Many of us lump learning media formats into “passive” versus “active” categories. We distinguish interactive media (“active”) from playback media like audio-visual formats and page-based elearning (“passive”). It’s not a true dichotomy.

Like a child putting on a shirt, we get things inside-out and backwards. But still we speak in these terms. I make the distinction as a matter of communication convenience, but I know it’s a canard.

It’s not the format that’s passive or active, it’s us. We’re either active participants or we’re not, irrespective of format. We’re either there or we’re elsewhere.

Believe me when I tell you that I’ve never been less engaged than when sitting through in-person training sessions. I’m physically in the room. I react on cue like some creature in a Skinner box. The trainer built in all the cues, including the “now, let’s stand up and stretch” prompts, the “let’s form five groups for this exercise,” etc. But I’m not fully engaged.

I’ve had the same experience with purportedly interactive media. If it didn’t gain and sustain my attention, then I was, to some degree, mentally checked out. Although the avatar of my physical body was present, I might as well have been in Timbuktu or Honolulu, because I was daydreaming, musing on other matters.

At such moments, consciously or not, I decide that the informational meal set before me isn’t worth the eating. I opt, instead, for the mental equivalent of Chinese take-out.

Contrariwise, I’m never more involved and active than when I’m under the spell of the most “passive” of formats (as commonly defined).

The late, great film critic Roger Ebert loved cinema. He described what he called the out-of-body film experience. Some of us know it: You’re in a theater. It’s dark. You sit immobile; your feet are in cement, your torso and limbs may as well be duct-taped to the chair.

That’s because, if the content is exceptionally good, you’re fully, actively involved. In fact, you achieve such deep levels of identification with the character that, in some hard-to-explain way, you become that character for a time. You are the hero, running and leaping and fighting, struggling with conflicts both outer and inner, in pursuit of catharsis. This works not just for fictional drama, but for well-crafted informational matter.

And that’s because learners have conflicts and goals, too. They are trying to project themselves into the roles they are meant to perform. They know there will be conflicts and hurdles and obstacles in their way. They worry, they fret. It’s an essential part of growth, all of that eustress. Who will harness it?

Learning professionals could help them achieve the identification they crave if we had a better handle on what learners seek.

We don’t need Hollywood productions to pull it off, either, because this miracle of engagement works the same way with other things, like that high technology called text. One can achieve full immersion with verbal matter. We might be reading a battered book in the Bronx. There’s nothing within those pulp pages to click. No image-based matter to look at, half-tone or otherwise. Still, in that out-of-body way, we’re no longer ourselves, seated north of The Harlem River. We are James Bond, skiing under the shadow of a Swiss chalet, dodging bullets.

We need to help learners engage. We’ve made much of our mechanical ISD sciences. We’ve made far less of venerable arts that have fostered engagement since time immemorial. Sadly, we dismiss our own products as deficient because they’re “just text.” Rather than take time to master words, we look for other cures.

We chase shiny objects. We bolt on machinery. We fall in love with the naval-gazing pastime called data and analytics. We invest millions in trends, fads that Gartner or some high-tech huckster said would take our enterprise to the next level. We add marketing without understanding what the word means. It’s all rather quixotic, this tilting at technological windmills.

The answer has been there all the time, but we can’t figure out what learners are asking.

Passive or active media?


Passive or active me.

ANTHONY ROTOLO is a digital creative by day, a spy who loves you by night.