Information Design

Learning Interfaces

In T. Liao (Ed.) Advanced Educational Technology: Research Issues and Future Potential. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1996.    Online reprint - June 1999

P. Duchastel
Information Design Institute

Abstract: Learning interfaces are the windows on the world through which a person views information and which cause a certain quality of learning to occur. Interfaces to learning are the cognitive artifacts, the resources for learning, that populate the learning environment and occasion learning. I believe this view of instruction and learning may prove useful in situating our efforts at improving learning within a larger perspective than we usually adopt in our professional dialogue.

Keywords: Interface, learning theory, instructional design, schooling.


While the notion of an interface may seem rather specific to those who deal directly with the design of computer-based learning environments, I propose that it is a concept that can be used in a very much wider context to convey the centrality of the person-environment interaction in the process of learning. Thus, I am not about to discourse on the process of learning a computer application interface, nor on the adaptability of interfaces through exposure to a user, but rather on how the central theme of interface design lies at the heart of advanced educational technology, and indeed goes far beyond it, too.

The future of educational technology is not to be found in evolving visions of the three technologies that give it shape, namely hardware, software, and process technologies, but rather in new ways of envisioning how these technologies can be used for the purpose of assisting learning. The focus on learning interface involves a slight but important paradigm shift that could be helpful in this respect. Paradigms are those ways of thinking that frame our conceptual explorations and lead us along certain paths rather than others.

Paradigm shifting, however, by its very nature, is always difficult. Indeed, initial reaction to this paper has been strongly polarized. One camp, which we might call the traditionalists (exemplified by O'Shea in his reaction statement) considers the venture presented here to be unhelpful, if not downright misleading; the other camp, perhaps to be called the adventurists, values the potential benefit of radical rethinking and is willing to stretch the current envelope to see where such thinking might lead us (see for instance de Landsheere's reaction and the views of Derycke in this volume).

Whether exploring learning in terms of the concept of interface sounds reasonable or not will be for the reader to judge. What I deal with in this paper is old wine tasted from a new bottle. The decanting may prove hazardous, but the pleasure of the newly filtered vintage might just be appealing. The old wine I speak of is learning and the new bottle is the concept of interface.

An interface is generally though of as the surface level representation which a user interacts with in order to use a piece of equipment or a software application, with a view to engage in some purposeful task. An interface is, in this functional sense of the term, what lies between the tool's own function and the user herself.

The purpose of an interface is essentially to facilitate access to the tool's functionality, no matter whether we are dealing with physical tools or with mind tools.  

Further, from a design perspective, an interface is itself a designed artifact, built a certain way within certain constraints, with a view to best accomplishing its mission.

Let me now generalize this common notion of interface.

An interface is the locus of interaction between a person and her environment.  

Thus a telescope is an interface between a viewer and a scene; a steering wheel is an interface between a driver and a road; and a book is an interface between a reader and the ideas of an author. This is all over and beyond the fact that each of these artifacts has its own interface via the ergonomics of its specific design; thus, the artifact as seen here is the interface, although at a more abstract level of understanding. Going even further into abstraction, a play at the theater is the interface between the playwright and the audience (over and beyond the physical interface of the actors, decor, and stage); likewise, the functions and responsibilities included in a job structure are the interface between an organization's aims and its actual accomplishments.

Now, let us stop a minute to consider how much we have just generalized the notion of interface. What we have done is to apply this notion to processes: viewing, driving, reading, entertaining, working. The core definitional element of an interface remains the same nonetheless: a design that facilitates access to a given functionality.

Thus, a steering wheel is an artifact that helps one follow the curves in the road, and a job is a design (an artifact, even if not a physical one) that will ensure accomplishment of some specific goals. Interfaces can be more or less concrete or abstract and more or less specific or global. All remain interfaces nevertheless.

Learning Interfaces

I am going now to jump straight into the theme of this paper, the specific area of learning interfaces. I will elaborate later on how learning as a process is an interface itself, that being an even more abstract perspective. For now though, let me start with concrete designs that facilitate the process of learning: what I have come over time to refer to as learning technologies.

