What is Interaction?

A quiz (not for grades). Which of these do you think are examples of interaction?

Educational technology is often touted as being interactive on the assumption that interaction is a good thing for learners. We would agree that interaction of some sort is a good thing, but I question whether the structure of much educational technology is really interactive. For example, I question whether the quiz above counts as interactive. To be sure, there is input from me (the question), then a response from you (your answer), and then some feedback from me. So the activity seems to meet the basic criteria of interaction, but it also seems to be lacking personality.

Merriam-Webster’s definition below is a good starting point.

Definition of INTERACTION

Interaction definition is – mutual or reciprocal action or influence. How to use interaction in a sentence.

In 1994, Ellen Wagner proposed a definition of interaction in a distance education context:

reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another (p. 8)

Notice that the notion of synchronicity, or the reciprocal actions happening close together in time, like in a face-to-face conversation isn’t a critical part of these definitions. That means that one or more of the actions could be delayed. For example, I am writing this on May 8, 2020, and you are reading it at least 2 weeks later than that (perhaps even a year or more afterwards), and then you will write a blog post a few minutes or hours after you read this, followed by feedback from me or your colleagues (hopefully both) a few days after that.

So the interactions in this example are certainly reciprocal, hopefully they cause mutual influence, there are at least 2 objects involved (you, me, and your colleagues), and more than two actions involved.

Learning Interactions

A common model of interaction that has been used extensively in online learning contexts is Anderson’s (2003) Modes of Interaction, below.

Anderson's Modes of Interaction

Anderson’s Modes of Interaction

Anderson highlights three primary modes of interaction in learning environments:

  • learner-teacher
  • learner-content
  • teacher-content

In my thesis (Madland, 2014), I suggested that there may be another way to conceptualize learning interactions that highlights the importance of learner-learner interaction.

Madland's Structured Student Interactions Model

Madland’s Structured Student Interactions Model

There are many ways that interaction could be modelled in learning environments, but the main point of them all is that some sort of interaction is necessary for learning to occur. Sometimes that interaction is entirely within the mind of the learner when new ideas are incorporated into older ideas to form new knowledge or understanding.

As you plan your Interactive Learning Resource with your colleagues, you will need to consider how you will incorporate one form of interaction or another into your final product.


Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2), 1–14.

Madland, C. (2014). Structured learner interactions in online distance learning: Exploring the study buddy activity (Master’s thesis, Athabasca University). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10791/47

Wagner, E. D. (1994). In support of a functional definition of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 8(2), 6–26.