“Watch and Learn” Is Overrated: Understanding the Four Levels of Interactivity

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According to new research, learners who passively observe experts feel confident that they’re prepared to try a task themselves. Unfortunately, they often show no measurable improvement when they attempt the task itself. And most of online learning content is currently built on exactly this observational method using instructional videos.

Whether it’s sitting through mandatory HR training DVDs or spending free time on watching MasterClass to learn basketball from Stephen Curry, the model is almost exactly the same as what you’d find in the world of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). But while mandatory compliance and higher production values may improve on dismally low MOOC completion rates (one edX study found only 5.5% of learners who enroll in a course receive a certificate), the learner may not be better off for having completed the course.

Engaging content, whether its recorded experts or instructional animations, is still vital to the online learning process by capturing and retaining learner attention. But investments in production value are best understood as a starting point rather than as a the desired end result of building an effective course. A more useful method for evaluating online learning is through the lenses of the traditional four levels of interactivity and their intended purpose:

Level 1: Passive – The learner acts merely as a receiver of information. The learner may read text on the screen as well as view graphics, illustrations and charts. The learner may interact simply by using navigational buttons to move forward or back through the program.

Level 2: Limited Interaction – The learner makes simple responses to instructional cues. As in Level I, there may be multiple choice exercises, pop-ups, rollovers or simple animations. Level II adds a component of scenario-based multiple choice and column matching related to the text and graphic presentation.

Level 3: Complex Interaction – The learner makes multiple, varied responses to cues. In addition to the types of responses in Level II, complex interactions may require text entry boxes and manipulation of graphic objects to test the assessment of the information presented.

Level 4: Real-time Interaction / Simulation – Real-time interaction creates a training session that involves a life-like set of complex cues and responses in this last level. The learner is engaged in a simulation that exactly mirrors the work situation.

Most online learning solutions are best understood as Level 1: Essentially a slide-based presentation with the potential inclusion of multimedia. Level 2 enables students more control over their training and to do more than watch, read, and navigate through interactive exercises and scenario-based learning. But once learners start engaging with Level 3 and above, their course experience begins to shift from a passive presentation of static content to a participative experience with a dynamic course environment. Level 4 includes all elements of 1, 2, and 3 at higher levels of sophistication, as well as simulated or real-time simulation.

Not every course demands Level 4 interactivity. Cost and time implications should be measured against the nature of the content, intended target audience, and available Learning Management System (LMS). But as LMS solutions are gradually upgraded from their outdated SCORM standards, learners will soon come to expect their content to be effective as well as engaging.

Fortunately, research also indicates that instructors can still incorporate this passive content into higher levels of interactivity. One technique is to mix watching and practicing, as learners benefit from watching after they’ve already practiced a skill. Another is to combine reading and thinking exercises along with passive content, as those are less likely to cause learners to overestimate their abilities while still providing valuable information.

Much like the class textbook and engaging lecturers, engaging content is still the foundation of an online classroom. But educators don’t need to stop there.


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