What is interactivity? No I mean really, what is it? We think we know, but it’s hard to pin down an actual definition. Try in your head quickly – not easy, is it?
An academic definition is ‘a mutual action between a learner, learning system, and material’, which sounds pretty nice, and accurate. More studies than we can count have shown that interactivity has a strong, positive effect on learning (Bosco 1986; Fletcher 1989; 1990; Stanfford; 1990). One of the most comprehensive of these was Bosco (1986) who conducted a full review of 75 studies and found that interactive media helped people learn faster and gave them a better attitude towards learning.
Great! So more activity is better, right? Well, not really.
More interactivity doesn’t necessarily translate into more engagement. There’s a small but definitely existent line between an eLearning course being richly interactive, and one that bewilders the learners by having them jump through endless hurdles and challenges, disrupting the ‘flow’ of their learning. Just like chocolate, wine, and Netflix series, interactivity is best enjoyed in moderation. Click to tweet.
Now we’ve got that out the way with, we need to know how much is too much, and that’s where we come in. Finding a balance is dependent on a whole host of things, so really, you’ve got to have a think about many factors. A good way to define the right amount of interactivity in elearning is by asking yourself the following questions:
1) What is your course in a nutshell? What kind of course are you creating and why?
Sound obvious, I know, but too often people just look for an answer on Google, or an answer from an eLearning forum, without reflecting on their course at all. Is it about trying to pass on compliance information? Change behavior? Onboard new employees? Teach new skills? Or something else entirely? This is one of the single biggest factors that will influence the amount of interactivity in your course’s design.
Another important consideration is the type of knowledge you’re looking to impart – is it factual? Memorization? If all you need is for your learners to remember a bunch of digits or the periodic symbol for titanium, then rote learning might just be enough (as long as you throw in some drills and practice with correction). This gets a bit more complex when you’re dealing with procedural knowledge – for example, “why is my car leaking oil?” Then you need to use a different type of learning to deal with this procedural knowledge, like scenario based training.
Another divide that you can consider is whether the learning needs to be active or passive. If they just need to learn the new information, and not new practical skills, like compliance content, then there’s not as much need for interactivity. But if, on the other hand, you’re teaching practical skills, then you will definitely require more involvement and more learner participation. Learners have to try new skills before they can consider them learned – just like reading a book on “how to swim” might not help you swim!
As an example, if you’re strictly about passing on new compliance information, then you may just need a simple, linear course. Learners won’t be grateful for extra buttons and pop-ups adding information. This takes longer, doesn’t help your learners, and may even turn them off. Keep this kind of course spaced, short, snappy and straightforward! You could even consider a mobile learning solution for programs based on subjects like compliance, so they can take the learning with them wherever they go!
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2) What do you want and what do the learners want?
This means don’t just add something to impress whoever’s reviewing the eLearning. Maybe you’ve got a boss or a client who will be impressed by the interactive buttons or pop-ups or questions…but maybe the learners won’t. If that’s the case, the reviewer won’t be impressed long-term, when the learners don’t take anything away from the course and give negative reviews. Think about how interactivity will enhance the experience for the end-user, and how adding interactivity will get them what they want, and in turn, what you want (good results from your learning program).
In short, stick to the objectives set for the course. Interactivity should not distract your learners, but help them achieve those objectives. Examples might be keeping learners engaged, providing opportunities for further practice, or using scenarios and storytelling to keep things fresh.
All of this though, is a balancing act. A course too heavy on interaction will cause a loss of attention or simply frustrated learners. On the flip side, if a course has few opportunities for interaction it might be too flat and boring. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not easy, and sometimes it can feel like a tightrope. Just do your analysis, reflect heavily at the planning stage, and be judicious when adding interactive elements to your course.
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3) It’s time for the device question.
Yes, it’s time for that bit again. We’ll try and keep it brief, but you probably knew that talking about eLearning these days means talking about device and screen types. Learners are going to open your content on phones, tablets, maybe even smartwatches or some kind of futuristic smart-clothing. They might also have limited support for your publishing standards, and could potentially mess up your analytics, reports, and the functionality of your interactive features. Some features may not work without an active Internet connection. And of course we all know that some (cough cough) mobile devices don’t support Flash, so don’t forget! Testing is useful, but it’s better to do some research and get it right the first time. Find out the details aboute the learner's technological infrastructure and technical limitations before creating the course and plan accordingly.
Circling back to the whole m-learning debate, it’s undeniable that mobile devices have changed how we learn and access information. In the best case scenario, we recommend a needs analysis, identifying the range of devices a course might be accessed on, and then identifying any compatibility issues for interactivity. Specifically, it’s also possible that more interactive features will be harder for the device to bear and operate. Data use also feeds into this, as 3G users won’t be happy if they’re downloading huge animated packages and running up data bills. Another reason for being judicious with the interactive elements of your course.
4) What's your budget?
Don’t worry; we didn’t forget. Last but not least, the budget has to be available for developing interactivity. Simple interactions like click-through animations can be created relatively simply, but courses with high-end ‘top-shelf’ activities cost more in terms of time, effort, and emotional investment. So make sure that if you undertake a richly interactive eLearning project, and you think that it’s worth it pedagogically, it’s always necessary to check that it makes sense financially too!
Anyway, the questions above are the best way to reflect on your course and think about how interactivity is going to shape your eLearning. It’s all about choosing your audience, understanding their needs, and seeing how interaction fits into the bigger picture.
Benefits of Interactive Multimedia Courseware, by Steven Hick Ph.D. Professor, Carleton University 1997 by Trican Multimedia Solutions Inc.
The Interactivity Effect in Multimedia Learning, Centre for Educational Multimedia. Chris Evans & Nicola J. Gibbons. Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK.