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The Psychology of User-friendliness:
The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning
Steven J Coombs
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Accepted for publication in the October 2000
Korean Journal of Thinking & Problem Solving
The Korean Journal of Thinking & Problem Solving, 10(2), 19—31
The Psychology of User-friendliness:
The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning
Since the advent of Information Technology (IT) software systems over the last 20 years or so, the term
'user-friendly' has become widely used and is generally associated with well-designed IT solutions that
the user can easily interact with. Indeed, user-friendly software implies that the human computer
interface (HCI) and interactability of the IT system have been designed in such a way so as to allow
immediate and meaningful participation. This article attempts to provide a psychological conceptual
model that explains the idea of user-friendliness in terms of IT systems operating as an easy-to-access
reflective learning tool. Further, that the quality of critical thinking interaction via IT software depends
on both humanistic and instructional technology design considerations which affect the system's ability
to operate as an efficient reflective learning interface with a person. IT software learning systems that
enable the user to transfer ideas and experiences into new conceptual knowledge is proposed by the
author to be a knowledge elicitation system (KES). The critical and creative thinking design rationale
and generic criteria of a KES will be shared with readers, in order that any IT learning system can be
readily evaluated in terms of its user-friendly 'learnability' and reflective learning capability. Many of
the core pedagogic concepts and innovative theories in this article have been summarized into an
information table (see Table 1), which provides a synthesis of the relationships between what is meant
by a reflective learning interface and a KES.
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
The need for IT thinking tools
The last few decades has brought about an information technology (IT) revolution that now affects the
social and political agenda of most nations. The new millenium is now perceived as the dawn of the
knowledge society. Human resource development is now being considered in terms of educational
policies that include the twin implementation issues of IT and critical and creative thinking. In
particular, Asia-Pacific countries, such as Malaysia and Singapore, have been addressing these needs
through radical shifts in education policy. Malaysia has currently embarked on an ambitious IT
scheme called the Multi-media Super Corridor (MSC), while Singapore’s Ministry of Education
(MOE) has recently launched a programme entitled “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” that includes
significant changes in educational policy. These changes include a move from didactic teaching
methods to learner-oriented project work that will be included in the assessment system – as reported
by Singapore’s “The Sunday Times” 22nd March 1998, in the front page leading article: “Less chalkand-talk, more project work for students”. This move towards delivering project work as a means of
inculcating greater learning and creativity is to be supported by a dramatic increase in the use of IT as a
curriculum-oriented thinking tool. Indeed, the MOE has provided guidelines seeking IT to be infused
into at least 30% of all curriculum time. It has provided a huge S$2 billion budget as part of a national
IT MasterPlan initiative for developing IT in schools that aims to achieve a ratio of 2 pupils/students to
every computer throughout the education system. Clearly, the pedagogic quality and purpose of IT as a
learning resource to support the educational curriculum is of considerable importance. It is my
contention that the knowledge transfer capability of IT learning resources is dependent upon their
ability to operate in a user-friendly manner with the learner. This is in terms of both physical personal
access into the IT-based instructional system and how the learner psychologically elicits knowledge
from it. This suggests that designing instructional technology software that can maximize thoughtbased learner interaction contributes toward a fertile learning environment for the personal
construction of knowledge. This idea agrees with Jonassen's notion that educational technology
learning resources should operate as student-centred "Mindtools for critical thinking" (Jonassen, 1996).
This article considers user-friendliness in the context of recent leading-edge developments in IT
software systems from both a business and educational perspective. User-friendliness is defined in
terms of a psychological model of human learning that assumes a conversational cybernetic paradigm
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
(see Table 1) in which learner interaction is considered to be a systems-based combination of reflexive
and reflective thinking skills. This pedagogic concept of a conversational constructivist paradigm is
explained more fully later in this article. However, it is from this systems-thinking psychological
model of user-friendly learning systems that we can understand how to enable the conversational
fluency of learner interaction through the deployment of appropriate knowledge elicitation tools and,
hence, understand how to evaluate such IT thinking tools as a reflective learning technology.