Learning technologies : The designed environments that a person interacts with for learning purposes.  

Learning environments are not necessarily designed artifacts, but a great many of them are. Learning can occur at any time and under a large variety of circumstances. It is indeed a by-product of one's interaction with the surrounding world. For instance, just consider all the vocabulary a child picks up while playing with others, even before any formal schooling gets underway. This incidental learning is enormous in scope, but usually goes unattended. More concern is given to the formal curriculum, or formal training program, and hence to the design of learning opportunities to acquire formal knowledge.

With respect to the latter, I like to use the term 'learning technology' because it implies a disciplined and experienced way of creating those opportunities, via purposeful environments that support and guide learning. These designed learning vehicles can be more or less directive (that is, they can involve more or less learner-control of the interaction), an issue of very great importance in itself and which I have returned to many times in broadening my understanding of learning (Duchastel, 1990), but not the issue to pursue here.

In this light, a textbook is a learning technology, as is a drill & practice CAI program; the science lab is a learning technology, and so is an on-line hypermedia encyclopedia. All are designed artifacts that facilitate learning. Classroom instruction, by the way, is also usefully considered as a learning technology, and we will come to that later.

What I am getting at here is that even if learning technologies have been generally associated in the past with technological innovations like educational television, CAI, and so on, they are not limited to that. As a general category, they comprise any environment designed specifically for learning. And educational technology is the field of study whose object is learning technologies. You may have recognized an interesting phenomenon that is underway at this time: the term educational technology is seemingly making way to a new term, what is becoming known as learning technology, that term being used to refer to the same process technology as before (Hannafin, 1992; Duchastel, 1989).

The goal of learning technology is a design theory that is prescriptive for learning environments.  

Learning technology is considered here as the engineering discipline that is the repository for best methods and practices for the design of specific learning technologies. It is the accumulated 'How to' that forms the basis for the professional side of the field.

Learning technologies are in evolution. Educational television has given way to CAI, which in turn has led to ICAI (Intelligent CAI), and parallel technology developments have led to the videodisk, to hypermedia, to hand-held computer access, and so on. As ever-new technological possibilities turn into concrete and economically accessible realities, instructional designers push the envelope of what is practically feasible in new learning designs. The field is thus continually confronted with change, sometimes mildly and sometimes radically. On the whole, that is an excellent situation to be in.

Status of Theory

Beyond the technical possibilities lie the common factors that organize the accumulated perspectives of the field and allow disciplined access to the practices that lead to success. This is the design theory specific to learning technologies, the why, what, and how of the field.

My assessment of theory is that we have not yet in hand anything that is very robust. We do have a number of theoretical viewpoints, such as those of Gagné and Briggs (1988), Merrill (1991), Reigeluth (1983), all of which deal with global design issues affecting the building of learning technologies. They remain partial, however, and do not represent an integrated theory of learning technology. That theory remains elusive, but we may well see it emerge during this decade. I believe the setting is ripe for a bringing-together of the different strands at a high enough level of abstraction to create a somewhat full theory of learning technology. The nexus of such a theory may well reside, I believe, in what I am discussing here, namely the learning interface. Already for instance, we see it represented in Merrill's (1991) focus on learning transactions, or in the evident interest, in the area of textual design, for adapting textual presentation to pedagogical purposes (Jonassen, 1982).

In the end, we return fully to psychology, the real mother science of instructional design, and even more so of learning technology. Indeed, the scientific basis of any design for learning is learning psychology. Remember B. F. Skinner's unbegotten attempts to build a learning technology on the foundation of his behaviorist learning theory. Well, his theory may have been way off the mark (by current thinking at any rate), but the logic of the process was indeed a good one. Gagné's attempt at instructional theory was similarly grounded in learning psychology, and indeed, all such attempts likewise are, even though they may not always be explicit in this regard.

The focus of learning psychology is the study of the constraints impinging on the interaction between learner and technology.  

We are dealing here with a very applied psychology, one that is ecologically valid and hence one that is far removed from the basic learning psychology generally found in the psychology journals. What is needed for our field is a learning theory that can account for the learner-technology interaction that is set up in any learning environment. That is a tall order, of course, given the variety of settings and diversity of factors that impinge on this kind of interaction.

