Put the 'activity' in 'interactivity'

"We want something really interactive." Or "We want something more interactive than our previous learning." Heard requests like this before? I hear them frequently. It could be easy to presume that most online learning is interactive. So what does it really mean when people ask for more of it?

The myth about interactivity in elearning

Putting content in a screen template like a clickable graphic or a slideshow makes learning interactive. But not all interactivity has equal impact on the learning experience. If you're not careful, learners end up interacting with the screen navigation not the content, and simply clicking buttons doesn’t necessarily aid comprehension of learning. But equally, consider that simple formats can work well for a resources-not-courses approach. Therefore, depending on the content, less interactive experiences like a great PDF job aid or a video might be exactly what the learner needs.

The presentational 'tutorial' isn't always the best approach

The 'tutorial' is perhaps the most well-known format of elearning. It's often a presentational sequence of text and graphics in various template or component configurations (slideshows, clickable graphics, etc.) with the odd multiple choice question to check knowledge or understanding. It's served us well, but perhaps learners are so used to opening pop-ups and clicking arrows that it no longer feels interactive. 

In these types of design, learners spend most of their time reading. If you want people to read a lot of plain information, putting the odd knowledge-check question in will add some deeper interaction to a tutorial. That approach has its place, but is it always the best? 

Of course, well-crafted, step-by-step tutorials can be a very welcome addition to learning, particularly as just-in-time resources. Short tutorials might be great for a resource base. But again, these need to be as clear as possible and don't demand interactivity for the sake of it.

Get your learner doing something

So let's presume you're not looking to create resources. Instead you want a short interactive piece that has the power to change the behaviour of learners. The secret to making this type of content really engaging is to get learners involved in a relevant task. In fiction, authors engage readers through showing rather than telling. Learning also needs to do that, but designers need to go a step further and let the learner have a go. Remember the episode of Friends where Phoebe tried to teach Joey guitar without letting him hold a guitar? Online learning can get a bit like that. The trick is to teach through activities that mimic the real processes learners go through, or just through learners actively (not passively) engaging with the content.

An activity can be many things. For example, you could:

  • read different sides of the story and click whom you agree with
  • choose two products to compare them side-by-side
  • click on a map to inspect each location
  • click on questions to ask them to real people
  • click buttons to zoom in and out of an image to see different levels of details

Notice how none of the examples here rely on quiz-based activities. Also notice few hinge on scenarios, and certainly none on long scenarios. However, storytelling and contextual examples can be used to spice up all of these. Quizzes and activities are great too, but they aren't our only ways to get learners active. All the above examples, with some imagination and perhaps some styling work, could use standard components and be implemented on a modest budget. None need to be a strictly linear experience and each learner will spend different amounts of time interacting with these. Let the learner have fun and experiment. 

Importantly, all can create opportunities to feed back to the learner. The learner makes a judgement or experiment and we can give them further information and insights. And remember, you can use interactive video to create all sorts of engaging activities, not just branching or quizzes.

When you show information, do it with pride

Okay, activities are only half of the equation. We still need to present some information in most cases. But remember we need to show not tell. Use stories, examples and case studies. Bring the content to life by showing people in realistic situations. Use media, visuals, anecdotes and metaphors to add real flavour and depth. 

Consider that whatever's at the top of your page or at the beginning of each new section needs to work hard to grab attention. The best and most concise way to do that is to present your main content in an attention-grabbing way. Do you want to explain the reason why health and safety is important to the workplace? Why not present those as an explainer animation or an infographic? 

But, then again, what if you decided to ask learners to pick their top three reasons from a grid then give some general feedback? You can easily turn a bullet list into an activity. An activity can follow directly on from an attention grabber or, with some imagination, might just be tempting enough to act as an attention grabber in itself.

So you might be thinking: “This all sounds great Matt, but I have to cover all this content in twenty minutes”

You might not have the budget or time to include many activities. Be pragmatic. There's a tipping point where our memory starts dumping information to make way for new stuff. This is called the forgetting curve. Even if you can cram information into the learning, are people going to remember it all? Your best chance is to concentrate on shorter learning interventions with fewer objectives and cover them in a way that's memorable. 

Activities needn't be lengthy. Plus, they might be all you need to communicate an idea. Take conflict resolution as an example. Imagine two short videos give you both sides of a workplace argument. The learner could use their existing knowledge to resolve it by choosing a course of action and then receive feedback and a brief explanation of best practice. 

It's the same with product knowledge. If you want learners to be able to weigh up the specs of different mobile handsets, memorising list after list of product specs is quite a feat. You could spend your budget creating a template that lets the learner compare handsets side-by-side. This acts as an activity and gives extra context to the content. 

Activities can be a lean way to present information as well as a richer way to engage learners. Just consider whether you need to simplify the experience on mobile.

The bottom line

To design interactivity that's really valuable, you need to focus on learning objectives and design around those. Start with the actions you want people to perform or processes you want them to follow and try to find a way to simulate those. If you can't, there are still ways to create active treatments. For the content you need to present keep it short, sharp and attention-grabbing. If it's really a text-based resource you need, think before you squirrel the content away in screen types. 

And of course, remember that not everything needs to be 'interactive' in the online learning world. Video and infographics are a great case in point. Use interaction wisely and in the places that give the learning the most impact.

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