Interactive Essays


What are these?
The Interactive Essay (IE) is a format of assessment that I have developed for our Education Studies course but one that could be used across a range of other areas.
The focus is on developing the same traditional skills that accompany an academic essay, and enhancing these to demonstrate new skills and new means of creating an argument, of making your point.
The assumption is that the traditional essay does a job but that this format of written argument in a decades (centuries!) old format needs to be adapted to allow for more relevant skills and approaches to be included.
In discussions about ‘Digital Natives’ or ‘Visitors and Residents, or even the ‘Death of the Digital Native‘ you have been vocal about the pluses and the minuses of technology.  I am not so interested in the unseeable future but we are in a space now where we can adapt to our landscape and become confident users of technology.

Why us?

A fair question, though I did ask it myself! I think as education students we are in an interesting space between conformity and standardisation (think OFSTED, QAA, Quality Standards and league tables) on the one hand; and on the other hand, we are a part of the ways that learning and teaching will look in the future.  That means taking risks playing with ideas and concepts, thinking up new ways of working and often being amongst the ‘first to try’ new ideas.
It means things like Sway, or Prezi, can be incorporated into our work as long as we are aware of our need to be vigilant, critical, creative and responsive people.  It means we are open to new, and open to being investigators of this as a possibility, not as a set of restrictive and progressive hoops to jump through.  We may be advocates, so long as we see the benefits.  We may be fierce critics so long as we can be clear about what the limitations are and why people need to think about the use of one technology or another.

We need to be amongst those that see technology as one possible solution but also be open to its limitations and never suggest it as a first and only option.  So, in the ecology of learning that we inhabit we need to look and see if the technologies about is are giving us more, or less, than we already had.  With access to video/ animation/podcast/ and other forms of production we need to consider beyond what that means for us as consumers and start to look at what it means for us (and those around us in our careers) as producers.

The use of animation has seen Ken Robinson goes to megastar status through the engaging video by RSAAnimate (coupled with a very well developed argument obviously!)

I think it is clear that the form of delivery, the medium, was significant in spreading his message.
We cannot underestimate the role of technology in making us aware of  depth in argument too; the brilliant article by Torn Halves “Toward a Luddite Pedagogy’ gives us more understanding of how technology is becoming part of educational discourse that asks us to become critical while also using technology to develop these ideas and share them.  If we look at Hybrid Pedagogy as an example of how journals may well develop, we can see that incorporating technology can be seen as a skill, an integral part of the way we share ideas.  The I.E. is just a starting point in asking you to look at your own practices and consider how they can be enhanced to meet the possibilities of what comes next, by using what is here now.

How is it any different?

The first thing to note is we have this agreed and validated as an actual, formal and accredited part of our programme.  This was no easy task but the development of the Interactive Essay as a valid and worthwhile assignment is suggestive of a changing approach to what is understood as valid in the often rigid and traditional world of academia.
It is also worth noting that this is not a presentation.  The skills needed to include video/ animation/ media of any hue and shade is well established in (some) lectures and presentations.  This is not that, the goals is not to develop a Prezi for use in a face to face space, a lecture theatre, classroom or seminar room.
This presentation (below) for a Guest lecture slot with Counselling students has a range of interactive opportunities that rely on my being in the room, able to speak and ‘animate’ between the animation and ask questions, respond and give life to the flat screen

Although technology is useful in the lecture, it relies still on a person being there to make the links, tell the story and give a purpose to this string of technological pearls.
For the IE, the ‘life’ and the voice of you as author comes through academic writing.  Through the written argument you create and enhance through the addition of multi-media approaches.  A poor essay with weak argument and  structure does not become any better because we drop a YouTube video in middle of it!
What is possible is that you can start to look differently at the work you produce to engage with, embody and consider a range of other media.  The current space of academic writing as we feel it is resistant to inclusion of blogs, as they are not peer reviewed in recognised models of review.  Hybrid Pedagogy shows that this blurring of interactivity and validity is changing.  This is an opportunity to include these new skills and practices in our own work.

How do we make them?

I have been looking at a number of ways to use these over the last two years and I have a few pieces of advice based on the following qualities:

Allowing links to other media: One of the key attributes of the I.E. is the inclusion of video/ animation/ hyper links to websites.  I have used Blogger for this as I could not do all of this on MS Word, nor on Google Docs.  You can choose what works best for you, what you have some familiarity with; first of all, evaluate the chosen platform for what it can, and cannot, do.

Share/ keep private: The essay is yours, your network of sharing is yours.  What is essential is you find a platform that allows this to be as wide or as narrow as you need it to be.  You do not need to share this essay, of course.  However, rather than having a flat and final submission, sharing your ideas can lead to a situation where others continue to feedback on your content and help you develop ideas.  The essay is part of a learning process in this case, not just a final endpoint.

Submission: As a part of the course you also need to be able to submit this.  You can submit via plagiarism software if it is some types of document, not if its others.  Turnitin style checks will not work so well here so we also need links to your essay via a forum on the VLE.

