Interactivity, Learning, and Elearning

Interactivity is a crucial component in any elearning. Interactivity is what transforms a dull and passive training into an exciting, engaging, and, most of all, effective learning experience.

Instructional designers are probably all guilty of creating the occasional page-turner – you know, those PowerPoint-like experiences that only necessitate the learner to click Next and Back.

It’s a step-up from the page-turner to incorporate click-and-reveals into an elearning, but these are often just clever ways of hiding more reading and making the learner hunt for it.

But it’s difficult to gauge whether a given elearning is at the right interactivity unless you know what the possibilities are and how they correlate to the level of learning that you are trying to achieve!

As instructional design has its roots in the military (think standardizing instruction to ramp troops up for combat as quickly as possible in WWII), the Department of Defense offers lots of resources and standards for solid instructional design.

Their standards for interactivity are very enlightening and useful to any instructional designer. Let’s take a moment to turn to this thrillingly-named handbook to learn more:


The levels of interactivity are listed beginning on page 46. To save you the reading, I’ll pull the information we need.

The Four Levels of Interactivity:

  1. Passive: “page-turners” with interactivity limited to next-and-back buttons
  2. Limited participation: drill-and-practice; response-specific feedback
  3. Complex participation: branching scenarios; simple simulations
  4. Real-time participation: real-time and immersive simulations, like virtual reality

Many elearning courses fall into Level 1: Passive, also known as the “page-turner.” Learner engagement in this level is limited to “those required to advance with the presentation.” Think: next and back buttons. Not engaging!

Level 2 features limited participation: drill and practice, and feedback provided on student responses. Think lots of multiple-choice questions, but helpful guiding feedback provided on wrong answers.

The next level, Level 3, is complex participation. Here’s where you’ll find scenarios. Think workplace situations where learners are asked to make decisions, then they are faced with the consequences of the decision they’ve made. This is approaching game-level types of interactions. Level 3 may be complex, but it’s not quite real-time.

Which brings us to Level 4: real-time participation. This is the most complex learning situation possible. Think simulations. Maybe a countdown limiting the time you must make decisions, or real-time interactions with simulated people and situations that give you hardly any time at all, just like real life! What I find interesting about the DOD’s definition of this level (see chart, below) is the stipulation that learning situations at this level “[employ] state-of-the-art technology for simulation and communication.” Current state-of-the-art is virtual reality.

Interactivity Level Description of Level
Level 1: Passive Capable of computer- generated multimedia presentations of intellectual skills (facts, rules, procedures)

Capable of showing a procedure with computer-generated multi-media explanations of equipment operation

Student interaction limited to those required to advance with the presentation

Level 2: Limited Participation Capable of providing drill and practice.

Capability for providing feedback on student responses.

Capability for emulation of simple psychomotor performance.

Capability to emulate simple equipment operation in response to student action.

Computer evaluation of student intellectual skills by computer -based predictive and performance test items.

Level 3: Complex Participation Capable of providing complex branching paths based on student selections and responses.

Capable of presenting or emulating complex procedures with explanations of equipment operation.

Capability for student participation in emulation of psychomotor performance and extensive branching capability

Capability for limited real-time simulation of performance in the operational setting.

Computer evaluation of student intellectual skills and performance by computer-based performance and predictive test items.

Computer evaluation of student procedural performance includes the capability to generate time and error scores for performance test items.

Level 4: Real-Time Participation Capability for real- time simulation of performance in the operational setting.

Computer evaluation of student performance and intellectual skills by computer-based predictive and performance test items.

Computer evaluation of student procedural performance includes the capability to generate time and error scores for performance test items.

Employs state-of-the- art technology for simulation and communication.

Table adapted from Table 25 of the above-mentioned handbook (page 46).

Interactivity and Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Bloom’s revised taxonomy is my go-to reference for designing learning objectives. Bloom’s is a cognitivist resource – it facilitates scaffolding a learning experience from Remembering to Creating. It rests upon the epistemological perspective that the human mind functions somewhat like a computer. Learning experiences should be scaffolded from basic information on up to facilitate maximum learning.

Conveniently, these levels of interactivity correlate nicely to Bloom’s. I first learned about this from Rick Blunt’s 2015 presentation at DevLearn: Innovations in interactivity and interactions. Blunt neatly laid out a way to consider interactivity as it relates to learning.


What This Means for You

Interactivity is correlated to learning. The interactivity that you choose should tie into the level of learning that you want to achieve. Interactivity and interaction choices should be intentional and well-planned.

Additionally, the more interactive something is, the more time it takes to develop!