Instructional Technology Research Online

Interactivity: A Forgotten Art?

Rod Sims
Faculty of Education
University of Technology, Sydney


Interactivity in learning is "a necessary and fundamental mechanism for knowledge acquisition and the development of both cognitive and physical skills" (Barker, 1994:1). It is no longer adequate to see our field of practice (or are we bold enough to label it a profession?) being limited to products where interactivity is trivialised to simple menu selection, clickable objects or linear sequencing. Interaction is intrinsic to successful, effective instructional practice as well as individual discovery. The implementation of interactivity can be perceived as an art because it requires a comprehensive range of skills, including an understanding of the learner, an appreciation of software engineering capabilities, the importance of rigorous instructional design and the application of appropriate graphical interfaces. If we are to be recognised as developers with professional capabilities, as competent practitioners, then it is critical to understand what makes an application interactive, instructional and effective.

By way of providing a context for the discussion, the ideas are largely based on extensive work as an active multimedia developer of applications to support education and training in the post-secondary and vocational sectors, rather than those specifically designed for school applications. The concepts of interactivity presented relate as much to the complexity of development and implementation as they do to the quality, effectiveness and engagement of human-computer communications. Given this position, I hope this paper will challenge ITFORUM subscribers - contributors and lurkers alike. This challenge is to consider, reconsider and perhaps even reformulate your notion of the use of interactivity within computer-based multimedia applications - designed to support the teaching and learning process - within all educational and training environments.


As educational technology is increasingly being referred to as interactive multimedia (IMM), it is perhaps fitting to include a short reference to the term multimedia. For this paper, I shall use the description presented by Ambron & Hooper (1988), where multimedia is said to consist of the media (text, audio, visuals), the technology (computers) and the products (kiosks, education, games, information). The essential implication which can be drawn from this description is that multimedia itself is not inherently interactive, as many of you already appreciate. In fact, multimedia represents no significant challenge to developers who understand that quality in an instructional resource is a function of the design effort, not the technology. It is the use of the products which integrate multimedia elements where interactivity becomes important. Interactivity is generally at a basic "point and click" level for kiosks and information applications, whereas games and educational products require a higher degree of interactivity. This is not to say that basic interactivity is inappropriate - but rather that the level of interaction may not be adequate or relevant to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge or the development of new skills and understanding. On the other hand, educational products will likely require more complex forms of interactivity, depending upon the particular strategy employed for the application.

The Human-Computer Interface

An initial approach to the study of interactivity can focus on the relationship between the human operator and the technology - the Human-Computer Interface (HCI) perspective. In brief, this involves interactivity as relating to a wide range of disciplines including software engineering, computational linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science (understanding, thought, creativity), sociology, ergonomics, organisational psychology, mathematics, cognitive psychology and social psychology (Booth, 1989).

For the purposes of this discussion and in the context of HCI, interactivity might be simplified to refer to a user who has access to a range of input devices (keyboard, drawing, pointing, touchscreen or speech) which can activate the technology being used; the result of this action is some form of visual or audio output (text, graphics, printing or speech), and the sequence of actions form an interaction. As noted by Bork (1982), instructional technology is about making that interaction both meaningful and engaging to the user, and interactivity can be viewed as a function of input required by the learner while responding to the computer, the analysis of those responses by the computer and the nature of the action by the computer.

Why Interactivity?

Interactivity is the one element which can distinguish what we do as educational technologists from other so-called interactive products. But what are the characteristics which make instructional software interactive? Are there inherent qualities or structures by which a product's interactivity can be measured and evaluated? Damarin (1982) identified a series of interactive options, which included watching, finding, doing, using, constructing and creating. Similarly, Ambron & Hooper (1988) described interactivity as a state in which users are able to browse, annotate, link and elaborate within a rich, non-linear database. While focusing very much on the user aspect, these comments do not specifically identify a component of interactivity which includes analysis and response generation. Perhaps a more useful description is that provided by Jonassen (1988), where interactivity is described as implying an activity between two organisms, and with a computer-based application, involving the learner in a true dialogue. If this dialog is successful, a quality interaction results:

Generally, the quality of the interaction in microcomputer courseware is a function of the nature of the learner's response and the computers feedback. If the response is consistent with the learner's information processing needs, then it is meaningful. (Jonassen, 1988:101)

