Do you remember the first time you used a touch-screen device like a modern smart phone or tablet computer? The sensation you felt as you used what previously was a common tool (phone or computer) in a completely new way? It’s a definitive experience for many people and it comes as no surprise that touch-screen interfaces, which initially have been so popular in smart-phones, have now become such a disruptive technology in the portable computer market.

What got me thinking about this was something I read in Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps’ excellent “Telling Ain’t Training”. In it they explained, “the five senses are the portals through which the raw materials for learning enter our bodies. The more of the learner’s senses we engage in organized and meaningful ways, the more easily learning can occur”. This implies that, in addition to audio and visual interaction, the act of adding tactile interaction with your material can have a direct impact on learning.

Now certainly using your fingertips to navigate and interact with activities within an eLearning course is a limited use of the touch sense. However it is increasing the channels of communication that the learner is using to process the material. What does that mean? Again, Stolovitch and Keeps write “By targeting site, hearing, touch, smell, and even taste, we increase attention because the learner simultaneously engages several senses in a complimentary (nonconflicting) manner. This results in heightened comprehension and retention. Stimulus variation offers a greater payoff.” (Note: emphasis mine).

There seems to be something hard-wired in us that make touch-screen interfaces immediately accessible. There are countless videos online of young children, some just a year old (!), intuitively navigating the interface on an iPhone or iPad without any prior experience. They change screens, open applications, and play with the interface is a very effortless way.

Intentionally, touch-screen interaction is simple in comparison to a standard keyboard/mouse interface. The focus is on the user experience and creating fluid interface design so that users are able to easily find and use what they are looking for. This works well for a majority of people because it digs away at the technical barrier between human and machine. By eliminating an extra layer of separation between the user and the content, we are empowering users who are not as computer savvy as others, giving them the same relative level of access and control to the information.

This isn’t just great interface design however; there is something psychological at play as well. In looking into this further online I found Gary Machionini’s “Psychological Dimensions of User-Computer Interfaces”, which states, “Direct manipulation interfaces (such as touch panels in information kiosks or input devices and graphic displays in most video games) overcome many psychological limitations because they share the ‘load’ between physical and cognitive activity. In addition, their immediate feedback and easily reversibility invites user exploration.” This strongly supports the notion that the varied stimulus of a touch-screen interface, where the physical and cognitive activity is shared, can have a direct impact on actually lowering the limitations of the learner.

As with any new technology the goal for learning designers and educators alike will be to adapt our messages in ways that will take advantage of these new tools. Crafting our content in a way that encourages meaningful, tactile manipulation can add another step in the ultimate goal of helping people learn.

So what do you think? What ways can you think of to utilize tactile interaction to support your content? Have you used a tablet computer yet and if so, what was your impression of the user interface?

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