30 Northrup, “A framework for designing interactivity into Web-based instruction”


Northrup, P. (2001). A framework for designing Interactivity into Web-based instruction. Educational Technology, 41(2), 31–39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44428657.


As more and more coursework becomes available online in the form of Web-based instruction there continues to be a deficit in understanding of best practice for the design of a Web-based Learning Environment (WBLE). Instructional designers agree that interaction is valued as an important variable in WBLEs. This article addresses different types of interactions and why they are important along with ways they might be used. The article presents a framework of interaction attributes that should be considered in the design of Web-based instruction.

Key points

  • The framework encompasses five interaction attributes, including:
    1. interaction with content
    2. collaboration
    3. conversation
    4. intrapersonal interaction
    5. performance support
  • All interactions should involve complex activity by learners to include engaging and reflecting, annotating, questioning, answering, pacing, elaborating, discussing, inquiring, problem-solving, linking, constructing, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing (Liaw & Huang, 2000)
  • Content Interaction is based on the theory of learning that is most appropriate to achieve educational outcomes within the course itself.
    • It is difficult to prescribe one “best fit” for content interaction.
    • Grounded design is defined as “the systematic implementation of processes and procedures that are rooted in established theory and research in human learning”
  • Social Interaction is a key element in online learning.
    • Social interaction of the course must, at least initially, be designed into the course.
    • Relationship building is a necessary component of collaboration and communication and the perceptions of the efficacy of this type of social interaction can impact the learning outcomes of the course.
  • Interaction doesn’t just happen. It must be designed intentionally into the Web-based course.
  • Oftentimes, when Web-based instruction fails, it is because it was not designed well, not because the technology itself was inherently “bad.”
  • The overuse or misuse of interaction strategies can lead to boredom, overload, and frustration (Berge, 1999).
  • Both interaction strategies are woven throughout a successful Web-based course.
  • Instruction is presented either through an instructor-centered approach [direct, formal instruction] or through a more student-centered approach.
    •  There are times when one style of instruction is better than the other.
  • Instructor-Centered Approach
    • Much of what exists online as Web-based courses appears to have a strong instructor-centered influence.
    • Example: lectures presented via text and graphics online, through PowerPoint, and through audio-narrated PowerPoint lectures with note-taking guides.
  • Student-Centered Approach
    • Student-centered learning is appropriate for outcomes of instruction that are focused on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Berge, 1999).
    • Using open-ended strategies for learning, such as situated learning, learners will actively construct meaning to determine how to proceed.
    • Example: include demonstrations, debates, simulations, role-plays, case studies, and discussion groups (Berge, 1999; Liaw and Huang, 2000; Paulsen, 1995).
  • Johnson and Johnson (1994) suggest very strongly, that groups do not become collaborative just because someone assigns them together as a group. An effective collaborative group requires positive interdependence, group and individual accountability, promotive interaction, and interpersonal skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1994, Slavin, 1990, as cited in Frank, 1999).
  • To facilitate successful online conversation, Chism (1998, pp 7-8) suggests six strategies (as cited in Sherry, 2000):
    • Building group coherence by getting to know one another online. This form of social interaction will go far in establishing a comfortable environment and in establishing the community of learners.
    • Sharing information by assigning collaborative groups to become resident experts in specific areas – then, requiring the collaborative group to share its knowledge with others online.
    • Processing ideas by elaborating on discussions, sharing cases, and asking questions of one another through listservs.
    • Online tutoring as a tool for asking peers questions in preparation for an upcoming test.
    • Refining communication skills by framing arguments and leading e-discussions.
    • Providing feedback to students through peer critique and instructor critique online.
  • Engaging in both synchronous and asynchronous forms of conversation can extend learning online while motivating the online learner and extending the social interaction of the course (Sherry, 2000).
  • Monitoring one’s own learning is essential for survival in a Web-based environment
  • Supporting performance for the technical and even motivational components of the course is important and must be considered when a Web-based course is designed and presented.


In this article a framework is laid out for intentionally including interactivity in Web-based Instruction.  The five interaction attributes used in the framework include: interaction with content, collaboration, conversation, intrapersonal interaction, and performance support.  One of the challenges is to get the proper quantity with the best quality of interaction.  Too much interaction will be seen as busywork, while too little interaction can lead to isolation.  Neither one of these outcomes is desirable to the learner.  One thing that this article addresses that is often overlooked is the performance support.  This can help diminish initial fears expressed by online learners.  This can then open the learner up to collaboration and conversation going forward.

Discussion questions

  1. Is an Instructor-Centered approach or a Student-Centered approach more appropriate for a WBLE?
  2. Of the five attributes of interaction listed in the article is there one that sticks out as being more important than the others?  Is there a hierarchy of importance?
  3. Northrup suggests that social interaction must be designed into the course, at least initially.  How important do you think this social interaction and getting familiar with peers in the course is?

Additional resources

  • Jung, I., Choi, S., Lim, C., & Leem, J. (2002). Effects of different types of interaction on learning achievement, satisfaction and participation in Web-based instruction. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 39(2), 153–162. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703290252934603.
  • Wei, H.-C., Peng, H., & Chou, C. (2015). Can more interactivity improve learning achievement in an online course? Effects of college students perception and actual use of a course-management system on their learning achievement. Computers & Education, 83, 10–21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.12.013.


  • Berge, Z. L. (1999). Interaction in post- secondary Web-based learning. Educational Technology, 39(1), 5–11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44429005.
  • Chism, N. (1998). Handbook for instructors on the use of electronic class discussion. Ohio State University, Office of Faculty and TA Development.
  • Liaw, S., & Huang, H. (2000). Enhancing interactivity in Web-based instruction: A review of the literature. Educational Technology, 39(1), 41–51. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44428601.
  • Paulsen, M. F. (1995). The online report on pedagogical techniques for computer-mediated communication; http://www.hs.nki.no/-morten/cmcped.htm
  • Sherry, L. (2000). The nature and purpose of online discourse: A brief synthesis of current research as related to the WEB Project. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 6(1), 19–51. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/8018/.


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Online Learning Toolbox by Evrim Baran is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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