Defining “User-friendliness” as a form of reflective learning
In answer to the question “what is a user-friendly learning system?” I would give this insightful
answer: “ something that enables the user to interact in a meaningful and conversationally fluent
manner, so as to maximize one’s creative learning potential”. It is from this perceived concept of
learner interaction with machines, such as computers, that the term of user-friendliness was first
coined. Advanced software systems have been identified with improving the so-called Man-Machine
Interface (MMI) (see Table 1) and the IT software industry has made great strides over the last few
decades towards the current user-friendly desktop environments that are collectively known as
graphical user interfaces (GUI) (see Table 1). This article considers user-friendly interaction from the
conversational learning paradigm perspective of Laurie Thomas and Sheila Harri-Augstein (1985).
They define human learning as “ the construction and reconstruction, exchange and negotiation of
significant, relevant and viable meanings” (p.2). Their theory of the self-organized learner (S-O-L) is a
personal constructivist theory of human learning that considers the design and use of reflective tools
and processes which lead to an improved repertoire of inner-reflexive skills. Steven Coombs and Ian
Smith (1998) have explored the person-based relationships between reflection and reflexivity. In their
article “Designing a Conversational Learning Environment” they identify a learning theory based on
"conversational constructivism" that provides a new insight into understanding the relationship
between thinking and learning. They summarize Harri-Augstein & Thomas’ S-O-L conversational
paradigm in terms of three core principles:
Real personal learning depends on self-assessment and reflective evaluation through the construction of
internal referents;
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
The S-O-L practice depends on the ability of the learner to self-monitor and control the learning process
whilst developing appropriate models of understanding; and
Shared meaning is negotiated conversationally from social networks. Such social networks can be understood
as conversational learning environments that construct their own viability and validity, resulting in a capacity
for creative and flexible thinking. (p. 7)
All these reflective learning and self-organisational thinking processes can be achieved through either
real-life or virtual learning environments. Virtual learning environments (see Table 1) have the ability
to simulate real-life environments, which is very convenient for instructional technology designers
wishing to emulate a diverse range of rich social learning encounters from within an institution.
However, it shall be later argued that IT virtual reality (see Table 1) learning environments can provide
an enhancement to learning that goes beyond normal real-life encounters and can contribute a new kind
of critical thinking scaffold (see Table 1).
David Jonassen (1996) also suggests that learners need to be able to reflect on, self-assess and construct
personal meaning from their computer-aided instructional learning system. Jonassen proposes that any
system which supports a learner with this kind of higher-order thinking task is an Intelligent Tutoring
System (ITS) and Coombs and Wong (2000) describe this kind of learning support as a self-coaching
thinking scaffold to enable better quality student-centred learning activities. Thus, user-friendliness
can be seen not just in terms of reflexive behavioral navigational control qualities of the IT learning
system, but also in terms of its capability to encourage the learner to participate in critical and creative
thinking activities. Jonassen refers to such an IT thinking system as a "Mindtool" and maintains that:
"Mindtools are a reflective use of technology. That is, using Mindtools necessarily engages learners in
reflective thinking, which leads to knowledge construction" (p. 13). Thus, we have an important
pedagogic link between reflective thinking and knowledge construction via an educational technology
tool operating as a 'critical thinking scaffold'.
The context of user-friendly interfaces for Information technology
A user-friendly conversational learning environment, therefore, requires the user to be able to control
and reflectively evaluate ideas through the internal construction of referents, that is, to develop an
appropriate system of meaning as a personal model of understanding. Checkland (1993) has described
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
a systems-thinking or cybernetic portrayal of a psychological model of understanding as: “ An
intellectual construct (related) to observables in the world. … (This) leads to descriptions of the world
couched in terms of models, as if the world were identical with models of it.” (p.315). These
psychological “models of understanding” can be further refined and developed through conversational
negotiation and exchange via social networks and forms the pedagogic basis of collaborative and reallife situated learning experiences (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). This may be achieved through
real-life group learning encounters or by way of IT-based virtual learning environments, such as the
Internet, with its diverse range of social collaborative online facilities such as chat rooms and
discussion groups (Maddux, Johnson & Willis, 1997). These types of social-learning interactions are
important considerations toward understanding the nature of a user-friendly learning environment and
provide a social psychological explanation that links motivation and learning. Indeed, Bandura (1986)
affirmed this assumption when he stated that behavior is a function of the person and his/her social
environment (i.e., B= f(P, E)). Contemporary IT communications systems, such as the Internet,
provide a user-friendly gateway to a virtual learning society that has resulted in millions of global
participants being ‘hooked’ to the system.
