In collaboration with the
Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications

Building Interactivity Into Web Courses:

Is Commercial Groupware or Design With Web Tools the Solution?

NAU/Web '97

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" (Jonassen, 1985).

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 instructional process.

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

Social Interactivity

Types of Activity

Possible Characteristics


Body language



Exchanging personal information


Logistics (e.g. handouts)


Usually real time (synchronous)

Immediacy of interaction


Usually bi-directional

Alternation of turns


Individualizable responses

Learner control usually present

Teacher to student

Student to teacher

Student to student



Face-to-face contact via

Audio and/or video


On-line chat

Bulletin boards

Moderated discussion


Message replication

Work flow control


Interactive whiteboard *

Instructional Interactivity

Types of Activity

Possible Characteristics


Communication of content

Setting objectives



Exchanging information







Handling responses

Confirmation of learning

Controlling navigation


Goal/criterion directed

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

Variable bi-directionality

Variable individuaization

Man or machine provided

Interactive whiteboard

Application sharing *


Information Inquiry

Responding to inquiry

File distribution

Replication and revision

Database storage & access

Database search




* 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 Web courses.

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 interactivity.

Programming Tools

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 steps:

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.


Dickinson, K. (1997). Distance learning on the Internet. Tech Trends, 42 (2), 4346.

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.

Milheim, W. (1996). Interactivity and computer-based instruction.(3), 225-233. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 24

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, 28, 23-27.

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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