Echoing the ideas of Jonassen (1988), Crawford (1990:104) argues that "a good program establishes an interaction circuit through which the user and computer are apparently in continuous communication". It is this dialog or circuit which we must pursue, enabling the users to be continually and productively active while working with the instructional content. However, as late as 1990, criticisms continued to be directed at interactive products: "compared to what it should and will be, today's interactive software is wooden, obtuse, clumsy, and confused. The pervasive lack of imagination and good design is appalling" (Nelson, 1990:235). While we have learnt much over the past 5 years, such comments are still not uncommon, and we are continually encouraged to extend our ideas of interactivity: Interactive multimedia has to be more than just software that you click on to bring up a different pop-up or text-menu. 'Interactive' has to mean more than point and click - it should be involving and personal. It all comes down to concepts. A brilliant idea that works interactively ... is a way that makes sense, and that makes it a more appropriate tool than a book or a video or a set of crayons. (Dickinson, 1995:145)

Another view of interactivity was revealed in the guidelines for applicants for funding of Australia on CD projects, which resulted from the Australian Government's 1994 Creative Nation statement, in which some $84 million was allocated for multimedia initiatives. In this instance, products proposed were to have a "level of interactivity ... sufficiently complex to provide for the use of the title in a variety of contexts. Interactivity being taken to mean objectives in using the title, the users' active participation in navigation and opportunities provided for creative involvement" (Department of Communication and the Arts, 1995:3). This concept of interactivity includes not only navigational components but also some form of user engagement.

Levels of Interaction

Interactivity is important, but there appears to be no consensus of what interactivity actually represents or involves (remember the recent ITFORUM debate??). Even so, over the past years there have been a number of attempts to identify levels of interactivity, with the underlying assumption that the higher the level, the better the product. For example, Rhodes & Azbell (1985) identified 3 levels of interactivity, ranging from Reactive (where there is little learner control of content structure with program directed options and feedback) to Coactive (providing learner control for sequence, pace and style) to Proactive (where the learner controls both structure and content). In this case, interactivity was perceived as being extended or improved when the learner had more control, although that control would appear to refer more to navigation than to instruction, a distinction which will be expanded on later.

In contrast, Jonassen (1988) identified five levels of interactivity which focused more on the user's involvement with the application and the subsequent effect on learning. The five levels included the modality of the learner's response, the nature of the task, the level of processing, the type of program and the level of intelligence in design. In relation to these levels, it was also suggested that the level of interactivity would affect whether surface or deep learning would occur.

More recently, Schwier & Misanchuk (1993) introduced a detailed taxonomy of interactivity based on three dimensions: Levels (reactive, proactive, mutual), Functions (confirmation, pacing, navigation, inquiry, elaboration) and Transactions (keyboard, touch screen, mouse, voice). The "levels of interaction (are) based on the instructional quality of the interaction" (Schwier & Misanchuk , 1993:11), which reinforces the idea that the higher the level, the better the instruction. However, this definition must be taken in context as Spector (1995:531) asserts that "creating more conversational interfaces should enhance the level of interactions in courseware ... (but) the critical factor (of learning effectiveness) is more likely the learner's mental engagement or involvement with the subject material". Regardless of the complexity or level of interaction, we do not know the extent to which cognitive processing is occurring.

The taxonomy however does provide a useful starting point for developing our understanding of interactivity. The three levels, which significantly extend the definition of Rhodes & Azbell (1985), range from basic stimulus:response interactions (reactive) to learner construction and generative activity (proactive) to mutual "artificial or virtual reality designs, where the learner becomes a fully franchised citizen in the instructional environment" (Schwier & Misanchuk, 1993:12). The associated functions include verification of learning (confirmation), learner control (pacing), learner interrogation and performance support (inquiry), instructional control (navigation) and knowledge construction (elaboration). However, from my reading, the terminology and brief examples tend towards the traditional behaviourist approach to instructional software, and do not extend the opportunities for interaction using the power and flexibility of the technology.

A Developer's Classification

When developing multimedia applications, significant emphasis must be placed on the ways in which users can access, manipulate and navigate through the content material. The following analysis identifies a range of interactive concepts (based on the 7 levels of interactivity proposed by Sims, 1994), which may be used as a guide to different modes of communication between computer and person. By applying these interactive concepts to multimedia courseware design, the various media elements can be integrated based on instructional decisions rather than visual appeal, allowing more effective communication and therefore potentially more educational effectiveness.

