Get your learners 'leaning forward' with great eLearning interactions

Graeme Youngs | 05/17/2016

When first sitting down to write this blog, I thought I would just distil the essence of “good interactions”. Easy, right? All I have to do is to expound on the definition of interaction and the elements that we consider to make an interaction “good.”

However, the more I thought about the topic, the more complex I realized the answer was. The great potential of eLearning means that there are almost limitless types of interactions that you can design.  Interactions can range from simple click-to-reveals (CTRs) to incredibly detailed game-style journeys. Is it possible to reduce something so important to a simple category or definition? Could putting parameters around this important eLearning element reduce the all-important engagement and creativity that we seek? 

Why do we want interactivity, anyway?

Simply put, interaction is getting the learner to do something.

But one must understand that the point of giving the learner something to do is not just to stop them from “leaning back”. Common functions that some people might think are interactions, like clicking on the next slide button, listening to an audio narration, or watching a video, can actually be quite passive.

Instead, we are encouraging them to become active and participate in the learning process. In itself, this causes the learner to do more than simply scan the screen or wait for a video or audio to play. The act of looking and clicking, hovering or dragging, means that the learner is forced to take a more active role in studying the screen and assessing what they are required to do. I like to think of this as a “lean forward” moment rather than a “lean back.” Creating lean forward moments has more to do with your interactivity’s relationship to your content and message than it does with the complexity of the interactivity alone.

Let me summarize a few ways you can create relevant interactions: 

Structuring information 

You can use an interaction to provide a structure for material.  Rather than presenting a large block of text or spreading information over several slides, interactions can help provide a logical framework to help learner’s categorize and recall information. Effective interactions which structure information tend to:

  • Have six or less clickable areas – with any more areas, students can’t hold the information in working memory and will struggle to recall. If your material falls into more points, you may want to consider having an overview that breaks that information down into overall areas. It’s easier for a student to remember 3 lots of 5 points than 15 points.
  • Use colors, words or styles to aid comprehension and recall. Any device that helps student’s group and categorize information is worthwhile. What word or visual device will help your students remember the information? What relevant interaction can you use to accomplish this?

Relevant interactions to explore and discover. 

We know that pictures and diagrams are another great way of avoiding large amounts of text and can convey information far more effectively than just text alone. Diagrams can model a process, a piece of equipment or a concept, while pictures can illustrate a mood or a situation. Combining graphical images with interaction enables a user to discover by exploration. Here are a couple of good exploration interaction examples:

  • Provide additional relevance by relating real work situation context through imagery – could be a picture of two people talking, could be a piece of equipment or process diagram. Something as simple as an interactive fire extinguisher says more than a set of words a manual could ever convey.
  • Reinforce the relevance by activity - The act of exploring the image reinforces the structure and provides an additional graphical trigger to aid recall.

Use relevant interactions to show optional information.

Not everyone needs to know everything, right? Some of your learners may know the material already. Interactions are an easy way to give learners optional areas to explore while not overburdening other learners for whom the information is already known.

The essential elements for this type of use is to utilize a consistent theme that presents optional links and to make sure that learners are clear on what is core material and what isn’t.

 Relevant interactions in gamification.

Games are one massive opportunity for eLearning interaction and might consist of a series of linked interactions. The design of eLearning games or gamified learning, can be rich and varied. However, it can span from a simple board-based menu system to multi-level games where the learner can interact with different characters to achieve a goal. The best gamification keeps learning outcomes as their core and uses interactions to engage, entertain and challenge while making sure that achievement in the game relates to achievement of the learning objectives. Take a look at our recent blog on ‘What is gamification in eLearning?’ 

Can ‘questions’ be considered as relevant interactions?

There is a large grey area between what a question is and what an interaction is. For example, consider a drag and drop exercise where you sort items into two groups. Is that an interaction or is it a question? The answer is, probably both. You are getting the learner to think, judge, and interact while considering what they have just learned.

So, questions are an opportunity to interact with students and not just on a mechanical/active level, but also with their thought process. So, yes. In our book, questions are relevant interactions and very powerful ones to boot. 

Can it work the other way?

To be frank, interactivity cannot make your lesson relevant. There’s a huge temptation for course designers to use interactivity just as an alternative to the next button. That is to say the student clicks a part of the screen to get what is a “next slide” experience instead of the next button.  Interactivity is no substitute for well thought-out material with clearly defined learning outcomes.  Too much Clicky-Clicky Bling-Bling and not enough learny-learny, as some people have described it.

If you are just fire-hosing people with information and using interactions as a sneaky way of making the material occupy less slides, chances are you need to take another look at what you want people to do within your learning outcomes. Crisply defined learning objectives, which focus on what you want the learner to do, will help boil down the material and allow for relevant interactivity to contribute.

What else can impede relevant interactivity?

Here are learners common moans about interactions:

  • Indistinct or unclear instructions – learners get frustrated when it’s unclear what they need to do (unless discovery is a defined part of your learning objectives)
  • Straightjacketing interactions – interactions that insist you view information in a certain order or must view all parts before moving on. In a minority of cases this is merited, but in the majority of cases, it’s just sloppy design.
  • Too much stuff – interactions that have too many sections, areas or click-points and bewilder the student. Imagine a graphic of a commercial kitchen with 20 health hazards as hot spots. How tired are you going to be at the end of that?

Let’s be sensible now

Overall, I think we can agree that interactions are crucial to successful eLearning, but only when used sensibly.

This article isn’t an exhaustive list of how you can use interactions, just a few ways that make your eLearning interactions relevant.

But what’s your experience? Even if you haven’t designed a course yet, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ve encountered interactions you like and dislike.

What interactions do you enjoy and how do you make your interactions relevant?

Want to find out more about interactions in eLearning? Read our gamification blog. 

Graeme Youngs

Graeme is the Head of Learning with Omniplex