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Master's Comprehensive Examination: Dr. Wager's Question

New designers of CAI always want to know how much learner interaction should be put into the program. Your task is to write a set of guidelines that will help them in deciding why, where, when and how learner interaction can be effectively used. In each case state the principle to be followed, give an explicit example of what the interaction would look like, and any special advice or cautions that you would like to make.

Why Use Interactivity?

Heinich, Molenda, and Russell (1989) describe instructional interactivity as a requirement for some level of physical activity from a user, which in some way alters the sequence of presentation. In computer-based instruction (CBI), the computer solicits input by visual and auditory cues and the learner responds by using an input device (keyboard, mouse, joystick, etc.). In response, the computer changes the sequence of the lesson. A simple example is the computer displaying, "What is your name?" on the screen, the student typing "John," and the computer replying "I'm glad to meet you, John!"

Justification for use of interactivity in CBI can be found in both behavioral learning and information-processing theories.

Hannafin and Peck (1988) describe four behavioral learning principles which apply to interactivity--contiguity, repetition, feedback & reinforcement, and prompting & fading. The principle of contiguity implies that the stimulus to which the learner is to respond must be presented in time with the desired response. In order for learning to occur, the response must immediately follow the stimulus. The shorter the period of time between a stimulus and a response, the more likely the two will be paired. For example, if the computer teaches the student how to divide two fractions, the student should be required to immediately demonstrate this skill.

In order to improve learning and retention, a stimulus and response must be practiced. This strengthens the bond between the stimulus and response. Using the example above, the student might be given several pairs of fractions to divide.

A learner should be given information on the appropriateness of a response. Feedback tells the learner if she was right or wrong. If, as a result of the feedback, the student's response is more or less likely to occur, then reinforcement has taken place. Again using the fractional division example, the computer might praise the student for answering correctly or the computer might remediate the student for answering incorrectly.

Shaping is the process of reinforcing successive approximations of a desired response. As part of this process, prompting is the provision of several stimulus cues to elicit a desired behavior. Once the desired behavior is learned under cued conditions, extraneous stimuli are faded until the response is elicited under the desired conditions. For example, to teach numbers, the computer might present a graphic that illustrates three apples and the numeral "3." The student would come to pair the number of apples with the appropriate numeral. After the student has demonstrated that she has learned the value of the number, the apple illustration is discontinued.

Gagné describes nine events of instruction that are based on information processing theory. Four of these--gaining attention, eliciting performance, providing feedback, and assessing performance--are directly related to interactivity.

Interactivity can gain attention. Learning cannot occur unless the attention of the learner is captured and maintained. Interactivity can elicit performance. Once new information has been provided to a learner, an opportunity must be given to use the new knowledge (practice). Interactivity can provide feedback. As a result of the student's practice behavior, feedback is given regarding the rightness or the wrongness of the response. Right responses are positively reinforced and wrong responses are remediated. Interactivity can assess performance. Once the leaner has had an opportunity to practice the new skill, some sort of test should be done to ensure that learning has occurred.

For example, let us suppose that the instructional goal is to teach safe sexual behavior. Attention can be gained by asking the user to select the gender and name for a computer character. After the learner is presented information on safe sexual behavior, Practice is provided by placing the character in a number of sexual situations and requiring the learner is to make decisions regarding the sexual behavior of the character. If the user makes unsafe decisions for the character, negative feedback and remediation are provided. If safe choice are made, positive feedback is given. At the conclusion of the practice session, the student is tested by being given ten multiple-choice questions regarding safe sexual behavior. After the test, the student is informed of the score, and provided praise or remediation.

Where Should Interactivity Be Used?

Alessi and Trollip (1985) describe several types of computer-assisted instruction where interactivity can be used--tutorials, drills, simulations, tests, teaching tools, expert systems, and computer-controlled media.

Tutorials teach by carrying on a dialogue with the student. They present information, ask the student questions, and make instructional decisions based on the student's responses. Questions should occur frequently. Lengthy information presentations are best divided into small amounts of information interspersed with embedded testing. This will help maintain attention and ensure student comprehension. Questions are generally of a true/false, multiple-choice, matching, or fill-in-the-blank type.

A drill is a selection of questions or problems presented repeatedly until the student answers or solves all of them at a predetermined level of proficiency. Practice is the primary purpose of drills. Teaching of new information is generally done prior to the drill session. Questions are generally of a multiple-choice, sentence-completion, or short-answer type. Paired association (e.g., English nouns and their Spanish equivalents) are frequently use.

Simulations are simplified representations of reality in order to teach key concepts. Instruction through simulation may also be safer and cheaper than real-world experience. Simulations can teach physical reality, procedures, or processes. Simulations can be completely textual, in which case the action takes place in the student's brain and the main forms of interactivity are reading and typing. Simulations may also be quite realistic (e.g., simulated aircraft cockpit) and require a number of complex actions by the user.

Games are familiar to all of us and, when used for instructional purposes, can be highly motivating. The user generally interacts with the computer through the keyboard, touchscreen, joystick, game-paddle, or (increasingly) by voice recognition. In this environment, fill-in-the-blank questions are harder than multiple-choice questions for the student to answer, but they are a better measure of student understanding. Touchscreens or joysticks are easier to use than keyboards, but not all computers are equipped with these devices.

Tests are an important component in the instructional process. Computerized testing can be a great improvement over traditional methods by increasing scoring accuracy and lesson enjoyment, as well as providing immediate feedback to the student. Record-keeping can also occur automatically for the instructor. A number of questioning formats are possible, all of which have been previously discussed.

