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Dr. Dinesh Katre

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and E-learning 

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is closely related to how we design and develop e-learning and 
m-learning. While writing my book, I explored topics related to HCI by reading and interacting with experts in the field. I got to learn a lot by visiting Dinesh's website and reading his publications on a host of topics in this domain. Dinesh's contribution is immensely valuable in creating awareness about different aspects of HCI such as Human Factors in Product Design, Visualization and Design of Innovative Features, User Experience Design (Interface, Interaction, Content) and so on. Presently, at CDAC, as Associate Director and HoD, Dr. Dinesh Katre manages multiple teams and coordinates between diverse technology development groups. During past 17 years at C-DAC, he has conceptualized and implemented many R&D sponsored projects that deal with Digital Museum Archives, e-Learning, Interactive Game Design and Multimedia Authoring.  He has published around 30 research papers in international conferences and journals. Recently, I got a chance to catch up with him and learn more about the relevance of HCI in e-learning.
Dr. Dinesh Katre

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) deals with human aspects of using technology. In one of your articles I came across a statement like “technology is like a wild animal, one needs to tame it...”, could you please elaborate more on this point?

Technology gives us the capability to perform some tasks, or to process some information. So, technology on its own does not have moral values or guidance on how it should perform so that the human endeavour is made simpler, easier and beneficial. For example, take any tool, for instance, a knife, you can use it for cutting the vegetable or for killing a person. Similarly, the moral values are not built into the tools or technology. Therefore, the technology has to be moulded further, to inculcate human values so that it becomes friendly and more helpful. This is where the taming aspect comes in. The process of taming is actually addressed in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) where we try to shape the behaviour of technology. We focus on human goals and how technology can address them in a holistic way.

Investment in technology based learning (e-learning) is often blamed for not giving the desired results.  There is this belief that “on its own technology can do miracles”. Often, such prevalent thoughts have a negative impact on e-learning initiatives. How can we address this issue?

Actually, we have got so much used to this term “e-learning”, we sometimes fail to understand its limitations and keep unrealistic expectations. In fact, there is nothing like electronic learning. Learning has always been a cognitive process and it is a human endeavour. All that we have is electronic learning resources. It is the learner who has to finally put in that effort and learn.

So the medium has its limitations it should only be perceived as a medium of learning, right?

Of course! The e-learning developers should ensure that there is a well-designed interplay between online and off line activities (like classroom or field work and e-learning.)  Because, we can never compromise on field observation, task performance, self-study – all these have to be there in combination with online learning resources. Such blended approach enhances the success of  e-learning  of learners otherwise they will sit  passively in front of the monitor and  expect everything to be fed into their head, which never happens.

What you are saying has lot of implications for designers also. When we design we need to keep in mind the other means of blending may be some classroom activities, field trips, some other practical work.

Absolutely. This is where some aspects of human computer interaction are relevant. E-Learning and HCI needs to be discussed together. In case of e-learning, it is not just the human interface but the content usability and learnability are also in question. The usability of the learning content has to be evaluated, usability in terms of how I can interact with it and what sense I can make of it. One can apply work analysis, transactional analysis and discourse analysis for this purpose. People tend to choose between learning approaches in terms of behavioural or constructivist or cognitivist, but I believe all of them are used together depending on the content and context.

Yes, agree completely. And it is very situational and we use all these styles together and sometimes simultaneously depending on what the situation is demanding. Could you tell us more about applying discourse analysis?

The discourse analysis involves understanding the interaction between the teacher and the student (s), their relationship. In the classical model where the teacher assumes some sort of authority and the learner becomes receptive. It is a kind of psychological bond which basically engages the student in the discourse.  Eventually, the instruction that comes from the teacher stays on in the memory. A proper combination of transactional analysis, discourse analysis and human work analysis -  this is a new approach we are pursuing. What you perform in the field while doing a particular task, that is covered in the human-work analysis. This brings in the HCI dimension where instruction is also a part of it along with the user interface, user interaction and above all the learner experience. In case of e-learning we have to think in terms of learner experience design.

What exactly does human work analysis involve? How can we use it while designing learning experience?

Human work analysis has multiple layers, task analysis would focus on breaking down the steps involved in a task. It also has cognitive work analysis at each step, one has to observe which cognitive processes were invoked, how the task was understood and the results were also look at the overall work environment, also look at the sensorial aspects.

