Human vs Machine Interaction (& Parrish et al on Experience)

Today I had a really good discussion with Dr. Graham.  One of his first questions, which we still need to answer better, was: “How is interacting with a machine different from interacting with a human?”  As we spoke, I repeatedly referenced an article by Parrish, Wilson, & Dunlap which I had just read last night, and not yet blogged about.  So as I blog now, I will tie their ideas to the question of human vs. machine interaction.

I found this article especially interesting.  It is a “framework” paper, attempting “to outline a framework for understanding the learning experience and to show how a focus on experience can open up new ways to guide instructional designs with higher transformative potential” (p. 16). Experience is more than the cognitivists might construe (Learner –> Immediate Experience + Constructed Experience –> Learning Outcomes).  Instead, the authors write, experience “is the joint and mutual activity between people and their worlds that best defines experience, and best accounts for learning outcomes. Yet it’s more than ‘activity’–it’s the conversation between learners and their worlds, wherein each is impacted and shaped over time” (p. 16).  Using the ideas of Dewey, they develop a “transactional definition of experience” (p. 17), as “people and their worlds mutually interac[t] and co-creat[e] their futures” (p. 16-17).  Thus a learning experience cannot simply be individual, but unfolds through the interactions and co-creations of participants and their environment.  Their ideas have similarities to activity theory, but are closer to “enactivism” (which I had not heard of), which views “the mind as embodied, engaged, and co-evolving with the world (which includes our technologies) through experience, not … as something to be considered separately from nature” (p. 17).

Here is how the authors define experience:

Experience has both internal and external aspects and includes:

  • active engagement with the world, which includes natural and man-made objects, and other people;
  • cognition, emotion, agency, and identity–what a person carries into and carries forward from experience;
  • construction of meaning, frequently built around a narrative;
  • intersubjective, joint construction of meaning within social interactions; and
  • the responses of the world to our actions and thoughts that dynamically change the situation over time. (p. 17)

Active engagement, joint construction and responses from the world are clearly external/social aspects, dependent upon our interaction with other humans (not just machines).  Cognition, emotion, agency, identity, and construction are more internal (though not solely so).  As I think about blended learning, I was struck by the combination of external/social/human aspects with internal (could these be more easily mediated by computer??) aspects.

The authors next argue that experience, being co-created, also exists on multiple temporal dimensions.  Experience is:

  • immediate, in-the-moment, felt
  • unfolds over time, always in-the-making
  • reconstructed over time
  • historically situated, depending heavily on past interactions (p. 17)

Instructional designers are comfortable with a process that unfolds over time.  But Parrish et al. suggest that if the learning experience is important, the immediate, felt dimension is critical as well.  Since blended learning has elements which are immediate and elements which are asynchronous (unfolding over time, though not exactly in the sense the authors here intend), how does this affect the learning experience?

I found interesting their explanation of qualities “we consider most critical to the development of engagement and the potential for a transformative learning experience, or one that leaves a lasting impact on a person’s sense of competence or place in the world” (p. 18).  Some were situational:

  • immediacy: “the immersive nature of the situation” (p. 18).  Designers must attend to “the sensual qualities and emotional authenticity of the situation” (p. 18) as well as the continuity of meaning in the experience.  Dr. Graham has proposed the concept of “fidelity” as one of the dimensions of interaction when comparing face-to-face and distributed learning environments.  Greater fidelity provides greater immediacy; in (blended) learning, “becoming” goals may be best served when a sense of immediacy is provided through greater fidelity.
  • malleability: “A learning situation offers malleability by being open to the contributions of learners and leaving room for individualized engagement and ownership…, the opportunity for individuals to color the experience by what they bring to it and contribute to its unfolding” (p. 18). As Dr. Graham and I spoke today, we recognized that one way in which interacting with a human is different than interacting with a computer is that humans can better understand and adapt to complexity. They are more malleable, not dictated by a set of rules which cannot be changed by participants. When humans become inflexible, they feel more machine-like.
  • compellingness: “A compelling learning experience invites learners by offering novelty and interest…” (p. 18).  Sometimes compellingness is created through problem-solving. But it can also be created through intrigue (something Veletsianos suggested, too), or a challenge to rethink our beliefs.  Is a learning experience more compelling when it involves human interaction?  (I think so.)  Must that interaction be face-to-face, co-present, or can the participants be separated geographically?  One thing Dr. Graham and I spoke of today stemmed from Artino’s finding that “students with higher task value beliefs for a particular course seem to prefer learning in a traditional classroom (as opposed to an online learning environment)” (Artino, 2010, p. 275).  In other words, subject matter we are interested in (find compelling) we want to experience face-to-face, with other human beings; content we find less compelling we are willing to check off in an online setting, interacting with a machine (and, perhaps, humans, but not co-present).
  • resonance: “A resonant learning experience both connects to our present lives and leaves a residue of ideas and attitudes that will have a clear impact on future experience” (p. 18). This sounds like the element of “meaningfulness” that is highlights by constructivist theories. (Meaningfulness also overlaps with the next quality.) I’m not sure if resonance is increased in face-to-face settings.  If the materials and questions resonate with me, I think I can engage them equally well online.  Is the human dimension important for resonance?
  • coherence: “Coherence is almost synonymous with meaning, and it can include both internal unities of intent and outside connections that complete previous experience” (p. 18).  Again, I’m not sure whether this is improved through human as opposed to machine interaction. In some ways, machines may do better here, since their content can be revised, improved, critiqued during its creations, whereas human-delivered content will always be somewhat ad lib and thus perhaps less coherent.

Parrish et al. then discuss the qualities of individuals which have bearing upon the learning experience.  In today’s discussion with Dr. Graham as well, we talked of the importance of the “input” of the learner.  For example, if we think a level of emotional engagement is an important “input”, is the amount required greater when the learner is less emotionally mature than when it is an adult learner with greater emotional strength?

In any case, these are the individual qualities that Parrish et al. discuss:

  • intent: This quality includes “individual learning goals and interests, but also attitudes, values, hopes, beliefs, likes and dislikes, and assumptions about their role in the world” (p. 18).
  • presence: This is a concept discussed in the community of inquiry theory of Garrison, Anderson, & Archer.  But here they conceive of it slightly differently.  They delineate three aspects of presence, and say that “each presumes a willingness to be vulnerable to the presence of others (Heidegger, 1962)” (p. 19): being-there (physical and mental presence); being-with (a willingness to engage others with empathy, openness to their feelings and thoughts); and being-one’s-self (being authentic and genuine in expression of one’s own thoughts and feelings). If one accepts this argument, my question in regards to blended (and distance) learning is this: is it more important to create a sense of being-with and being-one’s-self (social presence, a la CoI?) when the physical presence (part of being-there) is missing?  Do the other two kinds of presence offset the lack of physical presence?
  • openness: For the authors, openness means “being willing to submit to challenge and change with personal integrity (Dewey, 191 6). Openness admits of dependency on others-but also an interdependency and social capacity that demonstrates personal commitment to the experience as well” (p. 19). I like this quality, but right now don’t have thoughts on its application to BL or to the human-machine interaction question.  I guess you can’t ever have openness with a machine, if you think about it!
  • trust: Into this quality the authors placed several ideas: “faith that positive outcomes can occur,” “anticipation that looks ahead,” “forgiveness that every experience can at times fall short of expectations” (p. 19).  They also included the ideas that “one of the most critical dimensions of learning engagement is developing strong relationships with the content and teacher, a relationship based on willing transaction (Parrish, 2010)” (p. 19). Trust is another quality that requires human-human interaction; I don’t trust machines in these senses.  (I guess I can rely on a machine, but everyone knows it will break down right when you need it anyway! :))


Artino, A. R. Jr. (2010). Online or face-to-face learning? Exploring the personal factors that predict studentsʼ choice of instructional format. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(4): 272-276. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2010.07.005.

Parrish, P., Wilson, B. G. & Dunlap, J. C. (2011). Learning experiences as transaction: A framework for instructional design. Educational Technology, (March-April): 15-22.


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