International Forum of Educational Technology & Society

Formal Discussion Initiation

Interactivity in computer-mediated college and university education: A recent review of the literature

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Time schedule:
Discussion: November 10-19, 2003
Summing-up: November 20-21, 2003

Brent Muirhead, University of Phoenix Online, USA
Charles Juwah, The Robert Gordon University, UK




Interactivity and interactions are critical in underpinning the learning process in face-to-face, campus based and distance and online education.  Interactions serve a diverse range of functions in the educational process which include, for example:

The rapid evolution of the information and communications technologies (ICT) and the Internet has contributed significantly to the phenomenalgrowth of distance and online education. Educational research findings suggest that the success of any educational process is and should be underpinned by sound pedagogical principles and interactions. Our brief overview of literature will highlight some trends and developments in the study of interactivity and interactions in distance and online education.


Defining Interactivity

The search for an educationally viable definition of interactivity has produced some valuable insights for distance educators. Interactivity and interactions in online education are complex, multifaceted phenomenon and are critical in promoting and enhancing effective learning (Anderson, 2002; Hirumi, 2002; Sims, 1995; Yacci, 2000).Yacci (2000) describes four major attributes to interactivity:

Yacci’s reflections reveal the existence of a student-centered orientation around their perceptions of interactivity. Therefore, a web based educational program can claim interactivity but students will not acknowledge interaction until they individually receive some form of feedback. Yacci’s observations emphasis the need to study online interaction from a communication theory perspective by investigating a diversity of variables such as length and number of messages, type of information shared and the amount of time between responses.

Muirhead (2000) offers a practical definition of interactivity, which affirms the human dimension of this term; interactivity refers to communication, participation, and feedback. Additionally, interactivity involves participation by the learner in online communication with other learners and with their instructors. The definition highlights the personal nature of sharing information during an online class. Naturally, students interact with their course materials through reading textbooks, journals and discussion forum comments from other students and their instructors. The subject matter provides an academic foundation for meaningful dialogue within a distance education class

From the above definitions, it is clear that interactivity is a multifaceted concept and can be described to mean different things in a variety of contexts.  Nevertheless, it is recognised as an important and critical characteristic in instructional design, social context and success of distance education (Beard and Harper, 2002).  Thurmond (2003) shares an insightful definition of interaction:

The learner’s engagement with the course content, other learners, the instructor, andthe technological medium used in the course. True interactions with other learners, the instructor, and the technology results in a reciprocal exchange of information. The exchange of information is intended to enhance knowledge development in the learning environment. Depending on the nature of the course content, the reciprocal exchange may be absent – such as in the case of paper printed content. Ultimately, the goal of interaction is to increase understanding of the course content or mastery of defined goals (p. 4).

To add to this debate, the authorsbased on their understanding and experience from practice share relevant definitions of interactivity and interaction as follows:


Interactivity in distance and online education describes the form, function and impact of interactions in teaching and learning.


Interaction is a dialogue or discourse or event between two or more participants and objects which occurs synchronously and/or asynchronously mediated by response or feedback and interfaced by technology. The interactions which can be categorised as learner to learner, learner to content, learner to tutor, learner to technology, tutor to content, tutor to technology, content to content, promote and enhance quality of active, participative learning in a learning environment (See Figure 1).


Types of Interactions

There exists in the literature an array of taxonomies for categorising interactions. Several authors have identified four primary types of interactions.  These are - student-student, student-teacher, student-content, student-interface (Anderson 2002; Hirumi, 2002; Rovai, 2002; Sims, 1995). Sims (1995) provides a valuable classification of interactivity based on an instructional courseware designer’s perspective.  This classification demonstrates both the importance and integrated aspects of the various concepts in enhancing motivation, engagement and instructional transactions in technology-enhanced education.  The following descriptions depict the range and characteristics of the interactive concepts:

Object Interactivity: (proactive inquiry) refers to an application in which objects (buttons, people, and things) are activated by using a mouse or other pointing device to elicit an audio-visual response.

Linear Interactivity: (reactive pacing) refers to applications in which the user moves through predetermined linear sequence of instructional material without any response-specific feedback to learner’s actions. This type of interaction is referred to as “page-turning”.

Support Interactivity: (reactive inquiry) provides learners with performance support in both generalised and context-sensitive perspectives.

Update Interactivity: (proactive) relates to individual application components or events in which a dialogue is initiated between the learner and computer-generated content. This may involve applications which present or generate problems or dialogues to which the learner must respond.  The learner’s response will result in a computer-generated update or feedback. The instructional rigour of the judging will determine the extent to which the update or feedback provides a meaningful response to the user.

Construct Interactivity: (proactive elaboration) involves learner in manipulating component objects to achieve specific goals and/or outcomes. This type of interaction provides a link between non-situated learning and simulated environments, and introduces the learner to authentic learning situations without the risks or costs involved with “real life situations”.

