In collaboration with the
Building Interactivity Into Web Courses:
Is Commercial Groupware or Design With
Web Tools the Solution?
June 14, 1997
Larry Gilbert, Ph.D.
David R. Moore, Ph.D.
Teaching and Learning Technologies
University of Nevada, Reno
"...rather than creating problems to which we can apply our most
popular interactive technologies, we need to develop design processes which
identify the required components of interactive, adaptive instruction"
Although the above quotation was published well before the advent of
the World Wide Web, it expresses a key concept that should be applied to
any design of Web courses. Are we designing courses in a particular fashion
simply because the Web allows us to include popular features that we call
"interactive?" Or do we have a clear idea that we are using these
new features because they will allow us to use interactive and adaptive
techniques that will enhance student learning?
Within the context of higher education, course designers are often asked
to justify that courses designed for the World Wide Web will be as successful
at fostering student learning as are classroom teaching techniques typically
used on campus. Those making this comparison of traditional and Web-based
instruction are generally concerned about two types of interactivity that
are perceived to be common in face-to-face classes:
1) Social/Organizational Interactivity: Faculty and students often
assume that electronic forms of instruction will be unable to duplicate
the perceived social and organizational advantages of face-to-face instruction.
Complaints from new distance education teachers such as "I need to
see their faces," "I can't really get to know my students unless
they're here with me,"or "it's so hard to deal with handouts and
assignments" represent common laments. Zhang and Fulford note in regard
to non-computer-based distance education that "Faultless two-way audio
and video link-ups are not automatically equivalent to a mental and affective
connectedness" (1994). By the same token, a technically faultless Web
course might not foster the types of social "connectedness" or
interaction intended for meeting instructional objectives.
2) Informational/Instructional Interactivity: Faculty and students
also comment that computer-mediated teaching, including course delivery
over the World Wide Web, cannot duplicate the adaptive interaction with
instructional content that a good teacher can encourage students to engage
in during face-to-face instruction. They assume that the immediate feedback,
inquiry, questioning, control of pacing, sequencing, and other interactive
controls available in the live classroom will either not be available or
will be less effective under computer-mediated instruction.
This paper will briefly outline some of the key elements that influence
the design of adaptive, interactive computer-mediated learning. These factors
will be organized into a suggested taxonomy of social and instructional
interactivity, followed by a discussion of how groupware, Web browsers,
and programming tools match up with this taxonomy. Finally, we will present
a model for choosing tools for computer-mediated course design, based on
the desired mix of interactivity and teacher/student/group control of the
Interactivity in Instructional Settings
A common definition of interactivity in computer-mediated teaching is
when "the learner actively adapts to the information presented by technology,
which in turn adapts to the learner, a process more commonly referred to
as feedback" (Weller, 1988). Merrill describes interactive transactions
in learning as involving real-time, dynamic, and mutual give and take between
the instructional system and the learner, including exchanges of relevant
information (Merrill, D., Li Z., and Jones, M.K., 1990). Zhang and Fulford
(1994) note that student perceptions of the efficacy of social interaction
in a course can also have a significant effects on learning outcomes. Thus,
"interactivity" can be defined both socially and in regard to
student interaction with the attributes of instruction.
Table 1 on the following page summarizes many of the features commonly
included in definitions of interactivity in instructional settings, with
social interaction factors listed first. Interactivity often refers to the
social exchanges that can occur in face-to-face instruction. For example,
the teacher can visually observe body language to see if the students are
happy or bored. The students can easily tell if the instructor is satisfied
with responses from the class. Much social activity also occurs around the
day-to-day management of class logistics (e.g. "We'll meet in the library
next Tuesday", "Yes, five pages is O.K. for your papers",
or "Copies of the handout will be E-mailed to everyone who has an account".
Finally, social interaction can occur that has little to do with instructional
learning, but that can help to create a learning environment. (e.g. "Yes,
I'd love to go get a beer after class"). Certain types of social interaction
can also foster instructional interaction. For example, small group discussions
in a class might have high social interactivity, at the same time that students
are comparing thought on key course content objectives.
As opposed to social interaction, much of the existing literature on
computer-mediated learning tends to focus rather on instructional interaction,
represented in the second section of Table 1. Formal instruction in American
higher education has predominantly focused on fostering student interactivity
that involves the direct learning of instructional content presented by
a teacher (e.g. "Does anyone have any questions about what I just said
in my lecture?"). The "instructional interactivity" section
of Table 1 therefore highlights factors related to teacher control of content
delivery, as well as learner control of feedback processes that relate to
the presentation of instructional content.
