Behind The Scenes Design Tips, Part 3: Interactivity And The Learning Paradox

Behind The ScenesDesign Tips, Part 3: Interactivity And The Learning Paradox
Dean Drobot/
Summary: What’s better than learning about anything? Learning anything! The "behind the scenes design tips" series explores actionable design tips you can try next time on a project. Don't just learn about things, learn things! By doing things! This last episode is about interactivity.

Interactivity And The Learning Paradox: The Best Behind The Scenes Design Tips

"Is the middle finger really bad?"

This was an actual question from a young pre-K learner who just started exploring the wonders of the world. The truth is, the middle finger is like interactivity in eLearning: it's not the middle finger itself, it's the reputation that is bad. In short, it depends on how you use it!

Can Interactivity Hinder Learning?

A while ago, someone on LinkedIn posted the result of a study that shocked readers with the following findings:

In soft-skill training, interactivity can hinder the learning outcome.

Can it really? People chimed in on LinkedIn agreeing that interactivity often distracts from "learning". I worked with an SME once who claimed that copy-pasting from a process and procedure document and adding some music with pretty pictures would be a better learning experience than an interaction with an application of knowledge. Maybe they were right? Curiosity drove me to track down the source of the study. To my surprise, the authors indeed stated in their findings that interactivity hindered learning in their experiment. I paid for the article just to read the full story. I'll come back to what I found later – but as a hint, the definition is a beast.

Definition: What Is Interactivity?

For years, I have worked with learning companies who designed and created eLearning for my internal stakeholders. Often, these companies claimed they build highly-interactive eLearning courses. As you know, the more interactive a course is, the more expensive it gets (you may be familiar with the categorization as Level 1, Level 2, Level 3).

The thing is, the business generally does not care about how much effort you put on creating interactive courses. They care about the value these courses provide, not just the price. The value of a course should not be measured in clicks. It is a fundamental mistake from designers to think interactivity as "interaction with the User Interface" only. Click-and-reveals, drag-and-drops, hide- and-seeks are nothing but mouse moves and clicks. They might engage your middle finger, but they do not engage the mind!

People get engaged when their brain is challenged, not when they have to move their mouse. In fact, hiding information behind button clicks can and should be used against you in a court of Instructional Design law. Interactivity for the sake of User Interface interactivity is not an effective design strategy.

Types Of Interactivity

Traditionally, there are three types of interactivity:

  1. Learner - Learner
  2. Learner - Facilitator
  3. Learner - Content

Let's focus on the Learner - Content interactivity for now, as this is the most common type in eLearning courses. Does that mean clicking on the 'next' button is interactivity?

Click Next!

Remember that study from above? Turns out they took a video of someone teaching a magic trick (soft skill??). Then, exported this video frame by frame (over 200 slides). Finally, they created a course with these 200+ slides where the user clicked the 'next' button after each frame. Click 'next' over 200+ slides!!! That is how the study defined interactivity. By clicking the 'next' button.

Guess which group did better! The one who simply watched the video clip? Or the one who had to watch still frames of the same video, and click 'next' 200+ times? (In fact, one person was ejected from the study as he probably collapsed around slide 145.)

Let's clarify: the psychical interaction between your middle finger, the mouse, and the User Interface is not (inter)active learning. Clicking buttons for the sake of clicking does not involve any mental decisions that would support more effective learning outcomes. Maybe that's where the bad reputation of pricey "interactivity" comes from?

How To Use Interactivity To Be Effective?

If effective interactivity is not only an exercise of your middle finger on the mouse, then what is it? And how should we use it in our design? The following "real" study on video used in eLearning compared four settings [1]:

Our empirical study examined the influence of interactive video on learning outcome and learner satisfaction in eLearning environments. Four different settings were studied: three were eLearning environments – with interactive video, with non-interactive video, and without video. The fourth was the traditional classroom environment.

In this study, the interactive video was defined as a non-linear experience where the user could search and find topics within the video, therefore having more control over their learning while interacting with the video content. The result suggests that interactivity is a key factor for better learning outcome. Those who had the interactive version of the video showed (statistically significant) better learning outcome in the post-test. Interestingly, there was no significant difference between the post-tests of those who had the linear video vs. no video at all.

