Education by Engagement and Construction:
Can Distance Learning be Better than Face-to-Face?

Ben Shneiderman

Head, Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory
Professor, Department of Computer Science
Member, Institute for Systems Research
University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742

April 12, 1994
301-405-2680 phone 301-405-6707 fax

Abstract: This essay describes an emerging theory of "education by engagement and construction," in which students work in teams to create ambitious projects with results that are presented to someone other than the professor. The video shows how a distance learning Graduate Computer Science Seminar titled "Virtual Reality, Telepresence and Beyond" was conducted according to this theory. The intense interactions by satellite TV and electronic mail may have created a greater sense of interaction and intimacy among the students than many face-to-face courses. (Video available as part of the HCIL 1994 Video Reports, contact for ordering information)

My emerging theory of "education by engagement and construction," (available on our website as Technical Report 93-05: has changed my outlook on education. I have come to recognize that students are not strongly motivated by the goals of acquiring facts, accessing information, drill & practice, and listening to lectures. Rather they prefer to create, communicate, plan, explore, build, discover, participate, initiate, and collaborate.

Stimulated by Willard Wees's book titled Nobody Can Teach Anybody Anything and encouraged by the writings of Dewey, Bruner, Piaget, and Papert, I have developed strategies that require students to take a more active role in the learning process. As I learned to lecture less and less, my students developed skills in presenting the course material, homework problems, and their team projects. The computer technology of word processors, databases, networks, graphics programs, spreadsheets, etc. has so empowered students that they can create remarkable objects of great value to others. Working in teams raises that capacity still further and teaches skills necessary for the modern workplace and communities.

The two-level process of engagement and construction starts in the classroom by requiring students to work in teams to create something substantial that they could not accomplish individually. The second level requires that they must engage with people outside the classroom to construct something of value to them. I have applied this theory and continue to refine it in teaching undergraduate courses in computing, often with advanced technology (Shneiderman 1992a, 1992b, 1993). Encouraging reports of use of this theory have come from elementary school teachers, high school instructors, and continuing education professors.

During the fall 1993 semester I taught a 3-credit 15-week Graduate Computer Science Seminar titled "Virtual Reality, Telepresence and Beyond." The course was offered live at the University of Maryland in College Park to 12 students and on satellite TV to an additional 12 students through the facilities of the National Technological University, located in Colorado Springs, CO. The technology was one-way satellite TV that allowed the remote students to see the course live by normal broadcast quality (NTSC) TV. More than half of the remote students received the tapes on a 2-7 day delay, but then they could view the course at their leisure at home and use pause, replay or fast forward VCR functions.

Electronic mail access was required for registration. A listserv that enabled me or any student to send a message to every student was available, and an FTP (File Transfer Program) directory was set up to allow posting of course outlines, bibliographies, assignments, and student projects. All correspondence was handled electronically, there was not mailing of materials to or from students.

However, it was neither the satellite TV or the electronic mail technology that made this course an exciting experiment in distance learning. Such technology is becoming widely available, and I have used each of them in my earlier teaching. The novelty of this course was the intense interactions coordinated by email and ambitious team projects suggested by the theory of engagement and construction.

The students were required to construct an online Encyclopedia of Virtual Environments (EVE) within 7 weeks. They coordinated their efforts, defined the audience to be undergraduate computer science students, identified 40 topics, and wrote them in a common style and level. Then the 24 students worked together in nine teams to create term-length research projects with algorithm development or human factors studies. The multimedia results were published online in Mosaic in our own Journal of Virtual Environments (JOVE).

One of the projects was an evaluation of the course conducted by a 50-item electronic mail survey, through review of our listserv utilization, and by interviews with class members. The result was a set of distance learning guidelines:

  1. Facilitate ease of access to needed technologies
  2. Promote a sense of engagement
  3. Foster sharing of information
  4. Promote individual gratification

Some students found the course too intense and I received two respectful letters telling me that this course was far more demanding than other distance learning courses they had taken and making suggestions for future courses. Some students felt that this course was a unique and exciting experience that changed the direction of their professional work and personal goals. While I found the course more demanding than other courses, the intense excitement encourages me to continue exploring ways to encourage successful collaborative team approaches to education.


Shneiderman, B., Education by Engagement and Construction: A Strategic Education Initiative for the multimedia renewal of American education, In Barrett, E., Ed., Sociomedia: Hypermedia, Multimedia and the Social Construction of Knowledge, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, (1992a), 13-26.

Shneiderman, Ben, Engagement and construction: Educational strategies for the post-TV era, In Tomek, Ivan (Editor), Computers and Learning, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 39-45 (Conference held at Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada (June 17-20, 1992b)). Reprinted in Journal of Computers in Higher Education 2 (4), (Spring 1993), 106-116.

Shneiderman, Ben, Education by Engagement and Construction: Experiences in the AT&T Teaching Theater, Keynote Address, ED- MEDIA'93, Orlando, FL (June 1993), In Maurer, Hermann (Editor), Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia Annual, 1993, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Charlottesville, VA, 471-479.

Tonnesen, Cindy, Barreau, Deborah, McGoff, Kim and Eslinger, Cheryl, Guidelines for Improving Distance Learning (1994), submitted for publication.

W. R. Wees, Nobody Can Teach Anybody Anything, Doubleday Canada, Toronto, Ontario, (1971).