The challenge to the educational world is to properly understand the pedagogy of virtual learning
environments (VLE) and take advantage of user-friendly IT social systems, such as the Internet, and
provide suitable curriculum delivery solutions. However, many teachers have avoided integrating into
their curriculum IT communications resources such as the Internet, fearing anti-social phenomena such
as the availability of pornography and failing to understand such technology as a basic educational tool
(Maddux, 1998). Winn and Jackson (1999) recently suggested that a virtual reality (VR) interface
enhanced the quality of the learning experience through generating a more meaningful social
interaction with data:
"[virtual environments (VE)] allows the user to look around inside the virtual world just as in the real
world. The effect of this interface on the user is to create the sense of being inside the data and of being
in immediate interaction with it. Since the VE responds to users' natural behaviors, such as looking
around, moving, pointing, touching, grasping, and picking things up the interface in effect disappears"
(p. 6).
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
This implies that user-friendliness is psychologically complex and relates holistically to all one's
natural experiential senses from both the physical and emotional affective domain. It appears that the
ultimate user-friendly goal for an IT learning system is to create a VLE real-world type interface that
the user is oblivious to, but totally immersed within. Winn and Jackson also suggest that a VE learning
interface in certain circumstances may be better than normal reality, where concepts and ideas can be
simulated within an alternative sensual framework. For example, they suggest a VE in which a user
can directly experience and manipulate an atomic world for which there is no other form of experiential
access. Thus, a user-friendly VLE scaffolds the learner into performing higher-order thinking skills
that result in conceptual reification, or, an ability to model abstract phenomena that have no other
natural form: "The ability to manipulate virtual objects as if they represented real things has significant
benefits for the student" (Winn and Jackson, 1999, p. 7). Goffman (1974) explains learning
experiences as a social psychological phenomenon that is embedded within one's social frame and
sense of reality with his concept of "social framing". A VLE can therefore be understood as a
decontextualised alternative social framework in which to engender new forms of motivation and trust
in the learner. This suggests that VLEs have the potential to operate as a kind of technology-assisted
experiential scaffold that achieves Rogers' (1971) pedagogic goal of establishing "total positive regard"
in the learner-cum-client relationship. An experiential scaffold is therefore a tool, which helps the
learner to both manage and direct their experience of the learning process.
All IT software learning systems represent some form of a virtual learning environment. It is just that
the user's experiential access is usually via a keyboard, mouse and graphical display, which is a limited,
or, 'low fidelity' form of personal entry into the system compared to the 'high fidelity' virtual reality IT
learning systems of Winn and Jackson. But both kinds of IT software systems suggest that it is the
quality of the user's experiential engagement in the form of an interface's sensual fidelity (see Table 1),
combined with an ability to control the system that determines overall user-friendliness and potential
for learning. This implies that the learning quality (L) of a person is a function of the learner's
reflexive control (C) capability of being able to use the IT system combined with their reflective (R)
critical thinking experience of being able to elicit knowledge from it, or, L= f(C, R). Given Bandura's
notion that a person's learning behaviour (B) is a function of both the person (P) and their social
environment (E): B= f(P, E); then real-world learning experiences (L) via a virtual learning
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
environment of some IT system could be expressed as; L= f(C, R, E). Thus, we have a complex
pedagogic relationship that links the learner's capability to control the IT learning environment with
their ability to reflect meaningfully within it via some situation that encompasses a real-world social
and cultural context.
A conversational interface, such as Jonassen's ITS, that provides the learner, as user, with easy access
to his/her own learned experiences through a reflective tool can provide both a learning theory and
design model from which to understand and develop user-friendly learning environments. Jonassen's
pedagogic philosophy and notion of Intelligent Tutoring Systems and Mindtools can now be better
understood through the useful concept of L= f(C, R, E). The design criteria for enabling user-friendly
conversational learning environments have been identified by Coombs & Smith (1998) as satisfying
two important social and pedagogic contexts:
the building of a conversational Learning Organization; and
authoring conversational tools that may be used within the social context of the Learning
The IT world – as we know it – has been mostly developed by commercial businesses that have
produced user-friendly software systems for the mass-market as a means of maximizing financial turnover and profits. This business-led democratization of IT systems now operates within society as a
form of informational democracy, or, informocracy (see table 1). This has been manifested through the
mass-market access of common user-friendly software systems such as Microsoft's Windows®
operating system and Office® and similar graphical systems available on Apple's Macintosh® computer
range. The informocracy market-driven revolution that has swept the world for the closing decades of
the twentieth-century has proved to be a very successful IT business strategy and has led to consequent
spin-off benefits for education in the form of cheap generic IT learning tools. However, the business
ethic and financial rationale that has underpinned the rapid development of user-friendly IT learning
systems has not been fully matched with educational research into the learning theory, nor with
development of a plentiful supply of suitable educational content software suitable for the classroom.
