The success of an online learning environment (OLE) significantly relies on the integral component of interactivity. Instructional designers need to carefully chalk out a plan of coherently coalescing interactivity into the online course design.
The genesis of online learning may partly be attributed to advances in digital technology and partly to the open learning philosophy which gave rise to the distance mode of education. While distance education beholds an entire history of its evolution, online learning has emerged as an offshoot which has lately gained immense popularity.
Especially, web 2.0 and web 3.0 technologies such as learning management system (LMS) and massive open online courses (MOOCS) have witnessed huge response from learners in terms of enrollment depicting an acceptance and willingness among the users for such kind of learning. Online learning is a typical representation of the 21st century new age learning symbolic of a networked world, fast paced life, and technological innovation. However, the large number of drop outs in MOOCs is a grave issue for proponents of online learning.
Interactivity and Online Learning: Active, Authentic, and Meaningful Learning
One has to agree that the pedagogy of online learning completely differs from that of the traditional face-to-face learning. The method of imparting education witnesses an enormous change in an OLE. Making a distant learner learn is not an easy task yet. It requires high level of creativity in designing an online environment which motivates the learners to sustain till the completion of the course.
For the above to be achieved, the learner must experience active, authentic and meaningful learning and be able to employ metacognitive skills like reflection and collaboration. Many research studies have identified interactivity as the most crucial element in enhancing online student motivation and satisfaction. Let’s explore more about interactivity and appropriateness of online interactive tools in an OLE.
Merriam Webster defines interactivity as mutually or reciprocally active behavior or response. Unlike in a traditional classroom where a student may directly interact with the teacher, in an OLE teacher acquires a backstage role. The learner is free to navigate and maneuver through the online course which has been designed by the teacher, instructional designer, and other experts. Thus, the basic difference apparently is that the learner is at the center in an OLE while a face-to-face class is essentially ‘teacher-centric’. An online teacher must therefore incorporate elements of interactivity wherever required while developing and designing an online course.
Four Elements of Interactivity in an OLE
1. Learner-Instructor Interactivity
In an online course, the presence of a teacher or instructor is as important as it is in the traditional classroom course.According to M.G. Moore, the success of an online course depends on the extent to which transactional distance between the learner and the instructor is minimized. The interplay of autonomy, structure and dialogue helps in influencing the transactional distance. It’s not the physical distance that matters and the transactional distance enormously affects the learning outcomes. For instance, some of the online courses have been successful in reducing the transactional distance whereas most of the face-to-face classrooms are plagued with a large transactional distance.
The availability of online interactive tools has enabled an online teacher to increase dialogue with the learner and show consistent online presence. These tools for interaction are broadly of two types, viz. synchronous and asynchronous interaction. The real time interaction, i.e. synchronous can happen through chat rooms and web-conferencing and asynchronous where there is a delay in terms of time of response to a query can be done through news forums/announcements, discussion forums, emails, listservs, etc. The synchronous interaction helps in immediate resolution to a query/doubt whereas asynchronous interaction has been found more effective in providing learner autonomy and development of metacognitive abilities.
The interactivity tools abound but their judicious and effective use depends to a larger degree on the instructor and the instructional designer. An easy to understand structure of the course, a welcome note, introductory notes on transiting from one module to another and a consistent presence of the teacher in form of announcements, orientations and feedback to learner are a hallmark of a well-structured online course.
2. Learner-Content Interactivity
This type of interactivity is basically about the cognitive presence as given in the ‘Community of Inquiry’ model of Garrison, Anderson & Archer in 2000. An online learning environment shall not be just a repository of all related content put together at a place but should provide ways of meaningful interaction with the content. The multimedia resources like videos, audios, and podcasts enable the learners to use more of their senses and also allows interaction in terms of pause, rewind, forward, save and download tabs available with it.
The power of simulations, virtual learning environment, gamification, virtual field trips, augmented reality (AR) can be harnessed in creating highly immersive, interactive, engaging and entertaining learning experiences. The simple text can be provided with animations, tables, charts, mind maps, comment box, views/like/share/tag options for more interactivity. Reference for further readings in terms of hyperlinks must also be provided for the exploratory learner.
Customized suggestions for further reading can also be included with the help of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) which analyzes the meta-data of how a learner interacted to project his/her further progress. Really simple syndication (RSS) also provide these services. Similarly, auto monitoring of the content, by which the learner is always reminded of how much of the modules s/he has covered and how much is still left, is an effective way for the learner to decide her/his own pace of learning.
Interactivity is a two-way process. It is as much about creating the content by learner as about accessing the content by the learner. Therefore, such tasks must be devised by the instructor which facilitate content creation and self-expression by the learner. Blogs are the best means of personal reflection. Also, video making or doing a podcast, preparing a PowerPoint presentation, etc. help in developing higher level cognitive skills. All the interaction of the learner and tasks accomplished by the learner can be recorded in form of an e-portfolio to enable the learner insights into his/her own learning curve.
3. Learner-Learner Interactivity
This interactivity holds much importance in today’s networked world where all trade and communication has become social and collaborative. An important element in the ‘Community of Inquiry’ model is the social presence. This is also corroborated by other latest online learning theories. Knowledge construction is a collaborative process. When learners are provided the opportunities to interact with each other in a focused and meaningful way, a lot of contextual and experiential learning takes place.
Numerous social collaboration tools are available online which may be utilized for educational purposes by a professional instructor. Collaborating, sharing, and creating can be done using online tools like wikis, Google Docs, Google Groups, Dropbox, Polls/Survey, You Tube, Facebook, microblogs like twitter, video conferencing, WeChat, WatsApp, Myspace, discussion forums and chat rooms, etc.
The judgment and decision of the instructor in choosing the right tools and just the right mix of interactivity as per the needs of the course is critical to the success of an online course. Providing less than required learner-learner interactivity may make the course boring and leave the learner with the feeling of isolation; while excess of this sort of interactivity may digress the learners from their learning curve making them feel dissatisfied over their ability to timely achieve their learning goals. Here, B. Holmberg’s theory of guided didactic conversation provides cue to how even the communication among the learners can be guided by the instructor in order to stay focused on achieving the planned learning outcomes.
4. Interactivity in Assessment, Student Support, and Feedback
Apart from the above three interactivities, an OLE can also have an element of interactivity in the way assessment is conducted. Online assessments can be made creative by making the learners use personal reflective and collaborative tools as discussed earlier. The objective type assessments can have an automated mechanism of letting the learners know the correct answers once the test is completed.
The subjective type assessments can incorporate techniques like peer evaluation or critical evaluation by a group of learners in a collaborative manner. Feedback must be given, if not instant then on a regular basis. Feedback helps the learner in improving and keeps them motivated. There ought to be an in-built system for learner support services in an OLE to deal with matters such as technical issues, technological know-how (which may vary from learner to learner), guidance on completion of course or submitting an assignment, etc. A learner profile which is visible to everyone, i.e. instructor and other learners, is a must for providing requisite support as per the level of the learner. A personalized approach in dealing with every learner makes a course more popular than the others. AI-enabled adaptive platforms are these days offering this same feature for reaching out to more students.
Interactivity is the key to learner satisfaction in an OLE. According to Terry Anderson’s Equivalency Interaction Theory, high level of more than one of the interactions as discussed above will lead to a more satisfying learner experience. While designing an OLE, the course designers need to take into consideration two important parameters: quality and cost effectiveness. The higher the interactivity, the more will be the quality and so the cost involved. However, the cost may be reduced if even any one of these interactivities is kept at a very high level and the others are eliminated completely. Eventually, it is onto the course designers to decide which type of interactivity they can incorporate as per their needs and budget.