branchingWhen designing an online course, a course developer has a general idea of the required readings and resources that need to be reviewed prior to the assessments. But how should the content be delivered to students, and what’s the proper sequence? One of the ways this can be addressed is presenting students with interactive lessons. In today’s online classroom, students have opportunities to consume content in a myriad of ways. Streaming video and audio, online lecture text, and engaging interactive Web content are general methods that students can access at their leisure and revisit to check for understanding and comprehension. With the right combination of outlining and planning, students will be presented with the most current learning technologies and strategies available to them. In this article, we’ll discuss why you should consider including interactive content in your course as well as the steps you can take to create these types of lessons.

The Benefits of Interactive Content

Online learning is convenient for working students. Students can do their learning anywhere they have an Internet connection and a device to access the content. By compiling all the lesson materials into one simple package that’s mobile compatible, students can digest them much more easily. Most students will be looking at their phone anyway; they might as well pop open the next lesson and get ahead! If you make the content engaging and interesting, they might even prefer it over other mobile activities.

Accommodating Diverse Learning Styles

Interactive content doesn’t have to be a complex and properly sequenced web of video, interactive animations, and sequenced check-for-understanding questions. It could be as simple as a text page with question fields included for students to respond and receive instructor feedback. It does, however, open the door for different student learning styles to be met. To do this, online lessons may contain lecture text, video, and check-for-understanding questions. To make for a streamlined learning experience, interactive lessons can combine course content into a single and efficient presentation-style activity.

Adding Formative Assessment

Interactive content opens the door to including frequent check-for-understanding questions, which can be used as formative assessment to help your students understand their progress toward mastery of learning objectives. Additionally, these questions can be used to loop students back to content they need to review, meaning the experience can be tailored based on each student’s progress toward outcomes and understanding of course content.

Resetting the Attention Clock

By employing different types of media, breaking longer pieces of content into smaller ones, and including check-for-understanding-type questions, interactive content helps ensure that students stay engaged in course material by intentionally resetting their attention clock. Instead of passively watching a video or reading a written lecture, students click through content at their pace, check their understanding of it, and engage in various forms of media, helping them stay engaged.

Creating Interactive Content

Step 1: Ensuring Proper Alignment1

To create a successful and measurable lesson, one must plan with the learning outcomes in mind. Referring to your course map will provide an efficient and measurable path that will ensure that your outcomes align with the interactive lesson itself.

Start with the basics for the first course launch. Don’t worry about accomplishing fully interactive lessons for the first build. Simple text pages with links to appropriate resources, followed by the corresponding assessments, are appropriate for the first online offering. Enhancing a course with continual improvement is strongly encouraged to ensure that student and instructor feedback is considered. Therefore, fully interactive lessons can evolve during multiple enhancements of the same course, over a period of several launches.

Step 2: Identifying and Outlining Content for Interactivity

Choosing Authentic Content

As with most things academic, it’s best practice to properly cite any content that is found from reputable sources. This includes excerpts from texts, third-party videos, and links to useful documents and resources. Consider using authentic and real-life scenarios as the narrative for the text portions, with appropriate links to outside sources. In other words, think about the experiences and applicable information that is given to students in a traditional classroom and how that information can be valuable for online students. The online classroom should be no different. Students tend to be motivated by real-word scenarios and examples (Norman, Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, & Lovett, 2010). Therefore, it’s ideal to include an original take on the content to make it more relatable. This adds authenticity that can make the module materials stand out. A short video is a great approach to add presence and authenticity. Once the content has been selected for interactivity, begin structuring the lesson with key topic headings to effectively chunk the lesson. Also, consider using textbook-free content when building lessons. A variety of open educational content is freely available for use.

Outlining the Lesson

Once you’ve outlined each week or module, you now have the foundation for an interactive lesson. In a typical online classroom, the various sections for each week or module may be broken up into individual resource pages and assignments. Instead, many or all required and supplemental items for the week or module can be combined in one interactive lesson. To do this, think about the items that students should see first. For example, learning objectives state what students will be learning for the week or module. An introduction explains the topics and concepts in detail based on the learning objectives. This can be the focus on the first “page” of the lesson. Then, students can progress through the lesson and achieve the learning objectives set for the week or module by completing the readings and videos. Students can then check their understanding of the content by completing a set of automatically scored questions.