However, innovative IT-based curriculum development and research projects, such as Singapore's
microLESSONS™ (Wong & Coombs, 1999) have recently been launched to turn-around the content
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
deficit of suitable classroom-based courseware (see Table 1). In conclusion, it was that situation – a
deficit of viable learning theory – that motivated the core conceptual questions behind this article,
which seeks to understand and clarify the psychological learning theory underpinning user-friendly
knowledge elicitation systems.
User-friendly IT systems and knowledge elicitation
From this core question of “what is the learning theory of user-friendly knowledge elicitation
systems?”, I have considered the psychology of systems-based learner interfaces in terms of a
philosophy called conversation theory. The area of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has classified computeraided learning (CAL) systems (see Table 1 for AI & CAL definitions) into various orders of thinking
skills. Drill and practice software is considered as stimulating low thinking skills (Roblyer, Edwards &
Havriluk, 1997), while higher-order thinking skills are generally associated with user-oriented and
highly interactive exercises (Jonassen, 1996), such as those activities and tasks designed for social and
collaborative learning environments. AI educational researchers’ have created IT learning
environments that are generally referred to as knowledge-based systems (KBS), which tends to
describe the user as an individual cognitively retrieving knowledge via various routing systems from
some informational database. However, Coombs (1995) has redefined this concept of a KBS in terms
of a conversational IT learning environment and proposed the term "knowledge elicitation system"
(KES) instead, in recognition that it is a critical thinking person that is interacting with a computerbased learning system. That is, that the information is not merely retrieved by the user in a passive
manner, but can be reflectively constructed and deconstructed by the learner with other comparable
experiences. This type of personally constructed thinking experience is explained by George Kelly's
Personal Construct Theory (PCT) (1955). Kelly's PCT explains how knowledge can be constructed
experientially through a psychological process of continual elicitory experiences that the individual
self-manages through critical thinking activities and this psychological concept is generally referred to
as a form of construing one's personal constructs. A KES considers user-based learning through
reflective self-management of one’s elicitory experience, which also draws upon Boud’s (1985) notion
of linking autonomous learning to personal reflection and Schön’s (1987) concept of the learner
operating as a “reflective practitioner”. From this psychological stance that personal knowledge is
derived from one's inner reflective experience, KES satisfy parameters that affect the design criterion
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
of reflective interactive tools, whereas KBS tend to focus on a learner’s ability to use routing
procedures for exploring an information database. The KES emphasis upon enabling a learner’s ability
to interact ‘reflectively’, and thus elicit learning experiences, is crucial in order to understand how
humans conversationally construct their own knowledge via Learning Conversations. This idea is
further explained by Harri-Augstein & Thomas’ (1991) cybernetic notion of an Intelligent Learning
System, which provides the learner with reflective thinking scaffolds (see Table 1) that they refer to as a
Learning Coach and operates in a similar manner to Jonassen's Intelligent Tutoring System.
Coombs and Smith (1998) describe this conversational paradigm in terms of generically available IT:
Generic IT systems, such as wordprocessors, spreadsheets, databases, graphics packages and Web-pages
may now be understood in terms of satisfying reflective learning criteria. Hence, IT tools used for
activities which encourage, stimulate and focus meaningful reflection can be viewed as knowledge
modeling devices that facilitate learning in a social context. This particular paradigm empowers learner
control of the learning process using appropriate conversational tools to achieve one’s learning goals
and provides a valid learning theory that explains the motivational role and educational value of a
conversational learning environment (p. 27).
