Interactivity of the mind: Going beyond passive learning

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Just to be gender-neutral, Aristotle might have put his famous words differently today: “humans are interactive animals.” Indeed, we need to interact to be happy, to grow, and to learn. Yet, when it comes to workplace learning, how are we using interactivity?

Understanding interactions

Way back in 1989, Michael Moore [1] had defined three types of interactions in the context of distance education.

  • Learner-content interaction

    is the intellectual process of interacting with content that results in changes in the learner’s understanding and perspective, or the cognitive structures of the learner’s mind.
  • Learner-instructor interaction

    helps instructors to stimulate or at least maintain the student’s interest and to motivate the student to learn using self-direction and self-motivation.
  • Learner-learner interaction

    happens among two or more learners, with or without the presence of an instructor, that helps to teach the skill of group functioning.

Do these descriptions sound a little archaic in the digital era? Does clicking4to play a video or to turn the page suffice? Or are we mistaking digital dazzle for effective interactivity?

Levels of interactivity

From a business process perspective, Rick Blunt [2] describes four levels of interactivity, based on mechanical complexity.

1: Passive learning

  • Learner acts solely as a receiver of information.
  • Involves text, graphics, simple audio, simple video, test questions. (Turn page, move video forward.)

2: Limited interactivity

  • Simple responses to instructional cues.
  • Uses multimedia and some exercises (drill, practice).

3: Complex interactivity

  • Variety of responses to instructional cues using different techniques. (Complex branching and choices.)

4: Real-time interactivity

  • Full immersion, simulated task performance, live feedback (Real-time simulation in operational setting.).
  • Higher-level learning and learning for workplace performance require complex and real-time interactivity.
  • Here, the focus is on Bloom’s [3] four higher levels: applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Learners get to think and practice until they are proficient.

Interactivity of the mind

Interactivity has long been a hyped element in digital learning. Unfortunately, it is seen as a panacea for all that ails eLearning and as an excuse to increase costs “because there are many levels of interactivity.”

We tend to equate interactivity with engagement. Dan Brown is one of my favorite authors. His The Da Vinci Code kept me fully engaged even though my only interaction was to turn the pages. I believe this is a case of interactivity of the mind, not involving any device. I also believe that any interactivity we work into learning must involve interactivity of the mind.

Talking of the filmed format of fiction, screenwriters usually follow a three-act structure. The first act has the introduction and the first plot point. Act two describes what happens to the character and a twist in the plot. The final act has the climax which may not be what the viewer expects. The structure is designed to keep the audience hooked and would be a good act to follow when planning interactivity. (By the way, Aristotle [4] is credited with the three-act structure because he stated a tragedy must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.)

Interactivity ought to enable learners to apply their learning in realistic scenarios, in tandem with peers as well as experts and instantly evaluate the impact of their decisions. Interactive learning also ought to call upon higher order thinking skills, going beyond mere memorizing and passive involvement. Simply moving the mouse or clicking a button cannot be productive interactivity.

Unfortunately, at times we go to the other extreme and go overboard with the animation and special effects all in the name of interactivity. This may entertain, or more likely distract, but is unlikely to contribute to useful learning. Less flashy but equally unproductive is the next-button fatigue brought on by the learner waiting for the next NEXT button to appear just to keep moving and complete the course.

A digitally-delivered learning program may be infected by what ails many presentations—screens overloaded with charts, graphics, and umpteen bullet points. The hapless learner can barely figure out the core message before it is time for the next slide to come on.

Authentic interactivity

As Ethan Edwards [5] puts it, interactivity is at the very core of any instructional interaction.

What the learner is literally asked to do has an enormous impact in creating focus, engaging full attention and senses, creating memories, and setting the model for transferring skills to the performance environment. Activity describes the specific gestures and actions that the learner undertakes in response to the Challenge. You can’t actually have an interaction without the Activity part; the trick is to design activities that create learning.

He goes on to suggest four ways to do this:

1. Make the activity observable and unique

Cut down on the need to read. While reading is important, in the eLearning environment there is no reliable indicator to show if the learners are reading all that they are expected to. If you can’t observe or measure an activity, you can’t really manage it and the learning design fails. The “huge number of learners who simply don’t read,” make it imperative to go beyond reading.

2. Activities must require attention and thought

One can hazard the right answer in the good old multiple-choice question, without bothering about the real challenge at hand. There is no way to assess if the answer is a good guess or the outcome of authentic effort.

3. Mimic real-world behavior

The right activity ought to create the illusion of a real-world situation even if it is happening on the monitor. The learners should feel that they are making the decisions and using realistic gestures resulting in real-world consequences.

4. Good activities require effort

Ideally, the interactivity should provide “the possibility of a wide range of gestures or outcomes from which the learner chooses and then executes.” The final gesture may involve just a click of the mouse, but it must follow “proactive, exploratory experimentation” and should be “the result of active thinking and focused action.”

Bonus: Must challenge and excite

As an important component of learning, interactivity must have a clear goal, must motivate, and must engage meaningfully.

As Dennis Kyle [6] puts it, “Many people learn by doing, rather than being shown. They need to feel like they’re being given a chance to perform the actions they’re being told are expected of them. Great training provides opportunities for learners to do just that through strong, well thought out interactive elements.”

Elisabetta Galli [7] suggests that corporations should look at consumer software for inspiration: “Employees use social media and search in their spare time to satisfy their curiosity, right when they need it. It should be exactly the same at work. We must create corporate learning experiences to match consumer-grade experiences.” Interactivity has a major role in providing such an experience just-in-time.

Designing an engaging learning program is a challenging task for designers. Introducing purposeful interactivity makes it tougher, a tad more painful.

However, to quote Aristotle for one last time, “Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.”  


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