ – are there any moments where people are likely to get distracted because there is a pause such as a transition between different parts of the experience?
  • Minimise overload/embedded distraction – too much ‘seductive detail’ may distract attention from the matter at hand or cause learners to shut down due to cognitive overload
  • Infuse a reflective monologue – internal questioning can help avoid students slipping into a passive receiving mode where they can get easily distracted

Deeper understanding

I’d like a way to make sure I’m understanding things – that I have a grasp of the scope/shape of what we are talking about.

Many students have anxiety tied to whether they can learn the content at hand or how well. Without any form of validation, they are still very much guessing as to whether they have understood. Knowledge checks create confidence and will help learners focus energies in the right place. 

Potential responses

  • Practice questions – think about the common misconceptions that learners have; what would be a good question to create a wedge in between those who have this misconception and those who do not? 
  • Questions as part of a lecture – giving time for them to think after asking the question and then providing the answer allows students to validate their own internal thinking

Connection and communication

Without a way for me to reach out and have an impact on what we are doing I don’t feel like I’m actually interacting with others.

In this form, ‘interactivity’ signifies a way to resolve the feeling of a lack of connection with teachers, with other students and with the experience of learning. Interactivity becomes the capacity to connect and influence one another – rather than just being the isolated recipient of a broadcast.

Potential responses

  • Consider how you facilitate relationship building between you and your students (How do you find out about them, their interests and experience? How do you use this information to shape the interactions you have with them? How do you share parts of your experience/values?)
  • Consider how you facilitate relationship building between your students – provide opportunities and framing for students to get to know one another and build relationships

Social learning atmosphere

I wish there were more opportunities to talk to my peers, or that my peers were more keen to be involved. Having this sort of atmosphere would help me be more engaged and learn better.

Here, ‘interactivity’ is a mechanism to create a lively atmosphere with peers. Some individuals feel like they would like others to be inspired to engage so that they can get more out of the experience. 

Potential responses

Consider how you allow for students to feel connected to the topic and feel connected to their peers. How do you create social dialogue? How do you enable conversations around meaningful things that they care about?)

Appropriate methods for engagement

The methods that my teachers are using make interactions awkward because they aren’t really working online. I’d like to have a way that I can be involved without having to speak.

Techniques from in-person teaching don’t always translate in digital environments and can result in awkwardness and forced engagement.  

Potential responses

  • Gather responses non-verbally – consider ways for students to respond without asking them to speak or even comment directly (e.g. polls)
  • Frame the chat experience – think about how you interact with the chat function of the system you’re using and how your students may like to use it
  • Consider shared docs – activities on a shared document allows you to give them feedback in real time in a way that doesn’t single them out

Working together for better ‘interactivity’

As with all changes to learning experiences, including an increased isolation for students studying remotely, consider how you can work with and support your teaching team to do these things. By understanding the problem from the students’ point of view and collaborating on solutions, we can integrate the various forms of ‘interactivity’ the students are asking for.

Thanks to Sascha Jenkins, Alycia Bailey and the UTS Library for providing access to their Digital Experience survey data to made this report possible.

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