Teaching tools are non-instructional computer programs used for instructional purposes. For example, word processing packages can be used to teach secretarial skills and language arts.

Expert systems are programs that contain detailed information on a particular topics, a set of logic that ties the information together, and a program that enables a user to converse with the computer in natural language. An example of an expert system would be a medical program that helps student physicians make clinical diagnoses.

Computer-controlled media are video and audio resources linked to computers. Computers can be linked to interactive videodisc players and interactive CD players. Apple's Hypercard and Asymetrix's Toolbook are software programs that allow for multimedia manipulation. Through digital video interactive and CD-ROM, the computer itself can be the host for a rich hypermedia environment. Hypermedia has the potential for fully integrating text, graphics, still video, full-motion video, and stereo into a single environment. IBM's InfoWindows and NCR's Digital Multimedia Interactive are software/hardware combinations that are utilizing this emerging technology. In all these media applications, a number of previously discussed input devices may be used. Novel input devices, such as bar-code scanners, laser pistols, and electronic gloves have also been used.

When Should Interactivity Be Used?

According to Hannafin and Peck (1988), one of the chief advantages of computer-based instruction over text-based instruction and other linear media is the potential for interactivity. Unfortunately, the computer is often reduced to an electronic page-turner. That is, it is used as an expensive, high-tech medium for presenting text. On the other extreme, some computer-based lessons require too much response. Many of the questions appear trivial and the answers too obvious. The challenge is to find a middle ground between these two extremes which will allow meaningful interaction between the student and the computer. Four of Gagné's events of instruction can serve as a good guideline for when to incorporate interactivity into CBI.

Use interactivity to gain and maintain attention. At the start of the lesson, Hannafin and Peck recommend soliciting the student's name and other bits of biographical information. This data can then be woven into the lesson so that it is more personal for each learner. Attentional and interest can also be gained by giving the student choices about the format and sequencing of lesson. For instance, at the start of an instructional game, the computer might ask, "What would you like to do? 1. Read the directions before playing. 2. Skip the directions and start playing now." By offering a choice, experienced players can bypass lengthy directions, thus enhancing willingness to play.

It is not enough to initially capture the learner's attention--it must be maintained throughout the lesson. Interactivity can help maintain attention. There is no clear-cut rule for how frequently to use interactivity to maintain attention. However, some sort of meaningful student response should probably be elicited every 2-3 frames or 1-2 minutes.

Use interactivity to elicit performance and provide feedback. After a chunk of information has been presented to the learner, the computer can ask a question or pose a problem to ensure that the learner has grasped the material. The computer can positively reinforce a correct response and remediate an incorrect response. For example, after the student has been given the definition of a triangle and shown examples and non-examples of triangle, a practice exercise might be, "Of the four figures below, which is not a triangle?" If the student responds correctly, the computer says, "That's right, John! It is not a triangle because it has four sides." If the student responds incorrectly, the computer says, "That's not right, John. The figure you picked is a triangle because it has three sides. Try again." This can be done until the correct response is made.

Once again, there is no definitive rule for how many practice items are required for each piece of information. A single practice item may be sufficient for verbal information (e.g., the name of the bone in the upper arm), whereas numerous practice items may be needed for learning intellectual skills (e.g., solving quadratic equations).

Use interactivity to assess performance. After information has been presented to the student, practice has been allowed, and feedback given, testing should be done. For example, after a lesson on calculating the fat content of packaged food products, the student is asked, "Using the package label below, determine the percentage of calories from fat. Type your answer in the space provided." Several similar test items may be given. After the test, if performance was acceptable, praise and enrichment may be provided to the learner. If performance was unacceptable, remediation and retesting may be provided.

As in all instructional development, formative evaluation of CBI materials is essential. One-on-one and small group evaluation of CBI lessons, conducted with trial students of variable abilities, will reveal when too much or too little interaction as been included in a lesson.

How Should Interactivity Be Used?

Hon (1982) describes three levels of CBI interactivity--1) directed/response, 2) exploratory, and 3) creativity. Most CBI is done at the first level, directed/response. This means that the user is asked to select, recall, or in some way perform for the computer. Multiple-choice, matching, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions are all examples of this first level.

Level 2 interactivity is exploratory. Exploratory interactivity is non-directed. The student is encouraged to scout through the learning environment on her own. The user has a large degree of freedom in selecting where to go and when. Examples of this include hypertext/hypermedia systems and surrogate travel programs. Even though exploratory interactivity is non-directed, it is not necessarily purposeless. In an instructional setting, the computer can pose problems to the student which must be solved by manipulating the learning environment. An example of this is SimCity, an instructional game designed to teach city planning concepts. The user is charged with building and maintaining a simulated city while dealing with a variety of factors (geography, migration, natural disasters, etc.)

Level 3 interactivity is creativity. This type of interactivity allows the user to manipulate the instructional materials to develop his own programs, reports, or artwork. For example, the AIDS interactive videodisc developed by ABC News can be repurposed by the student using Hypercard. Creativity has rarely been incorporated into CBI, but it is becoming more common as software and hardware advances.


Alessi, S.M. and Trollip, S.R. (1985). Computer-based instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hannafin, M.J. and Peck, K.L. (1988). The design and development of instructional software. New York: Macmillan.

Heinich, R., Molenda, M., and Russell, J.D. (1989). Instructional media and the new technologies of instruction. New York: Macmillan.

Hon, D. (1982). Future directions. Chapter in Handbook of Interactive Video. White Plain, NY: Knowledge Industry Publications.