Defining eLearning Terms

Jan 20, 2013

Throughout the eLearning forums we often see the terms "engaging" and "interaction" used. And there's always a clamor for courses to be "more engaging" and "more interactive."

What do these terms mean to you? And do they mean the same thing to everyone in the community? (I think not, and that's one of the reasions for this discussion.) So, in the context of eLearning, what are their definitions?

To start things off, here's what these terms mean to me:

Interaction: anything that the course requires a user to do with a mouse or keyboard other than to press the "next" button to continue.

Engaging: anything that attracts or holds the learner's interest, whether visual, audible, or intellectual. 

So, wordsmiths, philosophers, grammarians, etymologists... lend us your thoughts! When we use these terms, what do we truly mean?

8 Replies
Steve Flowers

I think of these a little bit differently. There definitely seem to be some overlaps and, as always, context matters. It depends

I'll start with engagement. To me, engagement is an emotional thing. Do I care enough about this to give it my attention? Am I connected with it enough to return? In this definition, I would measure engagement by the intensity of a participant's attention as a function of how much they care about the experience or a component of the experience. There are many things that could drive this level of intensity. A well crafted moment, a challenge, relevance to a real life encounter, reciprocal rewards, and social motivation are among the factors that I think drive engagement. Whether the trigger is sensory, cognitive, interpersonal - I think engagement is 100% emotional. And I also believe you can define engagement as active or passive (latent). For example, if I return to the same store because I love the service, that's engagement. But I don't think about it until I need something. The emotional connection I have with that service is latent and is only active when I need to make certain choices.

Interaction plays a part in engagement as well. Interaction to me is the interplay between human action and the feedback they receive in response. Something provides a cue, I respond. That's interaction. I take an action (or fail to take an action), some thing (or other person) provides a response. That's interaction.

However, I don't like to define this in terms of interface affordances (mouse and keyboard) because I think it cheapens the meaning of interaction. At the core, isn't action driven by some kind of deep or shallow internal process? Feedback needs to reach back to that initial trigger and connect to be valuable, in my opinion. I do something, something happens in response, and I recognize that response. It's symmetrical. Defining interaction as flicks and clicks... as the mechanics of motor interaction.. I don't think that accounts for all of the internal things that happen in a feedback loop. The act of stroking a key and moving the mouse is a very shallow (and possibly completely hollow) activity. I think what's behind the physical actions matters more to the interaction than the physical action itself. The connections to meaning driven by the feedback loop.

Could a video itself be interactive? I think it can but it takes some faith in abstraction to define an experience without physical interaction that way. Let's say a video plays, presents an engaging and enlightening sequence and pauses to ask a question. You reflect on this question and draw a conclusion in the time of the pause. The video continues and provides another perspective, causing you to reflect on your previous hypothesis. In the same situation, let's say the video asks you to write down a list of your concerns then provides feedback. Same effect but it's not dependent on device input.

Is a non-physical interaction (all internal but still symmetrical) better or worse than an activity that requires you to click around with a mouse to identify a list of factors? I'd say it depends but it's likely far better in some and worse in others. Context and execution are everything. Does that make the situation above that required no input from the user non-interactive? I think it's open to interpretation In my mind, interaction isn't interaction if the feedback loop doesn't connect symmetrically with the thought that triggered / drove the interaction. If there ain't thinking involved, there ain't interaction involved. Well written copy (such as those that produce an Aha! moment) can provide superior effect to a physical interaction. If the action was my opening expectations and the copy (audio, video, text) provided a feedback loop that adjusted my perception, I'd call that interaction.

TL;DR - Summarizing my definitions:

Engagement - A measure of attention (intention) in terms of emotional involvement with a whole experience or moment (part) of an experience.

Interaction - The relationship between an action (including an inaction) and the response of an object or system that creates a relatively symmetrical feedback loop. Not limited to actions expressed through a computer interface.

Bruce Graham

Without a huge amount of thought...

Engagement = emotional involvement with one or more internal reasons to continue towards course completion.

Interaction - doing things as oppose to just "watching and clicking". Can be outside the electronic confines of the course, (for example, filling in a downloaded checklist, filing in a diary entry etc.)


john faulkes

Just to add a few thoughts to the discussion....

