Interactive Online Courses: The Big Picture to Help You Achieve Great Results

Let’s assume it’s a given that you need or want to offer online training courses for your students. Then let’s also assume you’re onboard that an online training course needs to be interactive to engage your students and maximize the results.

The principle behind which interactive elements make online training courses effective and the instructional goals you can achieve with different types of interactions

What You’ll Learn about Interactive Online Courses from This Article

Let’s assume it’s a given that you need or want to offer online training courses for your students. (If you’re still wrestling with that decision, check out I Know Some of the Benefits of eLearning, but Do I Have the Whole Picture? or eLearning: Powerful Advantages Plus a Few Disadvantages and How to Overcome Them). Then let’s also assume you’re onboard that an online training course needs to be interactive to engage your students and maximize the results.

So now your question becomes, “what kind of interactive online courses get results?” After all, there’s an investment in developing training and then having your students complete the course. That investment needs to pay off in increased knowledge and skills, right?

In part, that payoff hinges on the effectiveness of the interactive elements. Sure, there are other factors, such as the content needs to be right, the rollout needs to be smooth, etc., but this article will help you understand the principle behind which interactive elements will make online training courses effective and when to use different types of interactions.

To explain, we’ll refer to some interactive online courses we have designed and developed for our clients: a court-mandated parenting course to support couples going through divorce and separation, developed for a single county and gaining traction nationally, and a suite of courses to aid essential, direct-care workers during the COVID pandemic.

The Guiding Principle for Making Interactive Online Courses Effective

One principle should guide the decision of which interactive elements to use in online training:

Your instructional goals should drive the interactive elements, not the other way around.

By that, we mean there might be a flashy interactive element that would be sure to grab someone’s attention. But if it doesn’t help your specific students in learning your specific content, it’s not good training. Another type of interaction will serve you better—and can be just as attention-getting.

Different interactive elements support different instructional goals.

Maybe you’re simply trying to present information in digestible chunks. Perhaps you’re trying to validate what your students already know about a certain topic before you layer on more complex content. Bear in mind those instructional goals; they’ll help you know when an interactive element is a good choice.

The Authoring System Makes a Difference

We promise that we’re not diving into digital weeds here. But it’s helpful to understand at a high level that different authoring systems support slightly different interactive elements. (An authoring system is a software tool with pre-programmed elements that help with the rapid development of media.) We often design and develop using Articulate® Storyline®, like we did in the parenting course we mentioned above, or Articulate® Rise 360®, which we used in the training for direct-care workers. Storyline is highly customizable; if you can imagine an interaction, you can make it happen in Storyline. Rise 360 is especially user-friendly and automatically adapts courses for every device under the sun.

But here’s the thing—your objective is not to have certain interactive elements in your training. It’s to help your specific students learn your specific content. A talented instructional designer partnered with a creative technical producer can achieve that objective no matter what authoring system you use.

The Instructional Designer and Producer Make a Huge Difference

While the authoring system is a factor, the caliber of instructional designer and producer is critical. At TraCorp, we strategically separate these roles because we’ve found that each requires a complex—and usually not overlapping—set of skills. This separation allows our instructional designers to work with subject matter experts to sift through, distill and organize content and then design an engaging course that conveys content and validates new knowledge and skills. Our producers then apply their expertise to build a visually beautiful and technically sound course, often achieving a next-level end result beyond the initial design.

There is always collaboration, but each partner brings crucial skills and perspectives to the relationship to achieve great results for our clients.

Interactive Elements and What They Can Achieve

With the basic principle in mind that instructional goals drive interactive elements, here is a list of common goals and interactions that lead to success:

  1. Goal: Present Content in Digestible Chunks. You can accomplish this goal with basic but powerful interactions like selectable Tabs and expandable Accordions. For a more novel approach, use Flashcards where students view text and/or an image on a card and then “flip” the card to see details on the back like we did to teach direct-care workers that vision problems are one of the potential complications of diabetes.


  2. Goal: Harness the Picture-Is-Worth-a-Thousand-Words Phenomenon. Some great, ready-made infographics are available online that you can customize for your content. Then you can add selectable hot spots to pop up additional information in a Labeled Graphic interaction. Or, if a photo relates to your content, you can use that as your backdrop. Since people often describe their emotions during separation and divorce as a “roller coaster,” we chose a suitable photo and added hot spots to pop up information about loss, grief, and resolve.


  3. Goal: Encourage Your Students to Reflect. Students benefit from reflecting on what they have just learned, how it applies to their situation, or what experiences they have that relate to the training. This could be a customized Fill-in-the-Blank interaction where students type a free-form response to a question and then get feedback on a likely or desired response; we used this approach in the parenting class. But remember—an interactive element doesn’t need to be complicated to achieve your goal. We wanted a simpler approach for direct-care workers, who aren’t especially tech-savvy. We asked them to gather pen and paper at the beginning of each course. Then, throughout the training, we repeated the same photo as a visual cue and asked students to write answers to simple reflection questions.


  4. Goal: Validate What Your Students Likely Already Know. There might be some fundamental information that your students should already know, but you need to be sure they do and/or remind them of these basics before you layer in more complex information. Adults are “put off” by being told something that they already know. To avoid this, instead of "presenting" the fundamental information, validate what they know with a Drag-and-Drop interaction. We gave direct-care workers a series of questions and directed them to drag each to the correct spot to indicate whether it is open-ended or closed. A wrong answer “bounced back” to its original location to give students immediate feedback about their choice.


  5. Goal: Introduce Other Resources and Increase the Odds Your Students Will Actually Use Them. To achieve this goal, you can link to a video or online resource in the course and require your students to select the link before they continue. When we embed a video, we like to pose questions beforehand that students will answer later. This gives students an extra reason to pay attention and helps guide their focus while they view. When we linked to an online resource, such as Planning for Parenting Time: Arizona's Guide for Parents Living Apart in the parenting course, we added hot spots to an image of the table of contents for the specific areas we wanted our students to explore. We also included clear instructions to “consider creating a bookmark on your electronic device to easily find [this guide] in the future."


  6. Goal: Help Your Students Apply Knowledge and Skills to a Realistic Situation. Online courses don’t lend themselves to role-play, a common activity to practice applying knowledge and skills in instructor-led training. To achieve that goal, you can use a Scenario interaction with embedded questions, feedback, and branching based on students’ responses. We often include these as putting-it-all-together interactive elements at the end of a course, as we did when training direct-care workers about COVID safety.


  7. Goal: Check Your Student’s Learning. When it comes to knowledge checks and assessments, the Multiple-Choice Question is tried-and-true. You can use this format with single or multiple correct responses. In our training for direct-care workers, we indicated the number of correct responses when more than one to help guide the students to success. For example, “Which two of the following are non-judgmental curious questions?”

    Of course, there are other interactive elements for knowledge checks. Depending on your students, content, and authoring system, you can use Drag-and-Drop, Matching, Fill-in-the-Blank, and more.



If you find yourself trying to figure out what interactive elements your online course should include, take a step back. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish for your specific students concerning your specific content. Follow the guiding principle that your instructional goals should drive the interactive elements, not the other way around. That will help you make smart choices so that your investment in interactive online courses will pay off.

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