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Beyond the Bells and Whistles: Purposeful Interaction Design

By March 31, 2019October 5th, 2021LTEN Focus On Training

Beyond the Bells and Whistles: Purposeful Interaction Design

Feature Story – By Dr. Barbara B. Lockee

Effective eLearning design integrates the functions of interaction.

As one of the most widely discussed aspects of learning, interaction has long been proposed as an essential part of the learning process. In the early history of the field of instructional design and technology, scholars recognized the key role that interaction plays in the engagement of learners, from attention-getting strategies to presenting course material, to assessment and feedback methods that underpin the evaluation of educational activities.

Effective eLearning design integrates consistent and mindful opportunities to capture the learner’s attention, to apply new knowledge and skills, and to verify the effectiveness of the instructional program — all functions of interaction. Today’s eLearning-authoring systems offer a variety of interaction strategies that engage learners in the learning experience in a seemingly limitless number of ways. With literally hundreds of options available to course developers, what factors should drive decision-making regarding the kinds of available interaction types? It is important to be purposeful in the addition of such functionality within the instructional program to maintain learner engagement and facilitate effective learning.

Fortunately, prior research in the field of instructional design and technology can help. In 1993, Mark Gavora and Michael Hannafin of Florida State University helped program designers understand that interaction can be physical, as well as cognitive, and that such interactions should be purposeful in their usage. These authors identified five purposes for the integration of interaction in the development of computer-assisted instruction-purposes that remain relevant in contemporary program design: pacing, navigation, elaboration, confirmation and learner support.

With these purposes in mind, developers can consider which interaction options will best facilitate the learning task. From an instructional design perspective, these features provide opportunities to regulate how and when the content is made available to the learner, apply new knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and verify the acquisition of the intended learning outcomes.

Considering these functions of interaction in the eLearning planning process can help ensure that the selected strategies are meaningful.


Given limitations of our short-term memory capacity, as well as the need to engage with instructional content to ensure its transfer to long-term memory, we can benefit from strategies that help to manage the introduction of new information to the learner. Pacing the release of new content can help to regulate cognitive load so that the learner can effectively process the subject matter. Too much content in one frame can overwhelm short-term memory processing abilities, resulting in failure to process a portion of the content and leaving the learner feeling frustrated.

Pacing options can be incorporated to effectively control the amount of  information presented such as the inclusion of layers, triggers, tabbed content and the use of callout features (i.e., lightboxes, hotspots, or markers). These interaction tools allow for the disclosure of relevant content in a way that minimizes screen clutter and complies with principles related to cognitive processing.


How the learner is permitted to move through an eLearning program can be managed by a variety of navigation strategies. Open navigation options could include constant access to the course outline menu, with the freedom to access any aspect of the course in any order. While such freedom may be effective for learners with significant prior knowledge, it may prudent for less learner control for those learners who need to engage with each section of the learning program.  Also, compliance or regulatory requirements may mandate that every learner complete each aspect of the instruction, which would necessarily lead to more limited navigation options.

eLearning developers can also provide customized navigation options, based on learner input. For example, branching sequences can be built into the program, taking learners down individualized pathways, determined by their response to certain actions or user input. Such interaction strategies can help to maintain engagement with the instruction by addressing specific learner needs related to the targeted outcomes.


Interaction strategies can support elaboration, or the building of meaningful connections to the instructional content. Common features that support elaboration include the ability for the users to take notes or annotate the content, as well as the provision of access to additional resources either internal or external to the program. Additional elaboration strategies include the use of cases or scenarios that require the direct application of the instructional material in ways that will support the transfer of learning to practice.


Effective learning opportunities include the ability for learners to confirm their new knowledge, skills and attitudes. Learning confirmation activities can be incorporated throughout the eLearning program to help learners feel confident that they are on track with their learning. Such interactions should be based on the level of the targeted outcome. For example, lower level outcomes like declarative knowledge (knowing about something) can be assessed through self-checks that utilize a variety of physical interactions such as drag and drop, matching, and other data interaction techniques. Higher level outcomes can leverage customized text input or simulations that require learners to synthesize and apply the instructional material to determine the effectiveness of their learning.

Learner Support

While an eLearning program may be planned as a self-contained experience, learners will always need the ability to seek assistance. Options for providing instructional and technical support should be evident to the user always and interaction options can provide such support. Chat boxes, FAQs, links to knowledge repositories and search functions represent different tools to help support the learning experience and connect to external help if needed.

Make Interaction Mindful

Considering these functions of interaction in the eLearning planning process can help ensure that the selected strategies are meaningful and compliant with principles of human learning and instructional design. Learners need opportunities to acquire new information in manageable ways, apply newly learned knowledge and skills to enhance retention and transfer, and feel confident that their understanding is on target. Using these functions as guidance for interaction selection can help developers move past the myriad of “bells and whistles” and onward toward relevant and engaging eLearning experiences.

Dr. Barbara B. Lockee is a professor, instructional design & technology, for Virginia Tech. Email Barbara at


About LTEN

The Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network ( is the only global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization specializing in meeting the needs of life sciences learning professionals. LTEN shares the knowledge of industry leaders, provides insight into new technologies, offers innovative solutions and communities of practice that grow careers and organizational capabilities. Founded in 1971, LTEN has grown to more than 3,200 individual members who work in pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies, and industry partners who support the life sciences training departments.

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