An important aspect of the following classification of interactive concepts is that they are not mutually exclusive events, but elements which can be integrated to provide comprehensive and engaging instructional transactions. In addition, the implementation of such interactions is not only dependent on the skills of the designers and developers, but also on the extent to which the interactions are independent (that is, will perform identically on each encounter with a user) or consequential (where the functionality of the interaction is dependent upon previous actions or performance by the current user). To provide a context for these concepts, the levels and functions of interactivity defined by Schwier & Misanchuk (1993) have been noted in brackets within each concept description.

Object Interactivity

Object interactivity (proactive inquiry) refers to an application in which objects (buttons, people, things) are activated by using a mouse or other pointing device. When a user "clicks" on the object, there will be some form of audio-visual response. The functionality of such objects can be varied according to consequential factors such as previous objects encountered, previous encounters with the current object or previous instructional performance/activity.

Linear Interactivity

Linear interactivity (reactive pacing) refers to applications in which the user is able to move (forwards or backwards) through a predetermined linear sequence of instructional material. Often termed electronic page-turning, this class of interaction does not provide response-specific feedback to learner actions, but simply provides access to the next (or previous) display in a sequence. Overuse of linear interactions in learning environments may reflect inappropriate use of the technology. From a development perspective, the linear interaction is simple to generate and can be used to maximise courseware development ratios. However, its use as a major form of interaction in an application is not recommended as the level of learner control is restricted, and learner-initiated branching may not be accessible.

The Figure below (Copyright 1995 NSW State Rail Authority) illustrates a screen with OBJECT interactivity in which the user can get simple information by clicking one of the three buttons, and LINEAR interactivity in that the two arrow buttons can be used to move between information pages. The INFO and LISTEN buttons provide SUPPORT interactivity.


Support Interactivity
One of the essential components of any software application is the facility for the user to receive performance support, which may range from simple help messages to complex tutorial systems. The inclusion of support interactivity (reactive inquiry) in the classification extends the options of the developer to include both generalised and context-sensitive support.

Update Interactivity

This is one of the more powerful classes of interactivity (although its significance is not consistent with the comparatively low proactive confirmation category), as it relates to individual application components or events in which a dialogue is initiated between the learner and computer-generated content. For this concept, the applications presents or generates problems (either from a database or as a function of individual performance levels) to which the learner must respond; the analysis of the response results in computer-generated update or feedback. For example, when a question is posed to assess knowledge, the answer provided by the trainee is judged and responded to. The instructional rigour of the judging will determine the extent to which the update or feedback provides a meaningful response to the user.

Update interactivity can range from the simple question and answer format to complex conditional responses which may incorporate artificial intelligence components. While updates to both complex and simple interactions may be indistinguishable to the learner, the processing and strategies used to generate the update may vary considerably. The more the update is based upon the current learner's responses, the more individualised these updates will appear. The planning of update interactivity is extremely important in developing interactive multimedia applications, as the quality and format of media as a component of the update and feedback will affect the overall effectiveness of the instruction.

Construct Interactivity

The construct class of interactivity (proactive elaboration) is an extension to update interactivity, and requires the creation of an instructional environment in which the learner is required to manipulate component objects to achieve specific goals. A classic example of this form of interaction is a lesson created for the original PLATO system (0distill) which required the learner to construct distillation apparatus from component parts. Unless the construction was completed in the correct sequence, the task could not be completed. Construct interactions require significantly more design and strategic effort, as many parameters affect the successful completion of an operation. This class of interaction can also provide a link between non-situate learning and simulated environments by introducing the learner to real-world actions.

Reflective Interactivity

This class of interaction (proactive elaboration) has been included to cater for the many situations in which instructional designers wish to include text responses to prompts or questions. A general rule I have used is that if N correct alternatives are provided to a text response, the user will enter the N+1th correct response which will be judged "incorrect". To prevent this, reflective interactivity records each response entered by users of the application and allows the current user to compare their response to that of other users as well as recognised "experts". In this way, learners can reflect on their response and make their own judgement as to its accuracy or correctness. This technique was used successfully in an interactive-video project (Farrow & Sims, 1987) as well as a more recent commercial CBT project. Similar strategies are also being used in internet-based instruction.

The diagram below illustrates REFLECTIVE interactivity (Copyright Fujitsu Australia Limited 1994). In this case, the user has entered responses to a question asking for five instances where negotiation is required; the nature of their answer can then be compared to both other students and "the experts".

