Highly Interactive Distance Learning

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I propose a new educational system that is based primarily on distance learning at all levels of learning. The major learning medium for all students will be highly interactive multimedia computer-based learning material that will allow us to educate everyone in the world to the mastery level. Contact with humans will also be possible. The material will be designed for use anywhere, at any time.

All individuals are unique. Learning experiences should be optimized to the needs of each student, exploring carefully the problems that each student has and offering individually tailored assistance with these problems. Other students and tutors will also be involved in the learning process. Learning units should encourage love of learning. Students should enjoy learning, and so want to do it all their lives.

Learning will not be like that from a textbook, a video, or most current Web material. These media are not highly interactive.

Features of the System

The emphasis of this system is on lifelong learning, from early childhood to old age, not just schools, universities, and training programs within companies. Such learning is essential for the new century. All students will master the material they study. Learning will be individually paced. Students will stay at a topic, receiving different approaches, as long as is necessary for mastery.

The student's interaction with the learning material on the computer will be through the student's natural language. The programs will resemble a conversation between a student and a human tutor. This is what is meant by highly interactive, or conversational, learning units. Programs will ask questions in the student’s native language, and respond to free-form student input. Multiple choice and pointing will not be used, as they do not allow for individualization of education. This high level of interaction will make it possible to frequently identify learner problems and offer individualized assistance.

The primary use will be through distance learning. Students can study at any time and at any place. The learning materials can be used in schools and universities, or in informal locations such as shopping centers, public buildings, libraries, museums, or the home.

An important aspect is that the computer will frequently store information about the computer, about problems and about how far the individual student has progressed. These records will be used frequently within the programs. Thus when a student returns to the computer, the computer knows about that student, and knows where to begin the new session.

Voice input will probably be the mode for this interaction. The new voice input systems from several companies are both effective and inexpensive, and can be speaker independent in the highly interactive learning environment. Keyboards will not be needed.

All materials can be directed toward encouraging everyone to live happily with other people, increasing problem solving, intuition building, and encouraging creativity.

Production of Highly Interactive Multimedia Learning Units

Most existing systems for generating learning software do not give major priority to highly interactive units. So when we first pursued this goal twenty years ago at the University of California, Irvine, we began to develop a system for this activity. The major emphasis is on analyzing free-form natural language input. We did not, and still do not, use tactics from artificial intelligence, although they may eventually prove useful for this purpose. About ten years ago friends University of Geneva joined us in this development, Bernard Levrat and Bertrand Ibrahim, so we refer to our production system as the Irvine-Geneva system.

The Irvine-Geneva system involves four stages in the development process, all about equal in costs. The first, not discussed further, is project management. The project is complex, and so demands careful management if it is to stay on time and within estimated costs.

The second stage is the most important activity, pedagogical design. All the details of the units must be designed at this time. Two substages are used in design, overall design and detail design. Details are not discussed here.

The key people in the design process are very good teachers in the area involved, working in small groups, usually about four. They identify student problems likely at each point of the interaction with the student, decide how to identify these problems within the program, and decide what help is necessary for the individual student to clear up these learning problems. The teachers formulate the questions to be asked to the students, and make all the decisions about analyzing student input at this point. These teachers, working in groups, pool their experiences with students to make these decisions. These decisions occur frequently in the design. Thus we combine learning and assessment as one continuous process, and the assessment is used to determine what learning material is presented next.

In the early days the design document, the script, was on paper. More recently Bertrand Ibrahim created an online script editor, allowing entry of the script, and allowing anything to be changed at later stages. Static examples of scripts are available. These are not dynamic, as are the actual scripts. Point http://www.ics.uci.edu/~bork/scripts.html to see these examples.

The third stage is implementation. The script editor can write much of the code, but some human coding will be required. Specialists in the area involved create media mentioned in the design. We do not expect teachers to be excellent graphic artists, for example. Beta testing with large numbers of typical users finds problems in the program.

The last stage is evaluation, both formative and summative. This is important in improving the learning units. Typical students use the material, often showing problems with the initial design. These are corrected. Several stages are used. Much of the data is stored online, on a moment to moment basis, the students participating in the evaluation use the programs.

A paper describing the production system is available. http://www.ics.uci.edu/~bork/irvine_geneva.html


Development cost will be high, but, as is the case with the UK Open University, very large numbers of students will use the interactive learning materials. So the cost per student will be much less than for current systems. In the Open University 10,000 students may use a course. The Open University costs for each student are about one-third of the costs in traditional universities. . Highly interactive learning units will have even lower delivery costs, because delivery costs will be less and much larger numbers of students will use the materials.

The learning units will be eventually available in many languages. This will further increase the size of the market, and so further reduce the cost for each student.


We have proposed a new way to learn, for all students at all levels. Only experimental efforts can determine if this system will be practical. But existing experience shows that the probabilities are high.

Other papers discussing this new system are available.