Is Interactivity Always Best?

By Nathan Pienkowski

It’s almost a given these days that learning programs need to be interactive.  Instructional designers are constantly looking for ways to boost interactivity as a means of increasing engagement, uptake, and retention.  To be sure, there are very good reasons for this.

But, are there times when interactivity is counter-productive?  Are there times when it’s best to just give learners the information they need and dispense with the interactive techniques?  Yes, there are.  In this article, we’ll shed some light on times when less interactivity is better.

Why—and When—Interactivity is Good

The Learning & Development (L&D) function does many things for the business.  In some cases, L&D helps learners develop new skills while in other cases, L&D must efficiently communicate corporate policy, provide training to comply with regulations, and so on.

Interactivity is most effective when the goal is to build new skills, which requires practice, feedback, and mastery.  It’s also useful for keeping learners engaged when teaching more conceptual things and when trying to determine the extent to which someone has mastered what you’re teaching.

Basically, interactive content demands more of learners.  It makes them become more actively involved with the content, forcing them to work harder to get the underlying knowledge.

Interactive training can be a lot more effective than methods in which the learner is a more passive participant.  When done right, that added involvement can boost knowledge uptake and retention.  It works, and that’s why interactivity is good in a lot of cases.

When Interactivity is Less Useful

So, interactivity is typically a good thing.  Now, here comes the “but.”  There are some learner populations who already have a substantial knowledge- or skills-base in the area in question, and a learning program is just adding to that.  Think of a doctor and his or her knowledge of a familiar disease, it’s mechanisms, and the current treatment paradigms.

In such a case, the learners have strong, well-founded mental constructs in the domain.  Those mental constructs allow them to easily assimilate new knowledge in the domain and make it actionable.  With these people—in the domain in question—instructional designers don’t need to do a lot of work to help them form a mental construct.  In other words, the instructional designer doesn’t need to do the work of translating raw information into an actionable form (something in which good instructional designers take pride).  The learner can do that for him.  And in many cases, that’s what these types of learners prefer.

There is a lot of behavioral research to support the idea that experts in a field are better able to assimilate and make actionable new knowledge.  In my own experience, I’ve seen that experts in a given domain typically prefer less interactivity and have little tolerance for anything they consider fluff (this includes gaming, themes, and a host of other interactive techniques).  Often, they feel that such techniques interfere with them getting to the meat of the issue.  In addition, they can get frustrated and angry at times when they must do a lot of interactive things in order to get what they want.

People with in-depth experience in a given domain are far better able to direct their own learning and to know better than anyone else what they need, so it’s best to give them that control.  Think of it like this:  When a raw beginner shows up to his first guitar lesson, that person has no idea what they actually need to learn or what their pathway to mastery should be.  Asking them what they want to learn or giving them a lot of control over their learning pathway at this stage just impedes their progress and increases their own anxiety.

On the other hand, when an experienced guitarist shows up to a teacher for the first time, it would be a mistake for the teacher to establish a high degree of control over their learning pathway.  In this case, it would be best to give the learner a lot more control over his or her learning pathway.

It should be said that I’ve recently read a couple of articles that dissent from the viewpoint I’ve described above.  Instead, they argue that interactivity is best for experts and not as good for novices.  Certainly, this can be true in some cases.  In my experience, those cases are rare.  Most of the research on this topic is in line with my own personal experience.

“Something is Better than Nothing”

Now, there is one more reason supporting the “interactivity is not always good” argument.  We’ll call it the “something is (usually) better than nothing” principle.  Another way of expressing it is, “Don’t let perfect get in the way of progress.”

Transforming content into an interactive learning experience takes time, effort, and dollars.  No one has all the resources they need to address all their training needs at the perfect level, so L&D teams must prioritize.  And of course, you can’t list all training needs as “Priority 1.”

In those cases, L&D (acting as the performance consultant) must ask itself, “Is something better than nothing?”  A lot of times, the answer will be “Yes.”

Let’s say we have 10,000 healthcare workers across Africa, many of whom lack the skills needed to administer vaccines to the people in their care.  If all L&D can afford to do is send out some booklets, knowing that it won’t completely build the skill, should it?  Is doing that better than leaving it to their own devices to figure out?  In my view, the answer is, yes, something is better than nothing.

In sum, as an L&D performance consultant, you absolutely should take your high-priority items up to the best level you can, but you can’t do this for every item.  Further, it’s not just about limits in your resources.  It’s also about the limits of your learners’ time and attention.  People can’t train all day every day.  They have work to do.  So, every training manager has a finite amount of time they can pull people out of their work to do training, so L&D will need to make trade-off decisions.

All of this adds up to our key takeaway:  Sometimes, interactivity is not the best thing.  Its usefulness depends on a combination of factors, including the learners’ current level of expertise in the domain, the training resources available, and the amount of time learners can devote to training.  It’s up to the performance consultants in L&D to make the determination.

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