Simulation Interactivity

Simulation interactivity (which ranges from reactive elaboration to mutual elaboration, depending on its complexity) extends the role of the learner to that of controller or operator, where individual selections determine the training sequence. For example, setting a range of switches to certain values to enable the functioning of a production plant, with the settings selected determining the presentation or update sequence. The simulation and construct interactivity levels are closely linked, and may require the learner to complete a specific sequence of tasks before a suitable update can be generated. The interaction sequence can also be varied according to the specific instructional strategy required; for example, the simulation may be controlled and the learner progressing only after making a correct choice. On the other hand the sequence may be consequential, where the actions of the learner generate an update which mimics the actual operation or process being simulated. As with all interactions, if the update is to relate to individual learner responses, the design and development will require more effort.

Hyperlinked Interactivity

With hyperlinked interactivity (proactive navigation), the learner has access to a wealth of information, and may "travel" at will through that knowledge base. The provision of linked information can provide a means to present problems which are solved by correctly navigating through the "maze" of information. From the developers perspective, the major design effort involves defining, maintaining and integrating appropriate hyperlinks to ensure all possible (or relevant paths) are accessible. While providing a flexible environment for information access, this concept of interactivity may diminish the motivation of the learner to explore if required links (from the learner's perspective) are either unavailable or inoperative.

Non-Immersive Contextual Interactivity

This concept combines and extends the various interactive levels into a complete virtual training environment (mutual elaboration) in which the trainee is able to work in a meaningful, job-related context. Rather than taking a passive role in which they work through a series of content oriented sequences, they are transported into a microworld which models their existing work environment, and the tasks they undertake reflect those of the work experience. Non-Immersive Contextual interactions require significant effort in design strategy and work well with a rapid prototyping methodology.

The diagram below illustrates CONEXTUAL interactivity (Copyright Dorling Kindersley 1994) where the user can almost walk through an 18th Century warship, interacting with SIMULATIONS and HYPERLINKING to other sections of the ship.

Immersive Virtual Interactivity

Often perceived as the ultimate in interaction, Immersive Virtual Interactivity (mutual elaboration) provides an interactive environment in which the learner is projected into a complete computer-generated world which responds to individual movement and actions. Although this concept has yet to be used in typical instructional settings, the notion of working in virtual worlds continues to gain popularity.

An Engagement-Control Model

Having identified these interactive concepts, it is evident that the individual concepts relate to different tasks which might be performed during an instructional event or transaction. Therefore, the next phase is to place them in a more logical context based on the range of activities which might occur during a learner's encounter with courseware. To achieve this, I have used the work of Waterworth (1992), who defined a three dimensional model of information exploration, describing the interaction between a user and the system (see below). The first dimension, structural responsibility, identifies navigation as a state in which the user controls a search process compared to mediation, where the system performs the actual search. The second dimension, target orientation, differentiates the browsing or querying user while the third dimension, interaction method, contrasts the descriptive and referential interface. As a result, the information-seeking mode in which a user is operating might be referred to as Referential:Navigational:Query or Descriptive:Mediated:Browse.

Using the basic structure of this model, I am proposing three dimensions by which interactive instruction may be viewed. The first dimension, engagement, refers to interactivity which is either navigational (where the user moves from one location in the application to another) or instructional (where the user is involved with the content in a way designed to facilitate learning). The second dimension, control, refers to the extent to which the system (program control) or user (learner control) is making the instructional or navigational decisions. The third dimension, interactive concept, provides an indication of the type of interaction which might be expected under the varying conditions defined by the model. The following diagram provides a generalised view of the model, with each of the interactive concepts assumed to be associated with a relevant engagement/control category.


This paper has examined a range of options for interactivity, based on the desire to continue to develop our understanding of implementing effective instructional technology applications. I contend that the art that we have lost is working towards and implementing interactions at the mutual-elaboration level (Schwier & Misnachuk, 1993) or the learner controlled instructional engagements proposed here. By focusing on instructional design, graphic design and communication design to implement interactions which will motivate and engage the learner, the on-going success of functional and effective interactive instructional applications is assured.

Spector (1995:531) reminds us that "making automated learning environments highly interactive is a multi-disciplinary art ... however, the level of interactivity as measured on anyone's scale does not approach the level of interactivity in a human tutoring situation." I am sure most of the ITFORUM community would agree with this, so our challenge is to make best use of the technology, not to replicate human behaviour and communication, but to enhance human-computer communications - and this is what interactivity is all about.


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This material is Copyright © 1995 Roderick Sims.

Cite this document as:
Sims, Roderick. Interactivity: A Forgotten Art?. [Online] Available, January 27, 1997. 

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