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Q&A with Don Norman
a freewheeling exchange with a true visionary of interaction design

By Lisa Neal / August 2002

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Don Norman, who has been called "the guru of workable technology" by Newsweek magazine, has few peers in the field of user-centered design. His books include The Design of Everyday Things, Things That Make Us Smart, and The Invisible Computer. He is a principal of The Nielsen Norman Group (which he co-founded with Web-design expert Jacob Nielsen), Professor for Computer Science at Northwestern University, and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. In addition, Norman recently served as an executive at online learning specialists UNext/Cardean University. eLearn magazine Editor-in-Chief Lisa Neal met with him recently to discuss the current state of online learning.

LISA NEAL: How does distance education compare to classroom education?

DON NORMAN: Distance education is of necessity different from local education. Because it is so different, you have to actually think harder about what you're doing. The result could be superior. And it's not because I believe that distance education is superior to--what shall we call it?--traditional education. It's surprising how little attention is actually paid to the instructional matters and to how much people learn in traditional courses. But in a distance education environment, you must pay attention to it.

LISA NEAL: What do you think about the current state of instructional design for online courses?

DON NORMAN: Instructional design refers to a particular philosophy of setting your goals upfront and making sure there are various metrics. And what I've seen is very uninspiring. It's all very logical-- and the courses are horrible. I'm a big believer in motivating the student by getting them excited about the problem and then thrusting them into the problem before they're ready. They have to be unready in just the right amount. If they're too unready it's confusing and they give up.

LISA NEAL: Can you give an example?

DON NORMAN: The traditional way of teaching, actually, is that instructional designers do an analysis of the material--say, basic digital circuitry. In order to understand that you need to understand digital logic. And to understand that you need to understand Boolean logic and Boolean algebra. So that's where they start. And the really interesting stuff doesn't come up for a long time, just the dull introductory stuff that logically is essential to understand. But how do you keep yourself going? What I want to do is throw them the challenge of making an exciting computer game, or something that would be fun to build. Then they'll discover they need to know more about computer logic and other topics. You lead them through so that at every step there's a gap, but it doesn't seem unapproachable.

LISA NEAL: Can that approach be successful for all students, for all topics, and for all settings?

DON NORMAN: I believe the fundamental approach works. But there are several considerations--first of all, what motivates one student might be very different from what motivates another. Second, if I'm really already very well-motivated to learn, then the approach I just mentioned gets in my way, and what I want instead is to be told what to read. That's how I learn a lot of the skills I pick up.

LISA NEAL: What happens when a company wants to teach, say, diversity training to 1,000 people?

DON NORMAN: I don't believe there's any way you can do it that will hit everybody at the right level unless you can tailor the instruction or have one-to-one tutors. How do you give a lecture to 300 people? You can't--even though we do it all the time.

The problem-based approach is great at motivating people and focusing attention on what's important to learn. And we know that you learn better if you know what's important. But not everybody needs that. Or people may have different motives for taking the course, in which case one problem will miss some of them.

The real issue here is mass education. There's no single method that's going to hit everybody.

LISA NEAL: If you're trying to offer diversity training throughout your company, what is the best approach?

DON NORMAN: If your problem is getting people physically together, then use an online course. But I can't believe that an online course is inherently superior; if everybody's already together, why not teach people directly? It allows you to have better social interaction and answer questions more rapidly than online. Besides avoiding travel, the only reason to use technology is to enhance learning. For instance, some medical instruction is wonderfully done, using a combination of video, computers, and models so people can practice surgery online.

LISA NEAL: Is the real advantage of being online is that you can do things that you wouldn't be able to do in the classroom?

DON NORMAN: Yes, but it's hard to find a course where the entire course is better online than in the classroom. I've never been a fan of online or distance education. I've been a fan of education.

At Cardean University we had a very particular market. We had people who could not afford to go to a university or were traveling too much. We didn't say that this was superior to the university--we said this is for people who can't go to a traditional university.

LISA NEAL: How important is peer interaction in an online course?

DON NORMAN: I think Cardean was weak in student interaction. We talked about it a lot, but we didn't really implement it. I think peer interaction is where you learn. And having students teach each other is where you learn. Having students work together in groups is essential. The course is not just the material that we present to them.

LISA NEAL: In Italy there's a Slow Food movement with a snail for the symbol on restaurant windows. It means they use seasonal, local ingredients and traditional cooking processes. People have similarly talked about the slow learning. What do you think about that compared to just-in-time learning?

DON NORMAN: In a paper David E. Rumelhart and I wrote a long time ago, we argued learning had three components, which we called accretion, restructuring, and tuning. Accretion is what happens when I go through the day and I pick up this fact, and that fact, and I'm learning. Just-in-time learning is fine for that. I'm a big fan of just-in-time. Tunings is the difference between an expert and the informed. For instance, a senior who's finished physics knows physics, but if you ask him to solve a problem he has to think about it and puzzle. If you ask an expert to solve the problem, they look at it and immediately they know that this is an energy conservation problem and they attack it. They may not even remember the equations, but they can classify it right away. They don't worry about remembering the equations; they'll derive them again or something. The hard part is knowing what kind of a problem it is and what to focus on. The real difference often has to do with how many times you've done it.

