“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

19 08 2013

What does the word “interaction” mean? That’s actually a really important question if you want to evaluate the quality of teaching. Salman Khan of Khan Academy fame, writing in Scientific American, uses interaction (or, to be specific, the lack thereof) as the basis of his critique of modern higher education:

Today students in most classrooms sit, listen and take notes while a professor lectures. Despite there being anywhere from 20 to 300 human beings in the room, there is little to no human interaction.

Does this guy really think we professors all just read from a script and never look up? I have literally never seen anyone, not even the worst professors I’ve ever encountered, teach that way. So if I see lots of blank stares in my classroom and explain a point again on that basis, is that interaction? If I ask my students a question and one of them answers, does that constitute interaction? If that question leads to a follow-up question, is that interaction? Happens all the time in my classes of twenty.

It also happens in classes of three hundred. There’s this thing called “discussion sections” at many large universities. Perhaps Khan has heard of them. Even without those, there’s still interaction in giant lecture courses. I cried a little when my daughter told me that she had to buy a clicker for her intro to psychology class, but that’s a form of interaction too.

Unfortunately, Khan is hardly alone in making such insulting generalizations. Here’s Coursera’s Daphne Koller:

The interactivity that MOOCs offer is far superior to that offered by older forms of online education, and they have significant advantages over classroom-based education.

Interaction is a reciprocal word in the same sense that it takes two to tango. While there may be lots of interactivity in MOOCs, there is very little interactivity with the person who’s supposedly teaching the class. Remember, “slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon?” In other, smaller, forms of online education, there is interaction with both the professor and the student’s peers. Indeed, the smaller the class, the easier it is to make sure that all students are interacting with somebody and actually learning the material.

The second part of that Koller quote is equally deceptive. Because the beginning of that sentence is about interactivity, we are left to assume that the end part of that sentence is also about interactivity. Yet simple math is all you need to see why it is much harder to interact with anyone in a class of 30,000 than in a class of 30. With 30,000 students, how can anyone be sure students will use the discussion forums? If they do, how can you assure that their questions will be answered by other students? Perhaps most importantly, how can you assure that any answers that do come their way will even be correct?

It is inconceivable to me that these online education leaders don’t understand the actual meaning of the word “interaction.” Or perhaps that word doesn’t mean what they think it means. If you ask me, either possibility is pretty sad.



15 responses

19 08 2013

Good to see you talk about this term. Like many another perfectly good English word, this one has evidently been coopted to serve as code. It DOESN’T mean what we think it means. I suppose if the proponents of MOOCs etc had seen my 8th-grade class square-dancing in phys ed, they would have noted all the interaction in the form of grand-right-and-left and swing-your-partner; but would they have noticed all the shy glances, the subtle positioning during partner-choosing, the rolled-eye shared looks at the klutzy kid….the really essential interactions of being 11….

19 08 2013

My brother just started teaching training and the buzz-word he keeps hearing is “engagement” followed soon by “student centered learning” etc. and the importance of the corporate model for education.

When I remind him (he’s a high school teacher) of the testing paradigm enforced by No Child Left Behind he just nods and sighs.

19 08 2013
Norm Matloff

Use of clickers may technically be a form of interaction, but only forced interaction, a substitute for a stimulating lecture as a mechanism to get the students to pay attention. And, like MOOCs, it encourages students to think that ability to solve highly structured short anwer question equates to real learning. If we are reduced to methods of teaching that are that coercive, we’ve lost. Yes, I know, lots of things in teaching are coercive to some degree, but this is just too much, in my opinion.

19 08 2013
Jonathan Rees


You saw the bit about crying, right? I agree entirely w/ your critique of Clickers and am thankful that I don’t ever have to worry about how I’d teach hundreds of students at once.

