A customer of ours recently asked about the difference between interactive training and engaging training.  It’s a good question.  The terms are commonplace in training and eLearning industry dialogue.  The trouble is that they are often used interchangeably or inaccurately.  To be sure, they are not the same thing.  The aim of this short article is to redraw the distinction between the two concepts.

Let’s start with engaging training.

I’ve come to accept that the average adult’s focused attention span is no more than about 20 minutes (this semi-reliable Wikipedia page seems to agree).  Engaging training aims to hold onto that attention for as long as possible.  The learner is immersed in the experience, perhaps even enthralled by it.  They are interested by and fully-focused on what they are learning, and as a result, they are more likely to remember and implement what they are learning.

Training that fails to be engaging, won’t have the learner’s attention and will therefore fail to be memorable.  And that’s about as practical as a Man Ray clothes iron.  So it is absolutely vital that training is engaging.

There are various ways to make training engaging.  Top of the list is to make sure that the topic is interesting, or is at least of interest to the target audience – I’d rather stand on a drawing pin than endure a course on tax law, for example, but there are some who are genuinely fascinated by the Value-Added Tax Act of 1991.  Then, the way that the information is expressed, the style of the language, and the format and design of the course can either add to or detract from the engagement factor.  This is where interactivity comes in.

Interactive training encourages learners to actively/physically participate in a training experience.  It is more than just clicking a next button, turning a page, watching a video or being present in a lesson.  That’s still passive learning in our book.

In a classroom environment, interactive training is a sensory experience; learners are challenged to add their own opinions and to gain hands-on experience by trying something themselves.  In an online environment, there might be fewer senses to manipulate, but the idea is the same.

Interactivity gives learners varying amounts of control over their learning experience.  A truly interactive course requires learners to get involved and encourages them to explore.  If used correctly, interactions can promote engagement and the effective transfer of knowledge and/or skills.  Games, drag-and-drop interactions and rollovers, for example, are all designed to promote interactivity.  However, adding these features doesn’t automatically make a course engaging.  In fact, poorly executed or gimmicky interactions can distract and frustrate learners, therefore negatively impacting engagement.  In short, an interaction must add value beyond just interactivity for its own sake.

So, to sum up, interactive learning and engaging learning are not the same thing.  A course can be interactive, but still fail to engage the learner.  And, likewise, a course can be engaging without involving any interactivity.  That said, interactivity, when used well, is often a great way to facilitate engagement.  Incorporate it into course design where relevant, not just where possible.

By Paul Smit