Referencing:  Referencing does not go away, it is still vital.  In fact, it is more complex now as you need to consider what Howard Rheingold calls crap detection (mini course here).  The use of media still needs to be referenced alongside the traditional journals, texts and so on.  Will this change in your essay?  I am open to that, but you need to be able to describe how and why.

How can they work?

The issue of any traditional essay is that it is relatively ‘flat’.   You are an author with an intended audience that is usually just a handful of people: your tutor/ lecturer, a moderator, an external examiner.  As you develop your skills with this audience in mind you become straitened to their wants and these only as their roles in academic grading.  The focus becomes not one of you as a writer developing skills for a wide audience in a life that will follow, but in writing for a narrow audience with a rigid rubric-based grading system.

This is a standard, and one that we are all involved in and maybe reliant on as a guide to what we do now, how we see education and learning NOW!
Perhaps we need to establish new ways of developing essays that adhere to the existent, traditional, formal requirements while also seeking to embed the possibilities technology provides.

The introduction of animation, of video, of multiple ways of sharing knowledge and demonstrating how you are shaping your argument helps develop new skills.  This is my argument about transference, of transmission.

Yet, what of the interactive element?  How can we alter what is potentially a  limiting and restrictive output space for your ideas and arguments and include wider contributions?

The focus of our sessions has been one of academic papers, discussed prior to sessions, opened to multiple perspectives through blogs, social media and ultimately in the classroom seminar.  It looks as if those leading each seminar, and consequently developing the blogs, videos, animations and social media discussions are most alive to the depth of each paper; but that ‘aliveness’ has come from the purposeful engagement with the views of others.  What if this vibrant exchange space became a part of the purpose of final and formative submissions?

In this Interactive Essay I have considered the possibility of guiding the readers toward a series of interesting points that I have found in a MOOC podcast (below).  I have done this in a very limited and brief way here to show the concept.  But I think it highlights the possibility.  The aim is not to simply ‘drop-in’ a video/ animation/ podcast as if that was enough.  Instead, this raises the dimensions of engagement,. beyond a reading of the page to a reaching out to another series of speakers/ authors.  It might be that you create your own podcast, your own videos to share some ideas in a way that broadens the way ideas are shared.
Those skills and that creative process immediately makes an impact on what you do with the arguments you are finding in the literature.  From a single skill of academic writing we start to engage with skills of sequencing and argument forming that consider a multi-modal approach to learning.
Beyond this, we may find that what we thought of a paper, a chapter, a policy or a report starts to look and ‘feel’ different when we do different things with it – when we speak it out,  try to find the key, the significance, the most compelling line of an argument.
The multi-modal is then not just a new way of doing something familiar, but actually changes what this means.  It also reaffirms those skills of sequencing, of analysis, of balance in argument and depth of reading.  Your ‘voice’, often such a difficult thing to find when also being asked to find a ‘new’ academically verified voice, becomes clearer as you are able to expand across other media.


To avoid the dangers of ‘just adding hyper-links’ or simply embedding videos for no apparent purpose, the IE allows you to start to think of the means of engaging your reader to interact.  The discussion, the interactive engagement with our ideas, can happen in a number of ways.  On a blog, the comments box is an easy to access and useful means of getting feedback from some readers.
You might want a more targeted reading process and a space that is open to find out what you think has been important.  I have used a Google Form below, embedded it, tailored it to ask a couple of simple questions based on gauging how people understand details in the podcast.
The final of these questions is more open, it provides a feedback space that is asking for opinion and that might give you an increased awareness of other perspectives, even links and names of authors that others have found relevant.  The essay becomes more than just a final artefact, a single product that you labour over submit and forget.  It can take on a life of its own.

The skills you would then find are becoming important include the creation, yes, but also networking, finding others in your area of interest, and the sense of writing for them as well as a finite and tiny moderation team.

It takes more to write an IE than it does to write a traditional essay, perhaps.  The value in it is personal, enhancing  traditional skills, but also society-wide as you become a producer not a consumer.  The social media spaces, the web in general, can be something you contribute to with care, attention to detail, informed ideas and arguments.

The ‘dumbing down’ of the web as a place for photos of meals and cats in goldfish bowls still remains, but you can use it too as a means of creating critical awareness and ‘a voice’ that places you in the wider world.  The Interactive Essay is more than ‘just another assignment’, it is an opportunity to help create new practices, skills and means of sharing what you know.

Developing an approach to ethics online

It was important for the project to develop a framework to support those using IE in their ethical use of digital platforms and social media for research and dissemination of their Interactive Essays. Drawing from existing practices and involving students in the design of this resource, the Ethical Framework for Interactive Essays opens discussion.  The focus is on the purpose of ethics, keeping those involved safe, and responding also to moral and legal obligations.  While process is created through the development of the framework our goal is to develop an ongoing discussion, refection and practice based on asking what ethics is, what it requires from our use of technology and allowing all experiences to inform what we do.


Creating Interactivity 

The first image here is a link to a podcast “My Teacher is an App”.  Listen to this and then answer the questions in the form below.  This is a short task that is used to highlight what can be created.  It is your choice about what use interaction would be, whether it should be to find things out, ask for opinion, check understanding an how well you made your points.  This is just one option and you are free to create others and develop this as a concept. 

My Teacher is an App