In general, each of the instructional interactivity factors identified can be defined along a continuum. For example, a teacher can carefully control the type and number of questions allowed during a class, allowing no questions, or a class that is almost totally comprised of questions and answers . The range of interactivity on social factors, on the other hand, tends to be heavily constrained by social convention. For example, when one speaks directly to another individual in face-to-face conversation, a direct and immediate response is expected.
Table 1: Interactivity In Instructional Settings
Types of Activity
Exchanging personal information
Logistics (e.g. handouts)
Usually real time (synchronous)
Immediacy of interaction
Alternation of turns
Learner control usually present
Teacher to student
Student to teacher
Student to student
Face-to-face contact via
Audio and/or video
Work flow control
Interactive whiteboard *
Types of Activity
Communication of content
Confirmation of learning
Variable teacher directivity
Variable learner control
Control of sequence
Control of pace
Availability of inquiry options
Evaluation of responses
Synchronous or asynchronous
Immediacy vs. Delay
Man or machine provided
Application sharing *
Responding to inquiry
Replication and revision
Database storage & access
* Items noted in italics denote examples that overlap between social
and instructional interaction.
In order to design instruction that controls and enhances the types of
interactivity listed in Table 1, it is important to understand the relationship
between those interactive elements and the tools we have available to design
Options for the Design of Interactivity
Previously we defined interaction as comprising two broad categories:
social and instructional. The Web course designer, generally speaking, has
three sets of tools available for fostering interaction: 1) native Web capabilities
available through common browsers; 2) commercial groupware products that
advertise easy facilitation of interaction (e.g. Lotus Domino or Microsoft
Exchange); and 3) programming tools which may be used with either Web browsers
or with groupware. A brief analysis of how each of these methods relates
to interactivity follows.
Web-Based Interaction: The World Wide Web is a hypermedia system
that uses universally accepted protocols over non-proprietary networks that
encourage the sharing of information. The Web allows anyone with a browser
to transfer files from thousands of possible sources to themselves in a
nonlinear fashion. The native attributes of the Web include the ability
to transfer files completely intact to anyone on any wide-area network,
the ability to link to any other file on the network, the ability to transfer
both text and graphics, the ability to annotate by providing clear connections
to other bodies of related information, and the ability to distribute files
without the distributor incurring reproduction costs. Accessing information
has never before been possible on this scale, making the educational potential
of the Web enormous.
While these native features of Web browsers encourage and facilitate
the exchange of information, they also only scratch the surface of the possibilities
for facilitating interactivity. Specific forms of instructional interactivity
listed in Table 1, such as answering a test question, still need to be specifically
programmed into a Web site. For example, although the authors are developing
a Psychology 101 course for delivery to students via the Netscape and Explorer
browsers, CGI scripting has had to be extensively employed to create the
testing and evaluation instruments that the instructor requires after each
unit of instruction. The World Wide Web, as a system of universal network
protocols, has the advantage of being technologically open enough to easily
accommodate a variety of tools specifically designed for developing interaction
(e.g. CGI scripts for testing). Clearly, the many interactive Web-based
courses are testament to the fact that the Web does provides the potential
for exploiting such interactive capabilities. We distinguish here, however,
between the Web programming tools that can be used to create deeper social
and instructional interaction on the Web and the ubiquitous Web browser
that simply provides access to these capabilities. Although designers can
make excellent use of the Web browser for accessing information in creative
ways, the browser itself provides inherent access to few of the interactive
components listed in Table 1.
Groupware and Interactivity: Educational and computer trade journals
have been full of predictions that commercial groupware, such as Lotus Notes
and Microsoft Exchange, will vastly increase the "interactivity"
of computer communications, usually emphasizing the ability of groupware
to foster a group working together on a common set of goals. The latest
versions of nearly all groupware products promise to add group interactivity
to the wide area file distribution capabilities of the World Wide Web through
features such as E-mail, chat rooms, whiteboards, calendaring, and other
group collaboration tools. In addition, groupware products tout the ability
to add security and control of the flow of work within a group to the more
open-ended file management capabilities of the native Web browser.
Commercial groupware products have the advantages of being generally
easy to use, having a standard interface to a range of group-oriented features,
allowing the addition of "many-to-many" communication to the one-to-many
capabilities of native Web browsers, and facilitating control of the flow
of files from teacher to student and from student to teacher. Because of
these advantages, many colleges and universities are already using commercial
groupware products for course dissemination (personal communication at Second
Annual Asynchronous Learning Networks conference, New York, New York, 1996).
However, the advantages of commercial groupware come with limits that must
be considered when adopting these products.