Interaction: work and life are full of interactions and I would agree they are about response and feedback. eLearning has an odd history in that it had the word 'learning' in the title yet much of it managed to operate by removing most all of the interactive elements; something that is vitial to the learning process. My wife last night took an eLearning course which was badly designed yet compulsory for a particular qualification aspect of some voluntary work she does. While a lot of it played she was able to leave it going and cook dinner (!!) (Contrary to my instructional design values but the dinner was very nice indeed).

Engagement: a much used word in HR circles. There can of course be negative emotional involvement. Asked about the emotions surrounding their job, some might respond 'I hate it'. Asked why they continue: 'I'm scared I won't get another one'.

In most cases of course I think emotional involvement is a good thing, but to add to Bruce's definition - to me engagement is where there is an overlap between the desires of an individual and perhaps the long term business goals of an employer, or the shorter term aims of a learning programme.

Matthew Hayes

Here's my stripped down definitions......

Interaction - when the learner makes a decision / decisions.

Engaging - gaining learner attention, whether that be emotional or intellectual.

Both boring and pointless without considering How and Why ...... maybe these will be more interesting....

Interaction : a designed scenario that enables the learner to experience feedback based on their decision, with the aim of enabling learning through doing, thereby developing confidence and competence.

Engaging :  stimulating thinking or emotional responses, with the aim of ........ (Please select 1 or more responses)

A/ Getting the user to finish the module.

B/ Making me feel like my design is interesting.

C/ Providing a new perspective to foster a change in mindset.

We often think that interactions are the best way to engage, and in a sense they do force the user to pay attention, even if only between stiring the pasta and setting the table...

Steve Flowers

This great quote from Jane McGonigal on participation seems relevant to both engagement and interaction.

“to participate wholeheartedly in something means to be self-motivated and self-directed, intensely interested and genuinely enthusiastic.  If we’re forced to do something, of if we do it halfheartedly, we’re not really participating. If we don’t care how it all turns out, we’re not really participating. If we’re passively waiting it out, we’re not really participating.” –McGonigal (2011)

Annika Brown

Hi guys,

I'm gonna be the first lady speaking out on this theme  

For me "engaging course" means a course to which you want to return again and see what's gonna be next. Thus, you continue it not because you paid for it, or you have to complete it by Saturday, but because it intrigues you and keeps you in suspense (like a good movie:) ).

"Interactive" for me is a course inviting a student to take an active position. Not only answer quiz questions, but discuss, rate, comment etc. All kinds of forums, chats, hangouts, rating systems are useful in this case.

Julianne Yates

Interaction is best used in a course that teaches how to use a tool, software application, or perform a task that can be visually depicted - specifically by simulating the tool, application or task using grahpics, then having the user click on, drag, or perform something on screen that gives them the idea of how to perform that task.  Use caution - it's easy to get caught in the trap of using all of Storyline's features to create really 'neat' courses thinking you are creating interaction.  Use it sparingly.  Always ask this question, will this interaction teach the user what they need to know OR is it just a 'nice to have' cool feature that will show off your Storyline development skills?  Interaction is now always needed in a course so you have to determine how impactful it will be in meeting the objectives of the course you are creating.

Engagement in an elearning course is anything that keeps the user awake and involved.  It keeps their interest throughout the course.  If it appeals to any of senses (kinesthetic, etc.) that it may be a good idea to include items such as, interaction, sound, visual effects...but again, ask the question "Will it add to the retention level of the content OR is it something you are adding just to make the course 'cool'?

Cathy Moore

My stripped-down definitions are like Matthew's: 

Interaction: The learner makes a decision that involves more than one brain cell. The click or drag or other "interaction" is the learner communicating a meaningful decision, such as deciding which type of fire extinguisher to grab to put out a paper fire. Clicking just to reveal text doesn't count as interaction in my world, because the only "decision" involved is obedience: "I must click this because they told me to" or "I must click this because the information I need is hidden." 

Engaging: It's relevant to me and my work, it makes my brain do more than just receive information (it challenges me), and (ideally) it makes me respond emotionally.

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