How to Include Interactive Elements in Online Courses

Interactive learning builds long-term memory and helps learner stay focused. Are you using it in your course?

In the early days of e-learning, the format most instructors used for creating an online course mimicked the classic lecture format. Many courses were text-based, or included taped lectures from actual seminars. Learners watched the videos, took notes, and submitted coursework.

There’s nothing wrong with the basic course model described above. It’s been effective for many learners for years, and there are plenty of courses that require nothing more.

However, some courses do benefit from a more interactive learning model, especially ones that cover more complex subjects or that need to assess a learner’s critical thinking and judgment. These courses have a lot to gain from a more interactive learning model. The good news is, many simple interactions are easy to implement in an online course.

What makes a course interactive?

Before we get too deep into our topic, let’s take a step back and cover what interactivity isn’t. Think about the last time you flew on a plane. At the beginning of the flight, you probably watched the flight attendant deliver a series of emergency instructions using a seatbelt and safety mask, or maybe you watched the video from the in-flight video screen. Did you remember any of it?

By now, I’ve probably seen that demonstration dozens of times—multiple times in the same day, even. And that’s not counting all the times I’ve seen it replicated in films or parodied in comedy sketches. Most of us know the drill, but only because we’ve seen the same thing repeated over and over again while we were tired and barely listening.

How many times do you think it would have taken you to learn that routine if you’d had to stand up and perform it yourself? Or if you were given a short quiz afterward and asked to trace the emergency exit path on an outline of a plane? Or if you had to arrange, in order, the steps for putting on an emergency oxygen mask?

I’m comfortable betting you’d have learned that material a lot faster. And yet, many courses still present information in the same format: text and video, with very little follow-up or engagement until the final test.

On the other hand, course interactivity is about building a dialog between your learners and the course material. Interactivity draws the learner out of a passive state of observation and into an active mindset. By doing so, it helps learners pay closer attention to the material which builds long-term memory.

Sound like something you want in your course? Here’s four ideas to help you get going.

1. Include trial and error.

Humans are hardwired to learn from mistakes, probably as a matter of survival. But in less dire circumstances, learning from mistakes is a way of experimenting and exploring possibilities. When the cost of failure is low, we’re happy to fail repeatedly if it brings us closer to our desired outcome.

If your course involves learning a skill, trial and error is a great way to encourage practice. Similarly, you could ask your learners to perform a task several different ways and judge which way worked best.

2. Throw a curve ball.

How do your learners deal with the unexpected? This kind of interactivity holds some exciting possibilities for various employee training programs, especially those that deal with customer service or emergency response.

By creating scenarios and asking learners to respond to them, you can assess their ability to think on their feet and respond appropriately. You could even turn it into a kind of coaching session, where learners practice handling unusual or unexpected events and your program helps guide them toward the appropriate response.

3. Turn it into a puzzle.

Interactive elements also help learners stay engaged longer with the course material. Think of the last time you worked on a puzzle of some kind: how hard did you have to work to stay focused on the problem? Many of us can completely lose track of time when working through a puzzle, so long as we suspect the problem is solvable.

Back in December, Google celebrated Computer Science Education Week by turning their daily doodle into a coding puzzle. The simple game created a simple lesson in coding logic, and while it was targeted toward children, I tried my hand at it as well. Needless to say, it was slightly addicting.

4. Have them choose their own adventure.

A branching learning experience puts learners in charge of their educational experience. By allowing learners to choose different scenarios, they not only control their lesson, they also practice decision making and critical thinking.

A branching lesson also accommodates the different ways individuals might solve a problem. Whereas a trial-and-error approach gently nudges learners toward the same solution, a choose-your-own adventure allows learners to discover their own path. An extravert might choose one course of action, an introvert another. There doesn’t have to be one right answer.

Interactivity can happen alone or with other learners.

All these interactive elements can happen on a learner’s own time, or in collaboration with other learners. Each way of incorporating interaction into your course comes with its own set of pros and cons. The method you choose is up to you.

For instance, interactivity as a built-in feature involves a wide range of development. Some features, such as quizzes or drag-and-drop puzzles, are easy to include and may even be part of your LMS. Others, such as an immersive 3D environment that your learners can click through on their computer screens, may involve custom development.

Interaction with course peers usually involves little to no extra development, but it can be harder for learners to coordinate. This kind of learning, which usually takes the form of group projects, can build engagement and help learners connect with their peers, but it also require learners to move through the course in groups. That may or may not work for your course.

The bottom line is, there’s no reason why you can’t include interactive elements in your online course, even if they’re very simple ones. You may be surprised to see how your learners respond.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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