An implied assumption is often made that groupware will increase in the
quantity of communication flowing between teacher and student and
student and student and thereby will naturally improve the quality
of instruction. Yet the native features of most common groupware products
apply to only a limited range of types of interactivity. A review of Table
1 indicates that the most common groupware features (i.e. E-mail, on-line
chat, bulletin boards, moderated discussion, calendaring, message replication,
and work flow control) fall into the category of social interactivity. In
fact, most of these groupware features have been explicitly designed to
improve organizational logistics (e.g. meeting scheduling) and group processes
in the business environment. Although some of these features can also be
used to foster individual learning (e.g. requiring students to communicate
about course objectives by E-mail or chat) they are not explicitly designed
for this pedagogical purpose.
Some advanced features of commercial groupware are, in fact, included
in the list of examples of instructional interactivity, including:
replication and revision of information; on-line discussion; information
inquiries; database storage & access; and database search. However,
these advanced features of groupware are generally not available for teacher
or learner control of instruction within the native groupware user interface.
Rather they require extensive use of advanced scripting and programming
features native to the groupware server. For example, although it is indeed
possible to make good use of Lotus Domino for conducting searches of relevant
information for a specific course, such an application would require the
instructor (or other course designer) to undertake extensive efforts to
both establish a relevant database and to program applications to allow
for teacher/student manipulation of that database.
Certain types of instructional interaction appear to have no functional
equivalent at all in groupware. These missing features include response
to learner inquiries, monitoring of the progress of learning, proctoring,
and testing. As with the Web browser, groupware requires programming tools
to facilitate most of the forms of instructional activity required to create
adaptive, interactive instruction. Although groupware does include many
features required for social interactivity, it is not typically designed
with native features that help the designer readily create instructional
In the last twenty five years, course designers have used computermediated
instruction to explore the various ways that a programmed computer system
could be used to provide adaptive, interactive instruction that would accommodate
individual learner needs. Computermediated instruction can be as simple
as a drill and practice tutorial or as complicated as a multimedia extravaganza
with many levels of conditional branching, inquiry, questioning, and other
adaptions to individual learner needs. Variables from the instructional
section of Table 1 have taken center stage in such course design, emphasizing
teacher and learner control activities such as setting of objectives, pacing,
sequencing, branching, adapting, evaluating, and elaborating (see Weller
(1988), Jaspers (1991), and Milheim (1996).). The computer's ability to
provide conditional feedback to learner responses to instructional stimuli
has been of particular interest. Robert Schank describes the potential of
such a computer-mediated system when he suggests, "We can deliver expert
resources as students need them and that can react to students' decisions.
Through such systems, we can show students the implications of their individual
decisions" Schank and Cleary (1995).
The adaptions required to create such complex types of instructional interaction far exceed the native abilities of either Web browsers or commercial groupware. The design of such adaptive computer-mediated instruction previously required a deep knowledge of traditional computer programming languages. The early 1980's saw the development of "easy to use" instructional programming tools such as Apple Pilot, but these tools still required the writing of detailed lines of complex programming. More recently, commercial authoring products such as Toolbook, Authorware, and Quest all offer increasingly elegant templates that speed the development of interactive, adaptive instruction by the nonprogrammer. Yet even these "non-programmer" tools are exceedingly complex and have a steep learning curve. While these tools can indeed speed the development of adaptive Web-based courses, they typically must still be combined with advanced computer programming tools such as C++, CGI scripting, browser plugins, or Java (see Dickinson, 1997 for a review of these tools.)
The above discussion suggests that neither Web browsers nor groupware may provide course designers with the capability to foster all forms of social and instructional interactivity that may be required for Web course design. In addition, those interactive activities which appear most likely to foster instructional adaption and interaction may not be available to designers at all without the use of some type of advanced programming or scripting tool. Browsers and groupware have lessened, but not eliminated, the hard and complex work required to design interactive instruction.
A Model of Computer-based Interactivity in Instructional Settings
So how can a course designer decide which tools are best for which instructional
situation? We would suggest that the designer needs to undertake the following
1) Define the levels and types of social and instructional interactivity
desired for a particular Web-based course.
2) Determine the personnel and technology resources available.
3) Define the levels of teacher control, student control, and group influence
desired over that interaction.
4) Use the relevant native capabilities of either groupware or Web browsers
to the maximum extent possible, to avoid the extensive design work involved
in programming with advanced groupware or Web tools.
5) Complete programming as required to implement the missing features
of instructional interactivity, using the most open-ended tools familiar
to the designer.
The following graphical model may provide a means to quickly identify
both the types of interactivity and the levels of teacher/learner/group
control involved in a particular Web-based course:
The rightmost area of the scale, labeled "Social", represents
high social interaction with the highest level of group influence. This
might be exemplified by a counseling class wherein group and individual
social interaction dominate the instructional process. Conversely, the "Directive"
(or left) side of the scale represents a class where little or no social
interaction is encouraged or permitted, perhaps exemplified by a class where
instructional information is presented in a lecture with little or no opportunity
for feedback from students.
