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Interviewing as a learning tool.


In our increasingly global field of learning and learning technologies there is a need to assist students in getting to know experts in the field of training, instruction, and learning. It is important not to restrict ourselves to those experts in our own direct or national environment, but to give learners the opportunity to get in touch with international views and international scholars. There are various ways of realizing these goals, such as attending conferences, reading articles and papers by (international) experts, and/ or inviting foreign colleagues to participate in online discussions. There is, however, also the possibility of initiating discussion with experienced educators in our field through interviews. This introductory article discusses how students engaged in interviewing experts about their experiences, concerns and challenges. The students involved in this interviewing project were all working towards a master's degree. The interviewees were professionals in the international field of learning and training.


An interview can be seen as a purposeful conversation in which one person (the interviewer) asks (prepared) questions and another one answers the questions (the respondent). The goal is to gain useful information on a particular topic or a particular area to be researched. Interviews can be effective tools to increase knowledge about a topic or to gain information on a research subject and to identify further questions that the learner may wish to pursue. Interviews are widely used because they are a powerful means not only for collecting information, but also for gaining insight. A good interview provides information about the personality and motivations of the interviewee.

As a learning exercise, interviewing increases interaction with professionals in relevant fields and encourages understanding. Students have to take initiative, collect information on the topic of the interview and on the background of the interviewee and thus try to get somewhat in the position of the other, formulate exact (unambiguous) questions, and take responsibility for administering and reporting on a "virtual happening." Interviews are also an excellent way to sharpen the understanding of the interviewer.

In the case of international interviewees the students also have to get some background information on the setting within which the interviewee lives and works, and this should promote greater international understanding.


First of all, the student has to be introduced to the art of interviewing--that is, collecting data. This means that different interviewing techniques, such as informal or conversational interviews and structured interviews, will have to be discussed.

The online learners of The George Washington University prepared structured written interviews. This means that the interview was, although not the only contact the interviewer had with the interviewee, the core contact. The interview was seen as a formal, fact finding exercise and students were encouraged to use a respectful but conversational style approach that aimed at establishing rapport, and at the same time ensure that the nature and style of their questioning would reveal that the interviewer had basic knowledge of the topic of the interview and was familiar with the background of the interviewee. The goal was to gain useful information on a particular topic or a particular area and to analyze the information in a structured way. A write-up of the interview was sent to the interviewee to make sure that the latter agreed with the key points made.


In preparation for these interviews the instructor had approached a number of international colleagues in the field of training and distance education, asking them to serve as interviewee. The students were prepared through a short paper on "How to interview." The pool of interviewees was then made available to the class with a short description of the work or research these educational experts had done over the years. Students could choose an interviewee on a "first come first served" basis. They were encouraged to do a search on the background of the various potential interviewees and to choose someone whose interests matched their interests.

After this the students prepared for the interview by collecting additional information on the interviewee and by preparing interview questions, which the instructor reviewed and discussed with the student. Discussion points that came up were, among others, the need to correctly address the interviewee, the importance of avoiding yes/no answers, the way of structuring questions around topics, the usefulness of ending with an open-ended question, and a "thank you" letter once the interview had taken place.

The students made corrections and additions to their interview questions based on this feedback. After this the students conducted the written interviews and submitted them as a graded assignment. It is worth noting that the interview represented only 8% of the students' final grade. The students were nevertheless very much dedicated and produced--as will be seen from the selected interviews--high quality work.


As has been already mentioned, the benefits of the interviews come, in summary, down to concentrating on a small part of the extensive field of educational technology. This was done in such way that there was no teaching-learning situation, but an active search for information on the chosen topic as part of the preparatory process for the interview. It was also a piece of work on which the student had to perform independently, except for some feedback on the questions, and had to take the lead. The focus was on various skills related to educational technology. The most important skills covered in this way were leadership/management skills, communication skills, design and critical thinking skills and, finally, the skill of approaching people of different cultures in a sensitive and sensible way.

Lya Visser, Director of Performance Improvement, Learning Development Institute (USA & France). E-mail: and Part-time Professor, Educational Technology and Leadership, The George Washington University (USA). Telephone: +33.4.90249275. E-mail:
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Author:Visser, Lya
Publication:Distance Learning
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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