Reflective Interactivity (proactive elaboration) refers to interactions in which users’ entered responses to a task are compared to the responses of other users as well as recognised "experts", thus enabling the learners to reflect on their response and make their own judgement as to its accuracy or correctness.

Simulation Interactivity:(which ranges from reactive elaboration to mutual elaboration, depending on its complexity) involves the learner in manipulating “non-real” objects to obtain desired goals in a training sequence. Sims (1995) posits that 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 for example, allowing the learner to progress to other stages of learning/activity only after making a correct choice.

Hyperlinked Interactivity: (proactive navigation) provides the learner access to a wealth and diverse range of information linked to a knowledge base.

Non-Immersive Contextual Interactivity: (mutual elaboration) provides the virtual environment in which users/learners engage in meaningful learning in a job-related context through a series of content oriented sequences.

Immersive Virtual Interactivity: (mutual elaboration) provides a complete computer-generated, virtual reality interactive environment in learning based on interactions between the user’s actions and response and feedback from within the learning environment.


He concluded his classification by proposing an engagement-control model of interactivity. The model consists of engagement which is instructional or navigational, control wherein the program or learners is in control of making the instructional/navigational decisions and the interactive concept provides an indication of the type of interaction expected under the particular context.

Hirumi (2002) provides a concise summary of the categorisation of interactions as“communications-based”; “social”; “roles of the instructor”, “purpose-based”; “use of telecommunication tools”and“activity-based”.   In addition, Hirumi (2002) highlights the importance of sound educational principles, cognitive learning theories and grounded instructional strategies to inform course design and sequencing of activities to ensure effective interactions, thereby, making learning relevant, meaningful and authentic.

However, to support authentic learning as well as enhance the learner’s educational experience in distance and online courses, it is imperative to provide adequate scaffolding. The epistemological approach in providing appropriate scaffolding to support deep learning in the diverse range of interactions can be via – manipulating objects and symbols, questioning, dialoguing, analysing, netweaving, representing, i.e. presenting and structuring activities and guiding learner’s reflection within appropriate contexts.  These scaffoldings can be categorised as:

- conceptual: These guide the learner in what to consider, particularly when the problem/task is defined.  They provide explicit hints and examples.

- metacognition: These guide the learner on how to think in considering the problem/strategies, for example, framing the problem.  These provide suggestions to plan ahead, model cognitive strategies, regulatory process and evaluation.

- procedural: These guide the learner on how to utilise information – i.e. provide on-going help and advice, and may include tutoring.

- strategic: These guide the learner in analysing and approaching the problem with a strategy.  These provide a start up to seeking solutions, as well as enabling focused responses to the problem situation (Juwah, 2002).

Cognisant of the role of interactions in education and drawing from experience and other research studies, Anderson (2002, paragraph 10) goes on to develop an “Equivalency theorem” that states:

Sufficient levels of deep and meaningful learning can be developed as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student-teacher; student-student; student-content) are at very high levels.  The other two may be offered at minimal levels or even eliminated without degrading the educational experience.  High levels of more than one of these three models will likely deliver a more satisfying educational experience, though these experiences may not be as cost or time effective as less interactive learning sequences.

Our search and review of the literature highlights six primary types of interactions within which a variety of secondary interactions and activities are embedded. These categories are:

Notwithstanding the plethora of categorisations of interactions, one thing was obviously clear in the literature.  There is no single medium that is superior to the others in supporting the learners’s needs and their educational experience via the provision of various types of interactions. However, each type of instructional interaction plays a role in the entire educational process, with the process being more effective if predicated on a blend of interactions.

Educational Implications

Research has shown that the use of ICT and multimedia in both verbal and non-verbal forms improve and facilitate learning through reducing cognitive load.  It provides the right context and an integrated learning environment that combines the use of the Web and an appropriate mix of multiple - and/or multi-media e.g. animation, audio, images, video, CD, print and hypertext to give a rich, stimulating and interactive learning environment.  The media mix enhances learner motivation and has the potential of meeting the needs of the different learning styles – visual (images), auditory (sound), tactile (touch) and kinaesthetic (whole being).  However, it is critical that in designing a learning environment in which ICT is used to support learning that such an environment has the ability to synchronise and coordinate diverse multimedia elements (Juwah, 2002).

Research studies on constructivism and interactivity point to some interesting preliminary results. Taylor and Maor (2000) studied a graduate online class at Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia. The research project created a questionnaire know as the Constructivist On-Line Learning Survey (COLLES) to measure both teacher and student perceptions in the following six categories:

Student expectations were met in five of the six categories except in the area of interactivity. A revealing finding was the absence of dynamic dialogue in the class which had structured small group activities that included a systematic change of student leaders and topics. Student online remarks were one-dimensional commentaries that failed to address comments made by their colleagues. The study indicated teachers must create a learning environment that equips students with instructional experiences to enhance their reflective skills. Additionally, students must be dedicated to becoming more sophisticated learners who are willing to learn from their colleagues while cultivating an intellectually engaging writing style that fosters academic discussion.

