ELearning and Scaffolding

Making your eLearning materials interactive always sounds great at the beginning of a project. Interactivity has become synonymous with engaging and fun. But there’s a catch—interactivity can be very tricky to execute, especially if you don’t have a deliberate and realistic design to implement right at the start. How should we design eLearning materials that are also interactive?

Interactivity for the Sake of Interactivity?

In many cases interactivity starts out as a suggestion to make materials less boring. This is not wrong, but should interactivity really be the ultimate goal when designing learning content? In my experience, I’ve seen a simple desire for interactivity blow up into difficult projects that, in the end, did not see the light of day. When eLearning authors start down the path of creating content for the sake of interactivity, they risk the following outcomes:

  1. The activity is not fun and is not used
  2. The activity requires too much resources and is never finished
  3. The activity is finished but underdeveloped and doesn’t work
  4. The activity does not improve learning and wastes time

Interactivity is risky because it doesn’t state a specific goal you are working towards, it’s just a feeling. You might design and develop in circles trying to capture a “fun” feeling but as instructional designers we usually have compliance, assessments, ROI’s, and other things to worry about!

Effective learning should be your goal, not just interactivity. If you are looking to make your content more engaging, I suggest you start with the concept of scaffolding instead of delving into the depths of “interactivity”—and you’ll likely end up adding interactive elements along the way.

Scaffolding in ELearning

Scaffolding is the concept of providing learning supports for your learners and gradually removing those supports as the learner progresses. Think of these supports as training wheels on a bike that are eventually taken off when the rider can balance themselves; or a teacher that teaches addition with real apples until the students have mastered the skill of apple counting. Educators over time have found numerous creative ways to use scaffolding in their teaching—reading out loud the same lines from a textbook over and over can only go so far.

In eLearning, scaffolding can be applied in a digital medium through helpful tables, questions, info graphics, hints, all the way up to complex games. We start with the goal of reinforcing the learning and think of the best method to do that. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be “interactive” in a traditional sense. The idiom “lefty loosey, righty tighty” is a mostly true mnemonic device to help you remember which direction loosens or tightens a screw or bolt (or many other practical items). This minor device can be a big help to students (e.g. in carpentry or auto repair); they might be able to complete example repair tasks faster or be less likely to “screw up” and feel more confident in their abilities.

Let’s say “Lefty loosey, righty tighty” is now a scaffold we want to introduce in our eLearning. It can be presented online very simply with text (maybe spice it up with some font styles or graphics). We can use animations to demonstrate the idea. We can even build an interactive game where users have to click and drag a virtual socket wrench on screen. When we start with the scaffold, we start with an idea that will help the learner learn. From there we can use text, multimedia, or interactivity to get our point across but the focus is always on the learning.

Scaffolding doesn’t specify how interactive the device is, it can be a single graphic or a full-fledged 3D simulation, it is just concerned about helping the learner in a specific situation to move on. In eLearning, we can’t hover over the learner and speak directly to them. We have to make our scaffolding activities part of the content—ask probing questions, present mnemonic devices, play a video, or more. Check if the learner gets the material and if not, provide more tools to help them get it. Engage the learner first by providing them content to help them learn (assume the learner wants to learn the materials and not struggle) then design interactive elements where appropriate.


When you receive the next stack of source materials to turn into an eLearning course, resist the urge to make it interactive just for the sake of interactivity (however dry the materials may be). Instead, do what teachers have been doing for ages—think about the materials and ways that you can clarify, demonstrate, and reinforce the core concepts. The difference for an eLearning instructional designer is to consider the tools you have to build and deliver the activity—they might look quite different from a teacher in the classroom but the approach is very much the same.

Are you an instructional designer looking for the cleanest and easiest way to build scaffolded eLearning content online? Feel free to drop us a line at contact@cogcentric.com or check out our website: http://cogcentric.com!

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