Step 3: Identify the Length and Path of Your Lesson


Research shows that chunking is an effective way to deliver content to students. When doing so, use your learning objectives to guide you. Try to focus on addressing no more than a single micro-objective in each lesson. If you think that the lesson will take a student considerable time to complete, consider making multiple lessons to chunk the content into more easily consumable portions. A lesson could also feature a “time-to-completion” indicator to give students a heads-up of how long it will take to complete the lesson. This practice, commonly known as signposting, can help your students better gauge their progress through each individual lesson.

Determining Time-on-Task

Consider the following when determining time-on-task:icon1

  • The length of the video
  • The length of any text-based components
  • The frequency and number of check-for-understanding (practice) questions
  • How long it takes a first-time user to learn the navigation and functionality of the lesson
  • The difficulty of the content (Consult your learning objectives. Those that are in the more advanced cognitive domain might require more attention, thus requiring more time.)

Adaptive Release

Some students may need remedial information to proceed to the next lesson successfully. This can be done through adaptive release. Many learning management systems offer the option to apply contingency settings for adaptive release. Adaptive release allows the instructional designer or instructor the option to apply rules for opening assignments or resources to students in a certain order. For example, a student must complete the lesson or achieve a certain score for competency in order to open assignments and the discussion forum for that week. This can be an effective way to ensure that important content is not skipped over by the student and ensures active participation and completion.


Branching is another effective technique when delivering content to students. Some online authoring tools allow the instructional designer or instructor to create a pathway for student learning. For example, if a student does not achieve competency in a specific outcome, they can be put on a more remedial path to review more in-depth content. Or, if a student achieves exemplary competency regarding an outcome, they can be put on a “fast track” path to skip some content areas that they already know, which prevents wasteful time on task.

Step 4: Check-for-Understanding Questions

Just like all assessments, your quiz questions should be in alignment with your course objectives. These questions can provide invaluable data, such as needed clarification for students, commonly missed questions, and lesson effectiveness. To quickly assess the effectiveness of each lesson, insert check-for-understanding questions throughout the lesson or at the end of the lesson. Automatically scored questions, such as matching and multiple choice, allow the instructor to quickly gauge student performance. Just remember that multiple-choice questions tend to only assess lower-level skills such as identification or selection rather than more advanced skills such as analysis or comparison.

To provide optimal learning opportunities for students, automatic feedback is encouraged. This feedback goes beyond simple yes–no feedback. Referring students to prior lessons or topics automatically via direct links can help them find the correct answer. Allowing multiple attempts will foster mastery. Alternatively, students can be required to achieve a certain score before proceeding onto the next lesson or assessment.

Step 5: Check for Accessibility

Accessibility is paramount when designing online course content. It’s important to consider the various learning styles of students and provide alternative learning opportunities. For example, when providing video content, it’s imperative that a transcript be provided and synchronized closed captions be made available for that video. Not only are closed captions essential for students with hearing impairments, but students who may not be impaired at all may still benefit from viewing the transcript. For example, perhaps a student doesn’t have access to headphones or earbuds or would like to watch the video in transit on a plane or bus. Equal alternatives go well beyond accommodating impairments.

Also, if the content contains any images or charts that explain content in visual detail, alternative text must be given to provide equal alternatives. Alternative text allows a student with visual impairments the ability to read detailed descriptions of images with the help of assistive technologies such as screen readers.


Interactive content allows students the opportunity to review and access content in a streamlined and concise manner. When brainstorming online course content for your next course, consider creating interactive content to keep your students on a successful track for course completion while making it engaging at the same time. With the correct formula of curriculum alignment, authentic content, pacing, and self-assessment, students are bound to excel.


Norman, M. K., Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Lovett, M. C. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.