It is clearly evident from the literature that interactions are critical for enhancing motivation, communication, a diverse range of skills and intellectual development in the educational process. However, the lack of proper integration between pedagogy, organization and technology has often resulted in some distance and online education being delivered as correspondence courses, with the consequence that such courses lack interactivity, immediacy and appropriate tutor feedback. Such a phenomenon has led Garrison and Anderson (2003) to state “educators have not understood and capitalized on the blend of symbol systems, such as multimedia, text-based communication systems that create new modes of expression and communication” (p. 4).


Further Research

Information available in the literature on research into the complex phenomenon of interactivity and interactions is rather limited in scope due to the lack of theory to guide research projects (Anglin & Morrison, 2003). Berge and Mrozowski (2001) in their survey of research articles from four technology journals for the period 1990-1999, identified the following research trends:

Most attention-over 100 articles were focused in three categories

Least attention was paid to

Interactivity has been a major focus for researchers but much more needs to be done. Interactions online occur within a learning community and such communities provide an important area for research, in terms of the nature of collaboration and interactions within the community of learning. The issue of learner support is connected to related topics such as student attrition. For instance, what are the most effective types of learner support? Motivation and engagement are critical factors for effective learning. The challenge here is to investigate the pedagogy of engagement and interactions through electronic simulation or virtual reality in enhancing learner’s experience.



This literature review highlights the multifaceted nature of the concept of interactivity and interactions, as well as the importance of interactions in underpinning distance and online education. It briefly highlights the fact that interactions are not solely the manipulation of symbols and representation but the promotion of metacognition (reflection) which is critical in meaning making and construction of new knowledge. Additionally, the review also highlights insights from online teaching experiences that will help inform current theories and generate ideas to develop new theories (Anglin & Morrison, 2003). 


Discussion Questions

  1. What types of interactions provide the best educational experiences for online students?
  2. What are the most effective ways to facilitate student collaboration online?
  3. What teacher practices encourage positive communication within the online class?



Anderson, T. (2002). An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction. Available:

Anglin, G. J. & Morrison, G. R. (2003). Evaluation and research in distance education: Implications for research. In C. Vrasidas & G. V. Glass (Eds.). Distance education and distributed learning, (pp. 157-180). Greenwich, Ct: Information Age Publishing.

Beard, L. A. & Harper, C. (2002). Student perceptions of online versus on campus instruction. Education, 122, 658-663.

 Berge, Z. L. & Mrozowski, S. (2001). Review of research in distance education, 1990-1999. The American Journal of Distance Education, 15 (3), 5-19.

Fahy, P. J. (2003). Indicators of support in online interaction. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Available:

Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice.London, UK: RoutledgeFarmer.

Hirumi, A. (2002), The Design and Sequencing of e-Learning Interactions: A Grounded Approach, International Journal of E-Learning, Vol. 1, pp.19-27.

Juwah, C. (2003). Using Peer Assessment to Develop Skills and Capabilities. Journal of the US Distance Learning Association – Available:

Juwah, C. I. (2002). Using Information and Communication Technology to Support Problem Based Learning.  A commissioned article by the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE). ILTHE Members Resource Area.[Access is restricted to members only] Available:

Mayes, T. (2000). Pedagogy, Lifelong Learning and ICT.  A Discussion Paper for the IBM Chair presentation.

Muirhead, B. (2000). Interactivity in a graduate distance education school. Educational Technology & Society, 3(1), 2000. Available:

Rovai, A. A. (2002). A preliminary look at the structural differences of higher education classroom communities in traditional and ALN courses. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 6 (1). Available:

Sims, R. (1995). Interactivity: A Forgotten Art? Instructional Technology Research Online. Available:

Taylor, P. & Maor, D. (2000). Assessing the efficacy of online teaching with the Constructivist On-Line Learning Environment Survey. In A. Herrmann & M. M. Kulski (Eds.), Flexible futures in tertiary teaching. Proceedings of the 9th annual teaching learning forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth, Australia: CurtinUniversity of Technology. Available:

Thurmond, V. A. (2003). Examination of interaction variables as predictors of students’ satisfaction and willingness to enroll in future Web-based courses. Doctoral dissertation. University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS.

Yacci, M. (2000). Interactivity demystified: A structural definition for distance education and intelligent computer-based instruction. Educational Technology, XL (4), 5-16.


About moderator

Brent Muirhead ( is Area Chair for MAED Curriculum & Technology at the University of Phoenix Online, USA.
Charles Juwah ( is Senior Educational Development Officer at the Robert Gordon University, UK.

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