Learning is an internal process that is stimulated and channeled by the external factors present. This view is basically that of Gagné (1985), who considered learning in terms of its enabling conditions. From this perspective, learning can occur in any environment, from the most unstructured situation to the most formal learning environment. As mentioned earlier, a great deal of our learning happens all the time in informal settings as we continually interact with information that shapes our thinking, our specific knowledge, and our mental models. However, the quality of learning may well differ from situation to situation. Let me operationalize the notion of quality of learning in terms of appeal, intensity of effect, and time to learn. Designing learning environments should ideally optimize all three of these factors. It should lead to interesting interactions, to depth of understanding, and to succinct learning experiences.

Thus, the very reason we design learning environments is to create the conditions that are propitious to intensive learning. Through design, we provoke learning! Ideally, we design the technology so as to tap the best inner resources of the learner, so that what is activated is interest and meaningful learning, not patience and rote learning. Interest is a means to learning (Malone, 1981), while depth of understanding is the goal of education.

Learning psychology, at least the kind that is needed here, is itself not very robust. There are powerful theories of skill learning (Anderson, 1983, for instance) and of meaningful learning (Ausubel, 1968; Novak, 1977), but only scant attention has been paid to how this all interacts with the epistemic curiosity side of the learner who is situated in a learning environment (Berline, 1960; Pintrich et al., 1993). Fortunately, instructional design itself has taken up the challenge of this task, in the work for instance of Keller (1983), or of Bransford and the Vanderbilt group (CTGV, 1993), but the desired strong underpinning from learning psychology is still lacking. The practical, consequential issue boils down to this: What good is all the information or are all the activities present in a learning environment if the learner gets up and walks away from it, or otherwise disengages himself from the learning activity. This remains a major task for our field: to seek an integrated theory of applied learning that considers the full context of the learning environment.

Information and Learning

Information of course is the core of a learning environment, it is the abstract stuff that is juggled with and that eventually generates those internal mental models in the learner that we associate with conceptual learning. But consider how we authors and educators design that information by laying it out in certain ways rather than others, by emphasizing given elements rather than alternatives, and by representing it via particular media. That information we create is the core interface for learning!

Information as an interface is a mediator between knowledge and the learner.  

Information is central to the communication of knowledge, as seen in the following process cycle: Knowledge --> External Representation (i.e. Information) --> Learning Environment --> Learning (Internal Representation) --> Knowledge

Information that is not simply data (for instance, the multiplication table) represents the interpretation of some set of complex knowledge by a particular author. No information of that kind is objective, but rather it is the constructed, external representation derived from one's own internal, construed understanding. Now, other than recognizing that there therefore exists an epistemology of didactics, as our colleague Balacheff well reminds us of, what is the importance of this perspective?

Well, for one, it reminds us of the Piagetian conception of learning where a constant dialectic between assimilation and accommodation results from the person's interaction with the external environment of information. All learning is internal juggling of perceptions stimulated by an external information environment. Knowledge is built up within the learner (or not, as the case may be) as a result of this juggling, and so personal knowledge is interpreted information.

That interpretation is what makes knowledge meaningful. It is also what makes it idiosyncratic to the learner, even if at times, it may well be similar to the knowledge expressed by others. The transfer of knowledge depicted above represents the voyage of knowledge from one individual to another through a pedagogical act of communication.

That view, though, is inappropriate. Communication is a mischievous analogy that in unproductive for theory. It holds too much of the notion of transvasing information, of pouring it from one mind to another, as if information were a commodity, even if an intellectual one. A learner cannot receive knowledge, only build it! So a better interpretation of the process is that one person, through exteriorizing her own knowledge, in fact creates an information environment that will serve as a potential interface for another person to personally build his own knowledge. The created information environment is a designed environment, and that is what I believe the epistemology of didactics is all about.