While the study above simply used interactive video as a solution where the learner can jump to specific topics, there are other ways to make video interactive.

In his blog, Donald Clark talks about ten research-driven design tips using video in eLearning [2]. One of the interesting findings relates to semantic learning. Interactivity after the video content helped augment the shortcoming of the media with semantic knowledge such as doses, number of days, names of drugs, pathogens in a nurse training:

This 'semantic' knowledge required supplementary methods for learning. To this end, we grabbed the transcripts from the video, used AI (WildFire) to create online learning in minutes, not months, and focussed on the semantic detail.

If you're looking for an example of an interactive video where you actually interact with the visual content, here are some examples:

  1. Lifesaver is a must to play with.
  2. An example of storytelling.
  3. Or, check out one of my previous blogs about WireWax and some professional interactive video like the Star Wars example.

Why Aren't We Using Interactivity?

If we know from research that interactivity enhances learning, why aren't we using it more often? One of the reasons might be the price. The more interactivity you build in, the more resources it takes to design, develop, test, etc. It might increase the difficulty to navigate the course as well. The other reason is scope creep. Strong SMEs often insist that all important content need to be included in the course. And if something needs to go because of time and budget constraints, it's not the content usually, it's the interactivity.

Both of these reasons are valid from their owners' perspective, but they bring up a bigger question for L&D:

How to deal with the learning paradox?

If L&D can't answer the learning paradox question sooner or later, Artificial Intelligence-driven applications will (in fact, they are doing it now).

What Is The Learning Paradox?

In Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning, Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert Bjork talk about the paradox we're facing when creating courses to impact performance in the workplace [3]:

This apparent paradox is a new twist on an old and time-honored distinction in psychology – namely, the distinction between learning and performance. Performance is what we can observe and measure during instruction or training. Learning – that is, the more or less permanent change in knowledge or understanding that is the target of instruction – is something we must try to infer, and current performance can be a highly unreliable index of whether learning has occurred.

This may be obvious for some, but it is essential to understand: performance, our usual target at the workplace, is not the same as proving you can pass a test at the end of a course. Not even close! Even worse, effective design to support passing those tests differs from the effective design we would apply if our goal was a long-term performance improvement.

And so, the question behind the learning paradox L&D is facing is simple: are we measured by the short-term instructional goals or by the long-term performance goals?

If L&D is measured by Level 1 evaluations (smiley sheets), a number of completions, and annual seat time, we're designing for short-term instructional goals. We're designing conditions of learning that seem to improve performance rapidly to pass tests. However, most of the time, we're doomed in the long term.

Conditions of learning that make performance improve rapidly often fail to support long-term retention and transfer, whereas conditions that create challenges and slow the rate of apparent learning often optimize long-term retention and transfer.

Bjork continues on describing these conditions of learning that optimize long-term retention and transfer as "desired difficulties". Making your course smooth and easy to pass might bring high scores on the smiley sheets, but most likely will not lead to the desired long-term performance impact. Desired difficulties make your brain work harder, but in return, they increase retention and transfer.

Desirable difficulties, versus the array of undesirable difficulties, are desirable because they trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering.

Desired Difficulties: Generate Your Own Answer, Solution, Or Procedure

And that's why interactivity is key! Without interactions, answers are presented to you. Research suggests that the generation effect, your own brain work to come up with an answer, a solution, or procedure, is one of the most powerful tools for better retention and transfer.

What To Do With The Learning Paradox?

What's your answer to the learning paradox? Should we continue designing interactivity (or the lack of) for short-term instructional goals and keep everyone happy on paper? Or, should we design for the long-term performance goals, and risk disrupting our SME relationships, annual L&D stats reports, number of completions, and maybe even decreasing the total time spent on training?

I hope we figure out the answer soon. Fingers crossed!


  1. Instructional video in eLearning: Assessing the impact of interactive video on learning effectiveness
  2. 10 researched tips to produce great video in learning (some will surprise you)
  3. Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning