Play to learn: interactive experiences in education

One perennial question that educators ask themselves is ‘what is the best way to engage my students’?

Increasingly, students are expected to be active participants rather than passive consumers of content. The switch to remote online learning has further exacerbated the need for educators to find more innovative ways of presenting their material. Face to face interaction may have become limited for the time being, but interactive digital content is here to stay.

With plenty of accessible tools online, it is becoming easier for educators to create different types of interactive content. In this post, we’ll explain what interactive content is and how it can be harnessed to both engage and educate students. You can hear it firsthand from trailblazers Associate Professor Peter Bryant and Boyd Britton, who have designed and created successful interactive learning experiences.

What is interactive content?

Interactive content is any piece of content that ‘requires an action from the audience‘. This could be as simple as clicking a ‘like’ button or as complex as choosing a branching narrative. Unlike static content, interactive content establishes a direct dialogue with the student and gives them greater autonomy over their learning experience.

Evaluation gathered about units across the Business school show that students like interactive materials on Canvas.

Dr Matthew Taylor, Business co-design researcher

Common types of interactive content include:

  • Quizzes & polls: students can reinforce learning concepts or compare responses with peers whilst educators gain valuable insights about their student’s performance and progress.
  • Image hotspots: students click on hotspot buttons to reveal textual information, making information easier to digest and retain (see an example below).

Credit: BUSS1020, The University of Business School

  • Branching videos: instead of passively watching a video, students can actively shape its narrative based on personal choices to certain prompts. This customised experience can help students better connect with the content.

Benefits of interactive content

Interactive diagrams and quizzes help reaffirm [students’] knowledge of subject content, and act to provide immediate feedback for them after watching course videos. They also act as convenient ways in which students can quickly revise concepts when preparing for an exam.

Dr Matthew Taylor, Business co-design researcher

Adding interactive elements to learning content can: (1) make information easier to digest; (2) enrich a student’s learning experience by making them feel a part of the journey; and (3) help educators better understand the levels of student engagement. Thankfully, you don’t need to know how to write code. Instead, there are online tools such as H5P, Genially, Thinglink, and OpinionStage with easy-to-use templates. For a more unique, bespoke experience, you may consider engaging a learning designer to custom build an interactive website.

Students have agency over how they navigate and interact with a deeply complex ecosystem of voices, perspectives and ideas.

Peter Bryant

Examples of interactive content

Educators now have the tools to move beyond static text formats and embrace interactivity in order to engage students. Here are some examples of interactive learning experiences developed at the University of Sydney Business School:

1. Leading in a Post Crisis World

  • Leading in a Post Crisis World project (LPC): launched in 2020 and available to 16,500 students at the school, ‘LPC brings together an interconnected series of extra- and intra-curricular experiences that encourage students to reflect on the impact that the pandemic is having on them, their communities and their ambitions post-study’.

2. Virtual 360o tour

  • Virtual 360o tour of The Abercrombie Building: created in 2020, this interactive tour explores the building’s modern facilities. It was designed to connect students with a physical campus, particularly for students studying remotely.

Q&A with educational and media Innovators

Associate Professor Peter Bryant and media maker Boyd Britton are the co-creators of the examples showcased above. In this section Peter and Boyd will share their insights on educational innovation and interactivity.

Q: Why is it important to innovate in education?  

PB: Innovation keeps our education alive. Innovation supports staff and students to find better ways to deliver teaching, learning and assessment. Innovation supports how education adapts to a changing world of employability, living and playing.

Q: How does education find a balance between traditional and innovative teaching methods? 

PB: It doesn’t have to find a balance. Tradition and innovative are labels, not methods. What is traditional has not always been so. Large scale lectures are a modern phenomenon yet are seen as traditional because of the way media has fetishized the experience of sitting in a tiered lecture theatre.

Education needs to find the balance between what works and what is best for learning.

Peter Bryant

Q: What do you think is an effective way of engaging students? 

PB: Everyone in a university is human and therefore we are all unique and individual. The best way to engage is to celebrate the humanity, the uniqueness, and the personalities of the people you engage.  

Q: Tell me about the Leading in a Post Crisis World project.

PB: In mid-2020, the University of Sydney Business School launched an ambitious program called Leading in a Post-Crisis World (LPC). Available to 16,500 students at the School, LPC brings together an interconnected series of extra and intra-curricular experiences deeply rooted in the critical skills. This is inherently designed into our business education approach to encourage students to reflect on the impact that the pandemic is having on them, their communities and their ambitions post-study.