The very way in which the information is designed will certainly influence how it is interacted with. Here, we deal with two distinct, but ever-so related, facets of designed information. Learning psychology and learning environment design build heavily on the very relationship between these two facets, which are content selection and content representation, the what and the how of information. If you think of it, the major recent theories of instructional design have dealt with this very issue: Gagné's hierarchies, Ausubel's advance organizers, Reigeluth's elaboration viewpoint all center on the structure of information presentation. The design of information is thus central to all.

Instruction and Learning Environments

The difference between informal learning in everyday life and more formal schooling and instruction lies in the oriented nature of the latter, its essential goal-directness or intentionality. All instruction is a motivated attempt on the part of one party, often globally conceived of as society acting through its agents, to influence the behavior and knowledge of another party, the student body. It is a deliberate and repeated attempt at influence, for the good of both parties. That is the mission of education, broadly speaking.

Teaching, or more broadly, instruction, involves organizing the learning interface (the interactions) with a view to having certain goals achieved.  

Both the instructional designer preparing the layout for an instructional computer-based simulation and the classroom teacher preparing an outline for the process of introducing certain concepts in class have foremost in mind what outcomes are sought in the learners. Both professionals design the learning environment to favor given outcomes, i.e. to encourage interactions that will lead to particular learning.

The whole idea of schooling lies in the third criterion of quality mentioned earlier for learning, to create on a certain scale a pattern of interactions that will enable succinct learning experiences. The mission of the school is to have a lot learned in a relatively short timeframe. The core problem of schooling, perhaps, is that it may have overdone it: it may well have crafted instruction that is cognitively sound, in terms of information structure for instance, while having substantially overlooked the affective factors at play in the environment. Once again, we see the importance of the interest factor in learning, and more generally, of the crucial interrelationship between the elements of quality for learning (Pintrich et al., 1993).

Any learning environment must spark the epistemic curiosity of the learner if interest is to be sustained, so that the learner remains on task over time. This is the great challenge to educational technology today. The challenge is to create a framework and process for the design of learning environments that are inviting and have pull (Brown, 1983). The technology that is evolving today is making this much more possible than it was formerly. That is the beauty of the age in which we live with respect to education and training.

My own interest in learning technologies stems from my belief in the power and importance of informal learning for the future. I believe that the student of 30 years from now will learn a great deal more than today from interactions with rich learning environments based in technology, rather than from the classroom learning environments that are still the norm currently. Teaching as we know it is in for a very rude awakening during the next few decades. This is not to say that teachers will disappear from schools, nor that schools become meaningless. What it does mean is that role transformations are about to happen in each case, with teachers and schools eventually doing what they do best (guiding and socializing the child), while leaving what they do poorly (instructing) to technology.

In industrial training circles, one of the usual steps in the process of developing a training plan is to sort out which tasks should be supported by job aids and which should instead be fully trained. The job aid approach has received a great deal of attention these past few years under the guise of what is called performance support systems. These are computer applications that facilitate job tasks by making available complex information to the user in an easily accessible manner. The availability of any job aid reduces the need for learning to some important extent. The job aid becomes one of the interfaces between the worker and the job; more accurately, it is part of the full interface between worker and job, one component among others. The main other one, of course, is the worker's own knowledge of the tasks to be performed. Training is thus only part of the total support for usage, involving internalization for the purpose of repeated usage.

Consider for a moment a rather odd question perhaps: Why do we learn? That is, why have we evolved as we have, increasing in both our learning capacity and in our need for learning?

Knowledge is an internalization of the external world for purposes of accessibility and ease of use.  

That rationale for learning becomes important in two circumstances: when the task is critical (e.g. handling an emergency procedure) or when the task is repeated often (many jobs fall into this pattern). Consider a simple illustration. Let's suppose I expect to go on a business trip to Korea in the coming year. I will learn a few words in Korean, but I will not invest much time in learning the language. Now suppose instead that my business calls me to travel to Korea one a month for the next 3 years; then, most likely, the effort to learn the language will seem reasonable. Expected usage of the knowledge is the determining factor in the learning decision. Knowledge is that internal asset that enables the doing once a decision to do something specific is made.