Human work analysis is very complex and this is a very active research domain where one tries to explore the techniques and methods which could be applied for human work analysis so that you are able to design a proper interaction. Many times we design the interaction with very less attention on what methods that were used to analyse the human work – was the method appropriate and reliable enough ?..otherwise the interaction design will not match the requirements. Let’s contextualize these points with an example:

In the context of e-learning, we were working on a 3D watershed game design for the farmers. In this game, we tried to simulate the terrain of the village using the satellite maps. The villagers had to place the farm bunds, stone bunds, construct the dams and build a watershed. They were expected to perform these tasks on a touch screen monitor. My question was what happens to the sense of proportion, the spatial orientation or the different directions when villagers interact with 3D terrain on a 2D display. During the tests we found that people were not able to understand directions, they were not able to understand the proportions of different objects, sizes, distances. We had projected this terrain on a large screen and a human figure was kept near tree like object and we expected a villager to estimate the height of the tree. The villagers went up to the screen and tried to measure the height of the tree! He took the projected image as real! These are the things we were able to spot when we did the testing or human work analysis.

Definitely, this will bring in a very different perspective to design and also address the problems in real learning situation. Now, let’s move on to another challenge in HCI and e-learning – this related to mlearning or learning from different handheld devices.

When it comes to mobile devices, we have to understand the constraints. First is it causes visual arrest (you can’ t be moving around while your attention is on the mobile device). It should be used for learning purpose for short spans of time. You can’t be using your mobile phone continuously for long duration learning programs.  You can use it for small time learning. It can be used for practising certain things like Android apps for mental mathematics or some language learning apps to pick up foreign language vocabulary and phrases. It’s good form small nuggets of learning. It can help in performance support, like technical support for solving a problem at the customer site. A small application can quickly train the support persons to fix a problem.

Where are we in digitization of content in Indian languages? Now, is it possible to have more of e-learning content in Indian languages?

Definitely, it is possible now. With Unicode becoming a standard, most Indian languages are now supported across diverse platforms. We can get the tweets and FaceBook updates in Indian languages. Gradually, Indian language content has started getting created, though people are still not using it for sending emails or SMSs because the text input is not that easy. We need to create opportunities, such projects, where learning content is produced in Indian languages. Technology is no more a constraint for Indian languages.

Based on your work experience, research, publications what would you advise students in the field of HCI and e-learning? Do we have enough formal academic programs in this area?

I would prefer small workshops and events in this domain. The full-fledged courses are still evolving. I’ve been invited by many academic institutions to review their syllabus but somehow I’m not very happy with the kind of syllabus that is designed. The institutes are confused about whether HCI, e-learning should be introduced at the undergraduate level or post graduate level. Things which are very interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary in nature should normally be kept at the PG level. For example e-learning is a multi-disciplinary subject – it involves visual communication, learning methodology, cognitive science, multimedia, and authoring tools, etc. So one has to have a proper background in at least one of the disciplines before they go for a multidisciplinary subject like HCI or e-learning. It should be introduced at the PG level. Similarly, courses in usability or user experience should be introduced at the PG level but many institutions are already offering undergraduate programs. I feel this is not a good way to start, the students should have majored in at least one discipline. Proper thinking has to go in into what kind of program we wish to offer, what are the prerequisites to get into this area must be defined. When it comes to designing a course on e-learning  it is important that we should involve a panel of experts and approach it properly rather than collecting some fancy terminologies from Google and forming your syllabus.

What about career opportunities and professional growth in this area?

 Though there are lot of job opportunities, we need clarity on the processes, role definitions, responsibilities. May be it exists in some pockets but I don’t think we can say that it is well defined everywhere. You have clear understanding of skills, knowledge, job role and responsibilities for engineers but perhaps the same is not true when it comes to the user experience designer or instructional designer, at least in India, I would say this is true. Practitioners have to assert their role and make a legitimate space for themselves. The other thing is, we have to evolve some models by which the e-learning service providers, instructional designers, domain experts – all three of them could get together. For example, in case of online translation services, professional networks are available. Those who need the translation service are put in contact with the professionals through such networks. Similarly e-learning service providers, Instructional Designers and domain experts could be integrated together.