Building on those insights, the program makes students part of a dynamic and aspirational movement for personal and global change, empowering them to find solutions for the most wicked challenges created by crisis. 

Q: What inspired you to create LPC? 

PB: Juliette Overland and myself designed LPC because the pandemic has fractured the student experience inside and outside of the classroom. Expectations of experiences, the social interaction and engagement central to a university education and the opportunities of a post-crisis job market have been challenged, repackaged and put on hold for so many students. LPC is designed to bring students together to make connections, to form social bonds and to use the power of interaction and collaboration to address critical global, local and personal challenges.

Q: How does interactivity fit into this program?

PB: LPC offers units of study (subjects, courses) available in all our major degrees. These units are built on a series of interactive LPC Talks, where leading academic, industry and community practitioners engage in discursive and counter-perspective debates about the key issues of recovering, rebuilding and reimagining a post-crisis world.

Students are given agency as to how to navigate these talks, allowing them to follow narratives of particular industries, or dive more deeply into the broad spectrum of practice.

Peter bryant

PB: The talks are followed by interactive workshops tackling critical crisis that relate to challenges such as vaccine distribution, inequality, global education, megacities, future of work and equitable access to finance. Students are assessed through a live solutions pitch and reflective portfolios.

Q: Why does interactive content excite you?  

BB: It allows us to move beyond the traditional mode of a one-way, information transmission, where students are just passively consuming content, and instead embrace learning experiences that are more participatory and multi-directional, and therefore more engaging.     

Interactive content can come in a variety of forms, but I think one of the common dominators is that students are in the driver’s seat. 

Boyd Britton

BB: They control where the narrative goes and can see the consequences of how their decisions play out.  They can follow their interests, watch events to unfold from different perspectives.  As a media-maker, those possibilities are exciting.

Q: What were the main challenges encountered in developing the LPC unit, and how did you overcome them?  

BB: The structure took some time to resolve.  During the development of the pilot video, we experimented with different ways of slicing the narrative. There were several threads to combine, which was daunting initially. Once we began exploring possibilities in a wireframe format, a less linear framework emerged, and this helped us to shape the going forward approach. Usually, the aim is to pare everything back, to look for ways of consolidating and streamlining a narrative, but with interactive content it’s more about developing contextual richness. 

We were assisted by a branching scenario prototype that was co-created with our student producers in 2018/2019.  The workflow that emerged from the project was particularly helpful as a reference point for LPC.   

Q: How hard is it to create interactive media content from a production perspective?  

BB: It requires a different mix of skills, and sometimes assembling the right team takes longer than expected. Development and production timelines can be more involved due to the complexity of a build and volume of content. The less constrained the narrative, the more these things add up.  

Q: What is innovative or unique about LPC? 

PB: The pedagogical approach used in the program is highly personalised, ambitious and transformative. The aspects that make LPC innovative and unique are:

  • Students have agency over how they navigate and interact with a deeply complex ecosystem of voices, perspectives and ideas.
  • The workshops are challenging, thought-provoking and global in scope. They address critical challenges through collective action and taking responsibility for their decisions.
  • The program makes manifest the University of Sydney ‘Leadership for Good’ mantra by offerings students the opportunities to make real change, develop skills as leaders through action and be a part of something bigger.
  • The scope of the program crosses not just corporate sectors, but also includes government, creative industries, social entrepreneurship, small business, community and third sector organisations, both in Australia and globally. It is a truly inspiring view on the world in crisis and how it can emerge from it.

The aim of education is to make people’s lives better. It is not a transaction, it is way of being and improving.

Peter Bryant

Q: Where do you think the future of education is heading?  

PB: Education that takes advantage of the 4th industrial revolution and helps people think about how creative, aspirational and human they are is the future.

Q: Lastly, are there other interactive media projects underway?   

BB: We’re planning another interactive video – a different spin on the same format, using a more customizable scenario builder.  We also have a transmedia project in the works that we hope to develop into a template for multimedia case studies.  XR and AI based experiences are two other areas of interest – we’re fortunate to have colleagues at the university doing some fantastic work in this space.   

To conclude, interactivity is a fresh and relevant way of presenting digital content. Students want to play a more active role in their learning. They want to be a part of the things they consume, whether it’s by commenting, changing the colour of a dashboard, or making their voices be heard. Educators now have the tools and techniques to engage students in an array of interactive possibilities.

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USyd student media producer dabbling in multimedia storytelling

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