They also differentiate between reflexive skills as a learned process and reflective skills as a learning
process. Reflexive skills are considered to be prior learned and explain automatic, second-nature
psychological human activities, while reflective skills are considered to be a conversationally dynamic
form of engaged – or active – learning:
This type of subsumed learning, which requires no conscious thinking effort, is regarded as a set of
reflexive skills that represent an existing state of learning. Reflexive skills can be considered as a
psychological algorithm of prior learned meanings, which can be addressed with the minimum conscious
effort. This idea explains the phenomenon of personal fluency in executing a prior learned task that
operates in practice as a second-nature reflexive activity requiring minimal conversational effort. Fluent
tasks include everyday activities such as navigating one’s way around a familiar neighborhood, driving a
car, using a familiar software package, tying shoe laces. Indeed, a second-nature activity can be
understood in terms of an individual performing a particular set of reflexive skills. Such familiar
learning patterns represent our existing repertory of reflexive skills and require a minimal constructivist
effort in order to perform them. …. Reflective skills, on the other hand, represent a conversational
constructivist effort to come-up with a new model of personal understanding (p. 21).
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
Reflexive skills, therefore, relate to the user’s personal fluency, or user-friendliness, in executing a
prior learned task. This explains user-friendliness in terms of one's prior learned ability to reflexively
control a system and explains the concept of a training learning curve, i.e. how many hours does it take
someone to learn how to use the system fluently? In the case of a software system – let’s say the
Windows 98 GUI – we can see that the extent of the personal fluency gained must relate to a person’s
set of subsumed reflexive skills. The more user-friendly and familiar the interactive learning system is
to operate, implies a faster learning curve toward the goal of using the IT tool in a sole reflective
manner. For example, I’m now authoring this paper using Microsoft’s Word version 8 that comes with
Office 97. I’ve already learned how to use MS Word since version 1. Each upgrade is slightly
different, but the GUI environment is familiar – the same type of pull-down windows, icon tools etc.
Because I have a reflexive set of generic word-processing skills, I only need to update the new skills
required to operate the new facilities; this can be done quite quickly. Editing the article is technically
easy for me, as using the word-processor has become a second-nature activity – that frees me up to
reflectively concentrate on authoring the content. From my perspective I can complete the reflective
task of authoring an article using a generic IT tool. To many people, myself included, this wordprocessing IT tool has become a user-friendly authoring resource, as others and myself can use it in a
fluent and flexible manner, thus satisfying the pedagogic notion of L= f(C, R, E) for a KES as proposed
earlier in this article. When you compare these new graphical-based software interfaces to the old MSDOS version of Word used a decade ago you can clearly see the difference in terms of general user
operability and user-friendliness in general. Then, users would be hung-up with having to remember a
whole range of technical operations, such as entering control codes for every formatting task. The
system was user-unfriendly and would require many hours of familiarization before approaching any
sense of fluent usage. I can still remember the difficulty of using the old IT MS-DOS software systems
and how they constantly interfered and distracted my own reflective process, resulting in a disrupted
style of writing. Thus, easy access and control of an IT learning system is an essential prior learning
requirement before any user can meaningfully engage in reflective learning knowledge elicitation tasks.
These ideas were recently confirmed in an educational IT-based research study conducted by Shanti
Divaharan (1999) in Singapore. She reported positive and significant improvements from the impact of
using constructivist IT learning tools, such as standard wordprocessing software, as compared with the
traditional written method for the teaching and learning of English across a range of Singapore's
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
secondary schools. Divaharan's key conclusion stated simply that: "The findings of the study suggest
that the use of the wordprocessor in a constructivist classroom environment does improve students
written English ability (p.106)."
Such a familiar experience of re-engaging a learned repertory – such as personal familiarization of
using a word-processing tool – is accounted for by George Kelly’s (1955) PCT, in which his
construction corollary explains the reflexive learned process as “ a person anticipates events by
construing their replications”. Although, with a second-nature reflexive activity, such as typing up text
via the keyboard, the personal construing process would represent a low level of thinking skills due to
the automatic nature of the event being replicated. Kelly’s PCT explains human learning in terms of a
psychological model of personal constructs that operate according to his main postulate of
“constructive alternativism”. PCT provides the philosophical and psychological foundation for selforganised learning (S-O-L) (Harri-Augstein & Thomas, 1985) and conversational constructivism and
explains how experiences can be personally constructed – or ‘modeled’ – into new knowledge. From
this axiom of PCT a knowledge elicitation system can be postulated as any technology or process that
assists the user to conversationally model their experiences into new concepts and related ideas. As a
corollary to this fundamental postulate, it can be further rationalized that the learning quality of a KES
is dependent upon the system’s reflective interactability or user-friendliness, i.e. L= f(C, R, E).
Finally, Harri-Augstein & Thomas (1991) have proposed the following self-organised thinking steps in
order to achieve higher-order critical reflection and knowledge elicitation:
elicitation of items of meaning;
sorting of their relationships; and,
display of the final pattern.