At a very general level, knowledge itself is an interface that is a mediator between the doer and the doing,  

Concluding Perspectives

Let us see now how we might tie all this together. Indeed, much of my discussion of interface has led us into high abstraction and while the philosophy of knowledge is interesting as such, what does it afford us in advancing our understanding of advanced educational technology? So, just let me recast the gist of the arguments I have made in this paper:

1. The context in which a learner interacts with information around her constitutes a learning environment, in fact an interface, which can be more or less propitious to learning.

2. Interfaces are designed artifacts, sometimes abstract cognitive ones, that constrain or direct the interaction between a person and that person's many environments, with the aim of facilitating the processes involved in a task.

3. Applied learning psychology studies this interaction between learner and environment and the resulting internal processes that constitute learning. As such, learning psychology guides learning technology in the design of learning environments.

4. Information is the exterior manifestation of knowledge, and as the core element of learning environments, it is central in structuring the processes that a learner engages in while building her own knowledge.

5. The field of learning technology is aimed at designing such environments to favor learning, either of the instructional kind that are highly goal-oriented, or of the informal kind that are unstructured and more open-ended.

6. Learning technologies, and more broadly all designed learning environments, are interfaces that structure the learner's interaction with information with the view of optimizing learning.

7. At a deeper level, the information designed into a learning environment is itself an abstract interface between a learner and the knowledge of others. How that information is designed is of the utmost importance, and indeed the focus of both learning psychology and learning technology.

8. A person's knowledge is itself an interface, at an abstract level, between that person and his or her actions; knowledge is an internal mediator to the world, juxtaposed next to all exterior interfaces.

Well, what does all this mean in practice? I believe there are implications for our conception of instruction, for our views of formal education, and for what we might see in the future.

The first involves an important shift in thinking from instruction being a process of communication, with its sender-receiver model, to learning being an interactive process through which mental models and skills are built and developed. Knowledge is not transferred, it can only be derived from an environment. This clearly centers the process on the learner, and in so doing, refocuses the entire field of educational technology. One of the strongest critiqueís of the field, and to my mind some of the best tonic we can use in this respect, is precisely aligned with this view. I am referring to Carroll's minimalist approach to instruction (1990), in which personal meaning and interest take primacy over content coverage.

Now, there is nothing revolutionary about the view that we construct our knowledge actively and interactively. Only, our process technology (in fact, the field of instructional design) does not seem to have followed along with this evolving view. On the whole, and with all the danger inherent in generalization, it can be said that we still tend to design instruction within an older paradigm, despite our advanced rhetoric. Interface talk may help bring along the needed change.

The second implication lies in the area of schooling. As designed interfaces, learning environments are artifacts that have an embodiment of their own, with their own potential to affect learning. We can start characterizing different learning interfaces in terms of what they bring to this potential and how they may at times restrict it as well. For instance, the simulation interface brings realism and excitement to the interaction, whereas the traditional classroom brings social companionship and possibly competition for some. Each environment may emphasize certain features at the expense of others. It is just possible that the current schooling difficulties being experienced in many countries might be helped by rethinking the school as an interface, and not as a social structure unto itself.

Schooling is of course a complex interface composed of many interrelated facets operating at various levels. It nevertheless remains an interface, open to critical review and improvement just as any other (Reigeluth et al., 1993).

The third implication considers the future of learning environments. As information artifacts, learning environments that are based in advanced technologies are becoming ever more accessible and powerful. In addition, as artifacts, they become improvable and thus grow in usefulness. Just like the knowledge base of an expert system is generally refined over time as many experts tinker with it, so too learning environments can be refined over time. This is why I essentially believe that future learning environments will be largely autonomous and freely accessible to learners without the socially-wrought constraints we see today. Learning interfaces then become key to success in education and training.

Viewing our field as that of learning interfaces will hopefully assist in gradually moving towards that integrated theory of applied learning that I indicated is so sorely lacking still today. It is certainly not the only view that will contribute to that redefinition of theory, but the hope is that it may spark interest in some radical rethinking yet to be undertaken. May the adventurists in advanced educational technology win out over the traditionalists!


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