ENGAGEMENT AND CONSTRUCTION:
EDUCATION STRATEGIES FOR THE POST-TV ERA

Ben Shneiderman*

Department of Computer Science

University of Maryland

College Park, MD 20742

* Also Head of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and

a Member of the Systems Research Center. Parts of this

paper were derived from [Shn92a].

Introduction

We all remember the empty faces of students seated in rows,

intermittently taking notes, and trying to retain disjointed

facts. This old lecture style seems as antiquated as a 19th

century clockwork mechanism; familiar and charming, but erratic

and no longer adequate. The orderly structure of industrial age

mechanisms and the repetitiveness of the assembly line are giving

way to the all-at-once immediacy of McLuhan's non-linear

electrified global village [McL64]. The early electronic media

such as radio, stereos, and television have created a snap-

crackle-and-popular culture that is enjoyable, but passive. The

post-TV era will be different. Computing and communication

technologies offer opportunities for engagement with other people

and the power tools to construct remarkable artifacts and

experiences.

Educators can now create engaging processes for their students

that will motivate them to work together and explore the frontiers

of knowledge. Students from elementary schools through college

can apply computing technology (word processors, spreadsheets,

databases, drawing programs, design tools, music composition

software, etc.) to construct high quality products that they can

proudly share with others. Advanced communications tools

(electronic mail, network access, bulletin board systems,

videotape recorders, TV broadcasts) support engagement among

students, connection to the external world, information

gathering, and dissemination of results.

Defining Engagement

My definition of engagement focuses on interaction with people;

students working together, as they must in the workplace,

community, and family. Paired collaborations, team projects, and

class presentations can teach valuable skills that are now left to

sports teams and after school clubs. Secondly, students can

interact with people outside the classroom; by visiting adults in

the workplace, interviewing community leaders, and communicating

with students in other schools, cities, states, and countries.

Instead of requiring conjugation of French verbs, teachers might

set the goal for students to make a videotape about their

community in French to send to students in Canada or Togo. The

students would have to learn conjugation, but they would work as a

team to create a product of which they could all be proud.

Instead of memorizing the sequence of British monarchs, students

might create a hypermedia document with a timeline, photos, music,

and biographies that could be stored in the library for future

students to access or expand. Instead of merely reading about the

disease patterns in urban areas, students might collect data from

local hospitals on patterns of flu outbreaks and build a

simulation model of disease epidemics in communities as a function

of age, gender, and sociological factors, with the goal of

reporting results at community meetings, to medical groups, in

local newspapers, or in electronic bulletin boards.

In support of these projects students would have to work together

and also reach out to others to collect information from

librarians, city officials, physicians, scientists, bankers,

business leaders, etc. Imagine how a report on World War II would

be enriched by an interview with a D-Day participant in a

retirement home. Imagine how an ecology report would be enlivened

after a discussion with a local park naturalist, a political

science project would become livelier after an interview with a

local or state politician, and biology would become more

meaningful after a visit with a hospital lab technician. The

experience of speaking to adults at work would be educational, the

process could improve social and communication skills, and the

discussions are potentially illuminating for everyone involved.

The second aspect of engagement is the cooperation among students

needed to complete projects. When working in teams students can

take on more ambitious projects, can learn from each other, and

must make their plans explicit to coordinate. Engagement with

fellow students can help make learning more lively and effective

as a model for the future world of work, family, and community.

The rich environment of computers and networks is already being

used to support engagement across cities and countries. For

example, approximately 10,000 elementary school children at 150

sites collected and exchanged acid rain data. In another project,

high school students in the U.S. were paired with Russian students

for email exchanges. A science project involved hundreds of sixth

graders simultaneously measuring the length of a shadow and

exchanging data to measure the earth's diameter.

Electronic mail opens up new possibilities for cooperation among

students, guidance from teachers, and communication with national

or international leaders. For example, students in my graduate

seminar on user interface design undertook the common task of

reading research journal papers and critiquing them, but interest

in the task increased when they were required to send their

critiques to the authors by email. The discussions were deeper,

the usual off-hand attacks were softer in tone, but sharper in

insight. The replies and contact with leading professionals gave

my students a sense of importance and maturity.

Defining Construction

The second part of my theme is construction, by which I mean that

students create a product from their collaboration. This may not

seem so different from current expectations of writing a computer

program or a term paper. But when coupled with the engagement

theme, I mean constructing something of importance to someone

else. Instead of having database management students write the

same safe class project, my students have implemented database

management programs for the University's bus service, generated a

scheduling program for a local TV station, prepared an online

information retrieval program for a suicide prevention clinic, and

developed record keeping software for a student scuba club.

Instead of writing a term paper on computer applications for the

elderly, two of my students in a Computers and Society course

offered computing lessons for elderly residents of a local

apartment complex. Then the students prepared a report for the

director of the complex, with a copy for me to grade. Several

teams of students worked with their former high schools or

elementary schools to suggest ways to improve the use of

computers. One student wrote computer programs to manage lists of

volunteers and contributors for a local soup kitchen. One student

challenged the University's legal policy about student access and

privacy rights with respect to their accounts. Another student

wrote a handbook about educational software for parents of deaf

children, while another pair of students prepared a hypertext

guide to coping with computer software viruses. Computer tools

enable construction of ambitious projects; there is a special

sense of pride when students produce an animated hypertext, laser-

printed report, or collect/disseminate data through networks.