Defining the type of instructional interaction is largely a matter of
defining the desired levels of teacher and learner control. The "Directive"
side of the above model is quite simplistic. It merely involves the presentation
of information controlled by the teacher, without the opportunity for either
learner control or group influence to operate. Of course, the other three
forms of instructional interactivity fall between the two extremes of dominant
teacher control and dominant group control. The "Content Interactive"
and "Directive Collaboration" forms of interactivity maintain
high levels of teacher control over the instructional process. However,
the teacher's course design also allows for increasing learner control over
interaction with course content (e.g. more control of pacing, sequencing,
more adaption to individual responses, etc.). In addition, as you move from
left to right toward the "Social" end of the scale, group influence
increases, as interaction between individual students and the other students
taking the course is increasingly encouraged. Both teacher control and learner
control of interactivity actually decline in the "Collaborative"
mode, as the course designer willingly gives up some learner and teacher
control over interaction with the course content in exchange for increased
interaction within the class as a group.
Where Do Groupware, Web Browsers, and Programming Tools Fit Best?
Either a Web browser or native commercial groupware products can easily
carry out the simple one-way information flow required for the teacher-controlled
Directive mode. A simple Web browser should also work well in certain types
of Content Interactive modes of course design. For example, in a Content
Directive course, a designer could exercise a high degree of control over
course content by providing a simple Web site of sequential pages of content
information required for the course. Students would use the native features
of the Web browser to both explore the required information and to exercise
a low level of learner control by exploring supplemental material on the
World Wide Web according to individual preferences.
The emphasis on group processes in the Collaborative and Social portions
of this model make these a good match for the native group sharing features
of commercial groupware. There is a good chance that the use of advanced
programming tools will not be required, since a great deal of social interactivity
is naturally supported by native groupware features. For example, a socially
oriented counseling class could use open-ended group chat to conduct whole
class discussions, a bulletin board to post the results of group discussions,
and a scheduling function to arrange face-to-face meetings.
We would suggest that various forms of programming tools are most appropriate
between the extremes of this model. Although programming tools can be used
to design highly directive courses, this would be superfluous, since a simple
Web browser can adequately present sequential information without any programming
being required. Programming tools can also be used to create social interaction.
However, these socially interactive tools are so well developed in groupware
and shareware products that this would also be wasted effort. However, as
the level of learner control of interactivity increases, programming tools
seem ideally suited for creating the feedback loops, pacing, sequencing,
branching, inquiry options, navigation controls, and other features that
are critical for learner control of instruction. In addition, programming
tools can be utilized by the teacher or designer to control desired group
processes in a manner that will maintain teacher influence (e.g. requiring
each individual to respond to a question before they can see other responses).
Both groupware and Web browsers have been much in vogue as the latest
panacea for education. However, there is little that is inherent in either
that will foster interactivity in ways that are likely to enhance learning.
First of all, "interactivity" can be defined as both social and
instructional, making it difficult to use a single user interface for all
forms of interaction. In addition, designing courseware for instructional
interactivity requires complex means of fine tuning both teacher and learner
control over the instructional process. The supposed panacea of groupware
and the Web browser gives way to the reality that we must use the same types
of programming tools that have always been required for the creation of
adaptive, interactive instruction.
We are at a stage of Web course design when simple and powerful user
interfaces are available for computer-mediated learning. However, the tools
available to us for designing an interactive web course still require complex
programming. Web courses are thus likely to be hybrids using both simple
user interfaces and complex programming tools, as well as requiring both
social and instructional interactions. We can hope that as Web course development
progresses, simple to use tools will be developed that will allow for the
inclusion of complex interactions. The end result could be an environment
that not only equals the traditional classroom but provides opportunities
that go far beyond it.
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Jonassen, D.H. (1985). Interactive lesson designs: A taxonomy. Educational
Technology, 25 (6), 7-17.
Merrill, D., Li Z., and Jones, M.K. (1990). Second generation instructional
design. Educational Technology, 30 (2), 7-15.
Shank, R., & Cleary, C. (1995). Engines for education, Lawrence Erlbaum, New York.
Jaspers, F. (1991). Interactivity or instruction: A reaction to Merrill.
Educational Technology, 31, 21-24.
Weller, H.G. (1988). Interactivity in microcomputer-based instruction:
Its essential components and how it can be enhanced. Educational Technology,
Zhang, S., & Fulford, C.P. (July, 1994). Are interaction time and
psychological interactivity the same thing in the distance learning television
classroom?, Educational Technology, 34, 58-64.
Last updated June 18, 1997
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