February 25, 2015

Maximizing e-Learning by Maximizing Interaction

by Ryan D’Angelo, B.S., Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacotherapy Resident, University of Maryland

I have always believed in welcoming technology into the classroom. Why not bring the wealth of information that exists today and increase what you can present to your students? It seems with increasing acceptance of technology and changing pedagogy techniques, the tide is turning. More and more institutions and teachers are relying on electronic learning (e-learning) to reach their learners in an effort to improve access and learning outcomes.

Most e-learning platforms use web-based systems to make information available to users anywhere in the world, on their own time, and at their own pace.1,2 This can help decrease the amount of time lecturing to students and use in-class time to engage in active discussions. One thing to keep in mind when deciding to employ e-learning — there are a variety of implementation strategies and some are better than others. When e-learning techniques fail to engage learners, the results can be potentially worse when compared to learning outcomes observed in a traditional classroom environment.

One key in making interactive e-learning effective is providing learners with easy, fast, and instinctual access to content.1,3,4 This can be achieved by utilizing diverse multimedia methods (audio, video, text) to deliver the content. Allowing for random access to information gives learners the ability to select content of their interest and is more likely to capture the mental attention of users.4 Allowing random access to content (rather than prescribing what content should be accessed and the sequence) requires interactivity by forcing the user to select what content they want to review, instead of forcing them to start at a particular point.1,4,5

Interactive e-Learning Strategies

  • Interactive Text: Terminology within text can be made interactive by providing definitions of text when the cursor is placed over the word, hyperlinks to images or video, and creating space where users can annotate within the margins of the page.
  • Audio and Video: Providing video content in segments that are indexed allows for random access to different portions of the video. Many on-line continuing education courses utilize this technique by allowing viewers to pick the sections they would like to watch in the order they prefer.
  • Simulation: Simulation can allow learners to put their knowledge to the test in “real-life situations”. Simulation can be created for nearly any subject including hard sciences (chemistry and physics), healthcare (patient cases), and personal interactions (psychology). While its technically more difficult to create high quality simulations, it can escalate interactivity to the next level!
  • Learning by Asking (LBA): Allowing learners to assess their understanding by creating online questions and answers is an effective means of increasing interaction with the material. After the answer is selected, the correct response can be displayed to provide learners with real-time reinforcement and a detailed explanation. In addition, allowing students to propose questions related to the content can encourage learners to reflect on what they had just read, seen, or heard.
  • Asynchronous Discussion Boards: Similar to learning by asking, asynchronous discussion boards can encourage critical thinking and examination of content.  Writing about the material forces learners to provide their interpretation of content. This can stimulate a discussion among students regarding the content and can inspire further inquiry.

Many studies have evaluated the impact interactivity on learning effectiveness and have found improvements in learner satisfaction, increased attention and better test performance compared to traditional classroom methods like lecturing.1,4,5,6 This may be in part to enhanced self-directed and self-paced learning allowing students to be in a more focused and motivated mind-set when they engage with the material. One of the common limitations of these studies is that they generally evaluate only one form of interactivity. However, McLaughlin and colleagues evaluated a application of diverse set interactive tools using a multi-media website. The website was designed to provide instruction in a neurologic pharmacotherapy module — part of a required course in a doctor of pharmacy curriculum.3 The multi-media site blended video, assessment questions with immediate feedback, an interactive pop-up glossary within text, and allowed students to pose questions within each section of the text. The questions were answered by the instructor within 24 hours. This format was compared to a conventional 38-page downloadable text version of the material. When student performance on the final exam was compared, those with access to the interactive media site achieved significantly higher scores (80% vs. 74.5% p-value = 0.04). In addition, students with access to the media-site reported higher satisfaction with the module but this difference was not statistically significant. In class quiz scores were similar between the two groups (83.5% vs 84.1% p-value 0.89).

One of the major difficulties with implementing e-learning is the time it takes to develop interactive multimedia. Most faculty lack the knowledge to program the software to include these interactive approaches. Development of e-learning content requires a large investment of time, at least initially. But one thing to keep in mind is that the materials are enduring and can be updated and built on. Resources (people, equipment, and software) available through information and technology (IT) departments may also be able to assist with the initial development of e-learning materials. This can ease the time burden.

E-learning can be a useful tool to enhance learning and allow the more effective use of classroom time by using it for discussions and other “flipped classroom” activities. Building interactive multi-media requires dedicated time but when developed appropriately it enhances learning outcomes. E-learning has tremendous potential because the diversity of methods can meet the needs of students with different learning styles. Teachers should not be dissuaded from using interactive e-learning strategies because it requires us to learn new ways of delivering instruction. Rather, it is an opportunity to increase our skills to reach our learners.

  1. Sun PC, Tsai RJ, Finger G, Chen YY, Dowming Y. What drives a successful e-learning? An empirical investigation of the critical factors influencing learner satisfaction. Computers and Education. 2008;50:1183-1202.
  2. Zhang D, Nunamaker F. Powering e-learning in the new millennium: an overview of e-learning and enabling technology. Inf Sys Front. 2003;5(2): 207-18.
  3. McLaughlin JE, Rhoney DH. Comparison of an interactive e-learning prepatory tool and conventional downloadable handout used within a flipped neurologic pharmacotherapy lecture. Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning. 2015;7:12-19.
  4. Zhang D. Interactive multimedia based e-learning: a study of effectiveness. American Journal of Distance Education. 2010;19(3):149-62.
  5. Zhang D, Zhou L, Briggs RO, Nunamaker JF. Instructional video in e-learning: assessing the impact of interactive video on learning effectiveness. Information and Management. 2006;43:15-27.
  6. Chumley-Jones HS, Dobbie A, Alford CL. Web-based learning: sound educational method or hype? A review of the evaluation literature. Acad Med. 2002;77:S86-93.

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