An investigation of interactivity and flow: student behaviour during online instruction

Jon Pearce, The University of Melbourne

Abstract of PhD Thesis, 2004

This thesis combines ideas from human-computer interaction, education and psychology to explore the interactions of students in an online learning environment. The motivation for the work was to understand better how to engage students in a highly enjoyable experience of online learning.

The thesis describes three experiments. The first was an exploratory investigation of students interacting with an online sequence of activities presenting ideas in physics. The 109 participants spent about half-an-hour exploring set exercises that provided instructional text together with an interactive simulation. They were able to switch freely between interactive and non-interactive versions of the material. Various measures were recorded before, during and after the session: students’ understanding of physics, their emotions and their learning aims. Students’ detailed interactions with the learning materials were monitored. This experiment informed our understanding of how students interacted with this type of learning environment and how their emotions changed during these interactions. Several issues were identified as important to consider in a follow-up study: emotions, affect, challenge, and the degree of control that the learner perceives.

The second experiment explored these issues using flow theory as a theoretical underpinning. Traditional flow measurement techniques were used to examine how consistently they described the behaviour and experiences of students. A cohort of fifty-nine undergraduate students explored a new online learning exercise. They were split into two groups and given different degrees of control over their environment. Again their interactivity was monitored, as well as their learning outcomes and measures of flow. A method of visualisation was developed to monitor the process of students moving in and out of flow as they engaged with the tasks. Patterns of flow and learning were identified, but the measurement techniques provided an inconsistent picture of flow.

The third experiment used similar software to probe more deeply the flow experiences of students. Eight students partook in this qualitative study in which they completed a modified online exercise and responded to interview questions that aimed to enrich our understanding of the flow process. Analysis of this final experiment showed that flow is a process associated with either the software simulation with which students interact, or the learning tasks in which students are engaged. Recognition of this was crucial to understanding students’ flow behaviour. It not only helped to explain why the earlier flow measurement techniques were lacking, but also sounded a warning that flow has the potential to hinder learning as well as to support it.

This research has confirmed a link between flow and learning and produced a challenge for software designers and instructional designers to find ways to direct students’ focus away from an engaging software simulation towards the learning task at hand.