Well-designed and effective Knowledge Elicitation Systems follow the above 3-step reflective learning
design criteria and thus operate as a critical thinking scaffold. Useful KES examples include the
PEGASUS repertory grid qualitative analysis software system developed by Harri-Augstein & Thomas
(1985). A more contemporary critical "thinking" software solution is the Axon © Idea Processor, which
employs the above KES criteria for helping users to come up with new ideas and discoveries to
problems they couldn't previously solve. The Axon© Idea Processor (see the overview article at their
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
Website: ) contains utilities that help the user to
generate ideas, organise ideas, write creatively and display ideas in the form of annotated charts and
spray diagrams. Axon's© tools clearly follow the 3-step reflective learning criteria and encourages the
user to be able to elicit ideas, identify and sort relationships and, finally, display resulting patterns of
the knowledge gained - see figure (1).
Figure (1): Axon's© Idea Processor IT software operates as a knowledge elicitation system (KES)
It has been argued that user-friendly learning systems can be equated to a form of conversational
fluency in the form of reflective learning combined with reflexive user control of an IT software system
in an appropriate socially situated learning environment (Coombs & Smith, 1998), that is,
L= f(C, R, E). A better-designed user-friendly software system implies faster learning curves and
immediacy of usage. User-friendly learning systems are also explained in terms of the user possessing
prior learned reflexive skills that operate in a second-nature personalized control manner, thus freeingup maximum psychological thinking engagement in the form of reflective learning activities. This
reflective learning theory provides both a practical and philosophical understanding of the
conversational interface with a user. This concept of a reflective learning interface (RLI) was first
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
proposed by Coombs & Smith (1999) and was linked to the pedagogic design criteria of IT thinking
tools. Understanding that the technical operation of the system itself must become fluently embedded
into the psychological reflexive repertory of the user is important. Satisfying this pedagogic prior
learning condition then allows maximum freedom for the learner to creatively explore ideas using the
IT tool as an easy-to-use reflective medium. This understanding of user-friendly IT learning systems
implies the KES 3-step thinking design rationale that was proposed by Harri-Augstein & Thomas
(1991). This KES rationale allows teachers and trainers to evaluate and assess the learning capability
of any IT system in terms of its user-friendly interaction that is a complex function of user control of
the system combined with its reflective operability. In this way, teachers’ are empowered to consider
IT systems as a critical thinking tool learning scaffold within their repertoire of teaching skills and
methods. This approach then empowers their pupils/students to adopt appropriate IT KES tools and
integrate them as learning coach assistants into their reflexive and reflective thinking systems with the
consequent transfer of learning and knowledge. It is, therefore, the integration of using IT thinking
tools generically across the entire content-based curriculum of a school that is the key pedagogic issue.
This implies that the pedagogic priority is not merely the skills literacy of being able to use the IT tool
itself per se. However, it is also true to say that these IT reflexive skills are indeed a prior learning
requirement. This IT skills-based prior learning must be achieved before any higher-order critical
thinking activities can take place using the IT system. Given that pedagogic proviso, learning coach IT
thinking systems can then operate as a curriculum scaffold, or "Mindtool" (Jonassen, 1996), within an
appropriately designed constructivist-based socially situated learning environment.
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The Psychology of User-friendliness: The use of Information Technology as a Reflective Learning Medium
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Table 1: Key pedagogic concepts and learning theories
Technical term
Human Computer
Interface (HCI)
Man Machine
Interface (MMI)
Reflective Learning
Interface (RLI)
Pedagogic concept
IT learning theory implication
The HCI is a communications interface
between a human being user and a
computing machine from which learning
interaction can occur. This term is used
a lot in cybernetics and systems thinking
theory and affects the quality of the
user's interaction with the system.
Similar to the HCI concept, except this
term occurs more in the software
engineering fields.
IT learning theory concentrates
mainly on visual design
considerations regarding how
software is graphically presented to
the user.
A learning device or systems that
enables the learner to actively reflect on
some useful task or goal. The RLI
affects the quality of learner interaction
through the learner's capability of
engaging with the medium in a critically
reflective manner.
A construct between a standardized
information technology software system
and something that is widely used across
a large society of users, i.e. democratic
Elicitation System
The user elicits knowledge from the
learning system through self-managing
their own constructs. The KES becomes
a learning coach scaffold.