My standard example is juggling, which I learned from Seymour Papert at MIT. I can teach you how to juggle three balls in probably ten minutes. But it'll then take you two or three years of practice to be good at it. What goes on in those two or three years? Well, it's tuning, it's making it subconscious, automatic--adding precision to the way you toss, and to the way you quickly spot where the balls are going to come down. No thought is required.

Well, that's accretion and tuning. Restructuring is where real learning, what we think of as learning, takes place, and it's rare. It's when you've been given all this stuff and you can parrot it back, and even use it, but you don't truly understand it. This is what takes time and thought. What you need is the right framework. And at some point by some magic, which we don't fully understand, you suddenly get the right point of view and then it all clicks into place. That's when you have this "ah-ha" experience.

If you only learn a half-hour here, a half hour there, it'll never happen. So there are different kinds of learning and reasoning. Most training doesn't require this restructuring so most training can be done just-in-time. There's a problem in teaching fundamental material. If I want you to be really good at computer circuits, at some point you just have to learn the basics, and you have to really understand them, because I never want you to think about them again.

LISA NEAL: Do you draw a real line between training and education?

DON NORMAN: No, I don't. But there's a prototype of training, which is learning how to do a task for the moment. And there's a prototype of education, which is understanding deep fundamental principles. If you look at what goes on in training, and you look at what really goes on in universities, the line is horribly blurred. A lot of what you do in universities is really training, and a lot of what you do in training could be called education. If you look in the dictionary, training is defined in terms of education, and vice versa.

LISA NEAL: Do you think that learners need guidance to find a learning environment that minimizes distractions?

DON NORMAN: Yes. But one of the problems of distance education and home study is that you have to be self-motivated. And a lot of people can't manage it. One of the advantages of a traditional classroom where you have to show up three times a week is that it's externally motivated.

You asked me once before: As a university professor, isn't it strange that no one's ever told me how to teach? Well, as a nation of learners, isn't it strange we don't teach people how to learn?

Many years ago Herb Simon was vehement about this. We should be teaching fundamental problem-solving skills and learning skills, not the content, but the skills for doing it. If you had those skills then you could yourself pick up any material you needed.

Although it's obvious we should study without distractions, so few people do it. Teenagers insist on playing music, television, and having the telephone and cell phone next to them all the time they're studying, and claim that there's no problem. I would love to see somebody study this. My personal belief is that they're not doing deep learning, they're not doing deep studying. Maybe with the material they have they don't need to. I believe the music they play could actually be helping them.

I've been focusing my research recently on the study of affect and emotion, in part because I want to build intelligent robots that are autonomous, and the only way to make them exist and be smart is to give them affective emotion. And for the first time I think there's enough known where we can make advances.

I'm learning a number of things, including the fact that the affective system is a very powerful information processing system that places value judgments. It makes rapid value judgments, plus-affect and minus-affect. And those value judgments affect the way the cognitive system processes information. It truly does. Slight arousal and especially apprehension focuses you.

LISA NEAL: Is that what music might be doing for teenagers?

DON NORMAN: That's what music might be doing. If you're slightly pleased and happy, you end up actually being slightly dis-focused. Which makes you a better creative problem solver. You're more easily distractible, but you're also doing more breadth-first thinking and more out-of-the-box thinking. When you're slightly anxious you do more depth-first thinking and are less distracted.

LISA NEAL: Can you, under certain circumstances, enhance an online student's state of nervousness through music?

DON NORMAN: Artists have always thought so--hence, the use of music in movies. Movies go to great efforts to recreate realism on screen and get you involved, yet feel it essential that they have music in the background. They feel it really adds to the interpretation and experience. It's often the case that artists are ahead of scientists. What scientists do is notice what the artists have done, and then try to understand it.

LISA NEAL: With corporate training, some people saw going to training classes as a benefit--time away from work, travel, coffee and donuts, etc. Do you think there's something there that can be motivating for people?

DON NORMAN: Yes, because if you take a look at even higher education, education is only a small part of it. When you go to the university it's the last stage of the maturation process. It's where you meet your lifetime friends and contacts. It's where you have your last fling. Sometimes it's the first time away from home. I certainly believe that company education is related--you get to meet people from all the other branches of the company. It is a relief from your day-to-day work. You break out of your normal diets, have donuts and lots of coffee, and go out drinking every night. Those are very positive things. Most companies treat this as an extra expense, instead of an opportunity, but they can help build company loyalty and pay back as much as the things that are learned.

LISA NEAL: What can be done to enhance the learner experience?

DON NORMAN: There's a really important concept, which is flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi told me that I was just trying to recreate the flow experience, and I think he's right. Flow is a wonderful experience when you do it. Sometimes a good book can cause it, or good theatre, or movie. The world disappears and you're focused entirely on the material.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that you have to have just the right amount of challenge--that's what I think the proper learning state is, if you can somehow manage it. That's what's so difficult in a lecture. Sometimes you have the people spellbound, but if I can do it for five minutes, I'm lucky. And with a large lecture you can't do it for everybody. And that's where the distractions of modern life destroy it. You get into the flow state and the phone rings--and it's gone.


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