Most dynamic representations developed for communication aren’t very enabling

Interactive diagrams and small embedded sandbox simulations in Explorable explanations may help the author get their point across, but they’re rarely useful as independent environments for the reader to think in. These elements’ main purpose is to help the reader more effectively understand the point the author wants to make.

Authors will often pay lip service to open-ended exploration and problem-solving. One common trope is giving the reader a sandbox at the end of an article. This rarely leads to anything interesting. That’s because such environments are primarily designed to help the author get their point across—rather than as a generally-useful environment to help the reader (or the author) think about problems in that domain. (See Powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes and Authored environments are significantly colored by authors’ motivations)

I think this is part of why Explorable explanations and similar media don’t seem to add up to creating an Enabling environment for readers, even though dozens have now been created. They’re striking, they’re often more interesting to read than normal articles, and the dynamic elements often make it easier to understand the author, but one doesn’t walk away from the article with the dynamic environment in one’s pocket, so to speak.

“Applets” like PhET’s would seem to address this issue, but they fall in a deeper crack: too shallow for serious thought; too complex to communicate anything without narrative. (See Narrated explorables: three mental models for more on that last point)

Specific examples

Earth: A Primer is spectacular in many ways, but it still falls prey to this problem. Its geological simulations were designed to be playful and interesting and useful to communication. They weren’t designed to think about problems in geology. So they’re fun to play with, but not much more.

Mathematica notebooks and other Executable books take a different direction. Those environments are designed primarily for thinking about hard problems; communication is a secondary concern. It shows!

Cantor is another counter-example. Those number blocks were designed “sandbox-first,” to facilitate open-ended exploration about quantity. So when they’re embedded as interactive figures in an article, they need extra features layered on top (recorded interactions, voice-overs, etc) to be usable for communication.


References

Farrar, S., Khoe, M.-L., & Matuschak, A. (2017, August 31). Numbers at play: Dynamic toys make the invisible visible. Retrieved December 31, 2019, from https://early.khanacademy.org/cantor/

Gingold, C. (2015). Earth: A Primer. Retrieved from https://www.earthprimer.com

Matuschak, A. (2018, October 27). Narrated explorables: Three mental models. Retrieved December 31, 2019, from https://medium.com/khan-academy-early-product-development/narrated-explorables-three-mental-models-e16e0d80e4c1

Conversation with Michael Nielsen, 2019-11-05