As I watched teenagers play an interactive video game, I noticed something interesting. Some were moving through the game rather quickly, seemingly distracted or uninterested in what was happening on the screen. When I asked about this, they said they had been through the initial levels of the game before and just wanted to get to higher and harder levels. At that point, their focus intensified.

I also had an opportunity to watch some adults move through an interactive eLearning course and noticed similar behavior. Several were moving through the course quite quickly, as if they could care less. When I inquired, they told me they wanted to get to the part of the course they needed. When they got there, they slowed down considerably and increased their focus.

In both of these cases, the game player and the eLearners’ involvement in the interactive activity—their personal investment—increased when they arrived at a point where there was more interest and value in what they were doing. Both the video game and the eLearning course were highly interactive—the teens and the adults were working through the challenges and activities presented—some of them quite complex—but until they got where they wanted to be, they were not truly engaged.

Interactivity vs. engagement

Simply stated, the difference between interactivity and engagement is this:

Interactivity = doing

Engagement = valuing

Video games and eLearning courses may be interactive, but they may not be engaging. Let’s focus on eLearning. eLearning engagement goes beyond the interactive design of the course, as described in the four “T’s” of engagement:

  1. Transacting. The nature of the interactivity itself impacts the level of engagement. Going through the motions, however complex, may seem to the learner as just a series of transactions needed to get to the end, especially if the interactions don’t appear (to the learner) to add much value. However, if learners can clearly see how the interactions lead to learning outcomes that are relevant to them—that’re worth their time and attention—that’s much more engaging.
  2. Timing. If the interactivity comes at a time when it is most valuable and most usable—the moment of need—it is likely that learner engagement will go up. However, if it comes too soon or too late relative to the need, there may be the same amount of interactivity but a lot less engagement.
  3. Thinking. There is no doubt that interactive eLearning design should cause learners to think. But about what? How to solve the challenge presented or how the challenge presented applies to their real world? Both. This is a question of authenticity and relevance. Interactivity that appears artificial or made up will be much less engaging than when it develops new awareness and insight, and builds stronger capabilities.
  4. Transcending. A truly engaging eLearning experience goes beyond the course itself. It does not have to focus only on instructional activities. It can ask the learner to do something of value offline, outside the course, and then come back to share what was learned. Even better, it can motivate learners to actions after the course that reflects on the value they received from it, including further learning. In other words, the course had a real, positive, and lasting influence.

Impact on instructional design

There’s nothing inherently wrong with interactivity; but when eLearning is interactive without being engaging, that’s bad. Getting learners to willingly invest brainpower in a course is much more important than what they actually do in the course. Giving them value from the learning is much more important than giving them a completion certificate. Motivating them to apply what they’ve learned is much more important than motivating them just to get the course over with.

In fact, an engaging eLearning program can be motivating, valuable, thought provoking, and actionable, even with very little observable interactivity. Just like reading a great book, watching a terrific movie, or listening to a captivating lecture, engagement does not have to be overt. So the next time you’re concerned with whether the learner has enough to do during the course, try thinking instead about what will make the learner change because of the course. Ask what would make the learner want to take the course, recommend the course, and value the time invested in the course. It’s the quality of the interactions, not the quantity. This should guide your instructional design.

Are you engaged, right now?

You’ve almost finished reading this article. Maybe you found it by searching the topic or my name. Maybe you got an email or a Twitter alert about it. Perhaps a colleague recommended it. No matter—the fact that you are at this point means you interacted with it. You might even click the “appreciate” button below, or you may shrug it off, caring not a bit about the topic. But perhaps if you were engaged you might think about it more. It might strike a chord with you or your team. It might move you to action; perhaps change something you are doing. In other words, it has value for you. This is the difference between interactivity and engagement. In your eLearning endeavors, include the first but strive for the latter.