In addition to these semester-long projects, there are many

opportunities for short-term construction projects ranging from

the traditional programming exercise done as a team project to

class presentations by students on normal lecture material.

Requiring a team of two students to present a topic to the entire

class can make the topic appealing for the whole class, and the

designated students will be likely to take their responsibility

seriously. Turning work into a communal experience is made

practical by the presence of word processors/text editors because

making suggested revisions has become easy.

Cooperative groups in general studies

College level computer science has been my academic domain, so it

might seem that these notions are only suitable for that age group

and subject. However, I feel that engagement and construction are

appropriate at most ages and in most fields. In fact, related

ideas have been proposed by many reports on education during the

past decade. The Final Report of the Study Group on the

Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education, National

Institute of Education wrote that "Active modes of teaching

require that students be inquirers - creators, as well as

receivers of knowledge." That report also stressed projects,

internships, discussion groups, collaborations, simulations, and

presentations (Figure 1). Similarly, the Principles for Good

Practice in Undergraduate Education presented by the American

Association for Higher Education (Figure 2) pushed for cooperation

among students and active learning projects.

1) Student Involvement

- involving students in faculty research projects

- encouraging internships

- organizing small discussion groups

- requiring in-class presentations and debates

- developing simulations

- creating opportunities for individual learning projects

2) High Expectations

3) Assessment and Feedback

Figure 1: Conditions for Excellence in Undergraduate Education,

Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American

Higher Education, Final Report of the Study Group on the

Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education [NIE84].

Encourage Student-Faculty Contact

Encourage Cooperation Among Students

Encourage Active Learning

Give Prompt Feedback

Emphasize Time on Task

Communicate High Expectations

Respect Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

Figure 2: Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

[AAH87].

Exploration and Creation

The spirit of engagement is to enable students to experience the

challenge of exploratory research and the satisfaction of creative

accomplishment. I believe that imaginative teachers can find ways

in every discipline and at every grade to create an atmosphere of

exploration, novelty, and challenge. Whether collecting

scientific data or studying Greek theater, there are provocative

open questions that students can attempt to answer. My

undergraduate students regularly conduct empirical studies related

to my research in user interface design [Shn92b] and their work is

published in scientific journals. Only one in ten projects leads

to a publishable result, but the atmosphere of exploration at the

frontier of research produces a high level of engagement even for

introverted and blase computer science students at my state

university. Similarly, my 12-year old daughter did her 7th-grade

science project on spaced vs. massed practice with 3rd-graders in

her school learning to type.

The concepts of exploration and creation are well-established in

the education literature from John Dewey to Seymour Papert.

Piaget wrote that "Knowledge is not a copy of reality. To know an

object, to know an event is not simply to look at it and make a

mental copy, or image, of it. To know an object is to act on it.

To know is to modify, to transform the object, and to understand

the process of transformation, and as a consequence to understand

the way the object is constructed [Pia64]." The phrase "discovery

learning" conveys the key notion that "whatever knowledge children

gain they create themselves; whatever character they develop they

create themselves" as Wees wrote in his aptly titled book Nobody

Can Teach Anybody Anything [Wee71].

Summary

The post-TV media of computers and communications enables

teachers, students, and parents to creatively develop education by

engagement and construction (Figure 3). Students should be given

the chance to engage with each other in team projects, possibly

situated in the world outside the classroom, with the goal of

constructing a product that is useful or interesting to someone

other than the teacher. Challenges remain such as scaling up from

small class projects to lecture sections with hundreds of

students, covering the curriculum that is currently required by

many school districts, evaluating peformance, and assigning

grades. However, there seems to be no turning back and, anyway,

the children of the Nintendo and Video Age are eager to press fast

forward.

Students want to engage with people to:

Students will be engaged by constructing products:

Teachers should promote:

Multimedia technologies can empower students:

Project orientation enhances engagement:

Figure 3: Strategies for increasing Engagement and Construction

References

[AAH87] American Association for Higher Education. Principles for

Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, 1987.

[McL64] Marshall McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of

Man, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY, 1964.

[NIE84] National Institute of Education. Involvement in Learning:

Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education,

Final Report of the Study Group on the Conditions of

Excellence in American Higher Education, 1984.

[Pia64] Jean Piaget. Cognitive development in children: the

Piaget papers, In R. E. Ripple and V. N. Rockcastle

(Editors), Piaget rediscovered: a report of the conference

on cognitive studies and curriculum development, Ithaca

School of Education, Cornell University, pp. 6-48, 1964.

[Shn92a] Ben Shneiderman. Education by Engagement and

Construction: A Strategic Education Initiative for a

Multimedia Renewal of American Education, In, Barrett, Ed

(Editor), The Social Creation of Knowledge: Multimedia and

Information Technologies in the University, MIT Press,

Cambridge, MA, 1992.

[Shn92b] Ben Shneiderman. Designing the User Interface:

Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction,

Second Edition, Addison-Wesley Publ. Co., Reading, MA,

1992.

[Wee71] W. R. Wees. Nobody Can Teach Anybody Anything, Doubleday

Canada, Toronto, Ontario, 1971.