19 08 2013
Contingent Cassandra

I’m also wondering what Koller means by “older forms of online education” and “classroom-based education,” because, by any reasonable definition of the word I can think of, the way I teach both online (in, yes, small sections) and in the classroom is far more interactive, on the teacher-student level, and at least as interactive on the student-student level as any MOOC I can imagine. If I wanted to create a more MOOC-like “interactive” experience, I could offer more multiple-choice-quiz “check ups,” a la the clickers (and some of the students would probably like that, especially if it provided an easy way for them to boost their grades), but, beyond that, it’s hard for me to see what’s missing from my classes, but present in a MOOC, that might by any stretch of the imagination be labeled “interaction.” (I can, of course, think of a number of “interactive” things that I’m able to do for/with my students, even with almost 90 of them spread over 4 sections each semester, that I can’t imagine a MOOC professor doing).

Methinks that somebody needs to give Koller et al. a quick refresher course in logical fallacies, starting with the straw man. Either that, or give them a tour of any college instructional building on any given day when classes are in session.

20 08 2013

I’m with RAB: the use of “interaction/interactivity” by the Lords of MOOC Creation are meant to signal something shiny and new, and they must insist upon their MOOC shininess and newness because it’s all a part of their business plan. What actually happens in F2F education is immaterial; they must continue to assert that F2F is not at all “interactive” because they really don’t have much else to go on, and people associate “interactivity” with glowing screens nowadays.

It reminds me of the old lawyer joke: When the facts of the case are on your side, pound on the facts. When the law is on your side, pound on the law. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound on the table. The brain-dead, fact-free denigration of our work is all they’ve got. It’s their version of pounding on the table.

20 08 2013

Sorry–that was me, Historiann. I didn’t fill out the name & contact info form correctly.

20 08 2013
Jonathan Rees

I think your use of the term “Lords of MOOC Creation” was a giveaway. Have you trademarked it yet?

20 08 2013

No. I actually ripped it off (sorta) from a book by Susan Klepp, which explained that the Lords of Creation was a kind of humorous or even satirical expression educated women in the late 18th C used to refer to men. The grandiosity and the pretensions they were trying to skewer seemed right for my purposes too.

20 08 2013
Michael Sparace

This whole MOOC discussion is getting out of hand (or perhaps it’s been out of hand for some time). Do they introduce some interesting things to the discussion? Perhaps, but much of the technology existed beforehand. It frustrates me that they’re viewed as a silver bullet that will cure everything (or in cases like this, fix a problem that doesn’t exist). MOOCs create more problems than they solve.

Why not consider synchronous online education or a host of other ideas instead of MOOCs?

20 08 2013

See if you can get a Stanford proffie interested, or see if you can get Thomas Friedman excited about your ideas. That’s all it really takes.

27 08 2013

A better question might be, how much “interaction” do students really want?

I’ve heard a lot of students express frustration when a class is too “interactive” because they’re asked to analyze and analyze without any grounding for their analysis offered by the professor. This is a particular problem in classes for non-majors. Majors at least have some grounding in the discipline.

A class with too much interaction reminds me of graduate seminars where some people had clearly not read or at least not finished the book. That didn’t stop them from talking as if they knew something in order to cover up the fact they had not completed their reading.

In a lower-level class based primarily on discussion without or with very few contextual lectures, certain students dominate basing their analysis from their own experiences, while others seem genuinely distressed due to confusion.

This isn’t surprising, since they are not history majors, they don’t have a lot of other information to bring to bear on particular primary sources, and I can’t teach them historiography, theory, and research methods in one semester.

To me, “student centered” and “interactive” usually translates into dumbing the information down.

8 09 2013
Reading List #7 | Tim Klapdor

[…] “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” […]

16 09 2013
Daphne Koller: What we’re learning from online education | graduatestudentmusings

[…] “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (moreorlessbunk.wordpress.com) […]

16 10 2013
Teaching vs. broadcasting. | More or Less Bunk

[…] could have an entire category of posts in this blog entitled “Stupid Stuff the Founders of Coursera have said.” This is not one of those instances, but it’s […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: