Thursday, April 19, 2007

An accidental experiment

I've published a number of At Any Rate™ columns through Pegasus Communications. They consist of text designed to capture people's interest up front and to remind them of what they experienced later as well as a simulation model people can download and explore. The model leads people through three stages: an initial stage-setting exercise, a more complete model to show added complexity in the problem at hand, and an exploration area where people can dig a bit deeper to try their hand at addressing the problem.

Pegasus Communications advertises each At Any Rate in their free Leverage Points newsletter that has a rather large circulation, and they set up a discussion area in their Pegasus Forums for each one.

In other words, that column seems to be planted in a fertile ground in which to talk about such things. The models are interactive. They tell a story. They are published on a high-visibility site and advertised in a high-distribution newsletter. There's a space established to enable discussion.

Yet I've gotten very few off-the-record comments (all favorable) about those columns. I've seen very few comments in the Pegasus Forum. I'm not sure anyone has contacted me about what they've seen there. I'm not complaining; I know that I don't write letters to the editor of the local newspaper, even if I strongly agree or disagree with what the newspaper has published. As a result, I don't necessarily expect (although I would welcome) lots of dialog about what I post online.

On Monday, April 9, I published a similar model (new URL) on Drew McManus's Adaptistration as part of his TAFTO 2007 (new URL) series. It was not interactive; rather, it contained diagrams, graphs, and a computer program (or a text-based model, which is the same thing). Admittedly, I tried hard to use literate programming ideas to intertwine the model and the story so that it would be more interesting and readable, and I let two others in the potential audience see an advance copy so I could find and fix any impenetrable sections.

Within a day, I had a thoughtful, lengthy comment added to that column. Two bloggers made quite favorable comments about the essay. I know of at least one person who had been telling me he'll get to the latest At Any Rate any day now who read and commented on my TAFTO column within a day.

What gives?

While I realize that the singular of data is anecdote, I think that this is showing me the barrier we erect when we ask people to download, run, and learn from an interactive model. While the barrier might be lower if I had used a simulator for At Any Rate that ran in a browser, I'm not sure; one would still need to take perhaps half an hour, perhaps more, to work through the model. It takes much less time to install the software, and i'ts a one-time action—a number of readers already have it.

The barrier may be more complex than simply the challenge of installing the isee Player required by the At Any Rate column. To explore and really learn from a simulation, someone needs to be willing to experiment. That means taking the time to understand the environment, to formulate hypotheses, to write those hypotheses down, to run various tests on the simulation model, to compare the results of the test with the hypotheses, and probably to try new experiments based on the learnings from initial experiments. That's far different than just opening the application, pressing a few buttons, and seeing what happens.

Needless to say, most of us who create such interactive simulations try hard to guide the user through the process. Most of us encourage people to form those hypotheses and to document them in writing or in graphs before starting a simulation. Yet I know (from personal experience—I'm not immune) that it's far too easy to treat a simulation as a video game: press the button, and see what happens. That's not often the path to deep learning.

With the non-interactive version, people can read just a paragraph or skim the entire article to see if it seems interesting. They can come back later to dig more deeply. They can print it out, if they wish, and read it on the bus on their commute. If a text version of the model is included, they can, if they want, copy it into the simulator and explore it themselves.

My lesson? Interactive simulation is no panacea, and it may be a disadvantage if I want to get my story told, especially if my audience consists of busy or high-level people. By telling a good story, I can help the reader learn something, most likely in less time.

Is there a role for exploration, experimentation, and interactive simulations? Certainly! But I need to be sure to consider the audience, their current interests, and what they know and want to learn.

I'd welcome others' insights and experiences. In an action research sense, I'll spend some time trying to disconfirm my conjecture; in the process, I might learn more.

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