Educational learning resources covering
a range of different media formats, e.g.
video, audio, software, multimedia
systems etc.
PCT provides a psychological
constructivist process that explains and
links critical thinking to the construing
of one's learning experiences.
Cybernetics is the science of systemsbased thinking and covers a range of
academic fields including engineering
and psychology. Conversation theory is
a branch of cybernetics that considers
the psychology of thinking as a
conversational process.
Relates to the quality of learning
interactions that a user has with the
software system's instructional medium.
Personal Construct
Theory (PCT).
Cybernetics &
Interactability and
Learnability of a
software system.
Learning (S-O-L).
S-O-L is drawn from Harri-Augstein's &
Thomas' (1985) conversational learning
paradigm, which is underpinned by
Kelly's (1955) PCT model of how we
Similar to above with a
concentration on the technical
software solutions to achieve userfriendly interfaces, e.g. Windows.
Underpins the IT interface design
characteristics for a knowledge
elicitation system (KES).
A globalised IT package such as
Microsoft's Office software is a good
example of informocracy in practice,
i.e. everyone is using the same
software application across many
countries and shares the same IT
skills and knowledge.
An IT system that allows the user to
meaningfully engage with it in a
reflective manner so that new
knowledge might be elicited from
the self-managed experience..
IT courseware can be designed in the
form of computer-aided learning
(CAL) packages or computer-based
learning (CBL) materials.
Reflective experiential procedures
can be built into IT software systems
so that they might operate as
learning coach scaffolds.
Systems-based critical thinking and
conversational learning are linked to
Kelly's PCT and explain how
knowledge might be constructed
through systematic reflection.
Explains the instructional and
pedagogic basis of a KES.
The interactability of an IT system
can be understood as the learning
quality of a KES in terms of the
medium's RLI, while the learnability
relates to the prior learning IT skills
required to use it and is often
referred to as a learning curve.
S-O-L is related to the instructional
technology design criteria for
intelligent learning systems.
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Intelligence (AI).
Critical and
reflective thinking
think, reflect and experience.
AI is a concept that suggests intelligence
can be designed and built into machines.
Whether the machines actually possess
knowledge or not is a philosophical
debate. I would argue that AI machines
do not, so far, possess a psychological
capability and, as such, do not possess
knowledge as knowledge is derived from
a person's psychological experiences.
Enables a learner to elicit knowledge
from experiences in a focussed and
organised manner. The critical thinking
design process can follow the 3-step
criteria outlined in this article.
Virtual Reality
VR represents an alternative form of
experiencing an event outside of the
normal physical world. The quality of a
VR experience, or its fidelity, would
relate to how life-like the virtual
experience actually was.
Virtual Learning
(VL) & Virtual
Virtual Learning (VL) is when a learner
can achieve their real-world learning
through simulated and artificial learning
environments, i.e. a virtual learning
environment (VLE).
Graphical User
Interface (GUI).
A GUI is considered to be a userfriendly interface as it represents an
easy-to-use tactile interface, which is
common to many different software
systems and represents a lower IT skills
learning curve.
This represents the quality of a user's
experiential engagement with a learning
system. A simple pedagogic rubric
would be to engage the maximum
number of senses within a learning
experience activity, thus boosting the
overall fidelity of the learner's
Sensual fidelity.
AI relates mainly to designing
computerized machines that are
intelligent in the sense that they can
perform stand-alone decisionmaking tasks.
Educational Technology IT thinking
tools operate as critical and
reflective scaffolds when they enable
the user to perform reflective
learning experiences that are
focussed toward understanding the
specific learning objectives of the
task concerned.
IT VR systems usually engage three
main senses, sight, sound and touch.
This is achieved by using 3dimensional headsets, audio
headphones and interactive gloves
and other body-based transducer
devices that detect the body's
physical movements.
VLE IT scaffolds can provide an
alternative sensual framework from
which the user can model new
experiences, i.e. can achieve
conceptual reification by visually
modelling and experiencing abstract
The Windows, Icons, Mouse and
Pointer environments used on PCs
and Macs are all IT examples of a
VR IT systems tend to have greater
sensual fidelity than normal
multimedia learning courseware that
depends on stimulating the audio
and visual only. The number of
senses within a VR system is usually
3; sight, sound and touch. And
where the visual sense is also
enhanced through stereoscopic
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