Interaction in Distance Education
Linda Jensen
Arizona State University
Summer 1998

In Chapter 7, Moore and Kearsley describe three types of interaction within distance education, to which McIsaac and Gunawardena add a fourth type. Students in a distance education setting interact with the instructor, the content, the technology, and with other students.

Student to Instructor Interaction:

Interaction between students and the instructor is a vital component of any educational program, but it takes on unique characteristics in distance education. There is great variety in the way distance students interact with their instructors, depending on the structure of the course.

Students in Georgia Tech's distance learning courses view videotapes of the regular on-campus classes, which include interactions between the on-campus students and the instructor. Off-campus students have no live interaction with the instructor, but are able to communicate with both the instructor and an academic advisor via telephone, fax and e-mail.

In contrast, Ziff-Davis (ZD) University offers a number of online instructor-led courses in which students can log into a message board for discussions with both the instructor and fellow students. The course on Internet Advertising even offers the unique opportunity to participate in live (online) chats with industry executives.

Often the distance education student has little or no direct interaction with the instructor of the course, and interfaces instead with an on-site coordinator or tutor. Tutors are especially valuable in settings with a high ratio of students to instructor, as tutors can offer the personalized attention that would otherwise be missing from the situation. In order to be effective, tutors must be good teachers themselves, with a command of the subject matter, and highly developed communication skills.

Student to Content Interaction:

Interaction with the subject matter is the heart of education, and as such, is not unique to distance education. In order to learn, students must have a meaningful interaction with the content, and the content must be presented in such as way that students will be motivated and inspired to think deeply about it. Since the media used for instruction can greatly affect how students interact with the content, there is a great deal of interest in determining how to maximize the benefits of using individual or combinations of media.

Student to Technology Interaction:

As distance education becomes more closely associated with advanced technologies, the students' interaction with those technologies becomes increasingly important. When students are expected to use sophisticated equipment in order to learn, it is important to ensure the equipment helps rather than hinders the educational process. Much research has been conducted on how students interact with various types of media, although we North Americans seem to be more concerned about this than do our counterparts around the world.

Student to Student Interaction:

Students have always been able to communicate with one another in traditional classrooms, but it is a relatively new phenomenon in distance education. New technologies, especially two-way audio/video, and computer conferencing, allow for rich, dynamic communication among students. Computer conferencing provides for asynchronous interaction, which fits into the busy lives of many distance learners.

Research on Interaction and Learning Styles:

Many researchers have speculated about the connection between learning styles of specific students, and their interaction within a distance education course. Gunawardena and Boverie (1993) used the Kolb Learning Style Inventory to assess the learning styles of students in four graduate classes at the University of New Mexico. Students were categorized as Converger (can find practical uses for theories), Diverger (can view situations from many perspectives), Assimilator (can organize wide range of information), or Accommodator (can learn from hands-on experiences). Fifteen of the 74 students were taught through a distance education course, while the others learned in a traditional setting. Gunawardena and Boverie found that the learning style made no difference to students' interactions with the media or method of instruction, but it did impact their satisfaction with other learners. The Accommodators were most satisfied with class discussions, while the Divergers were least satisfied.

Eastmond (1992) conducted an ethnographic study to investigate adult students' strategies for learning using computer conferencing. This is the kind of microanalysis that Gunawardena and McIsaac urge researchers to avoid, but it brings up some interesting points nevertheless. Eastmond extensively interviewed and observed nine students in a distance course on the U.S. Constitution. He found that those students who preferred distance education were self-disciplined, and had a need for structure. They appreciated having a definite framework for assignments, but wanted the flexibility and freedom to accomplish the work independently. The interaction they expected from the instructor included timely and specific feedback. Some of their mental energy was expended in developing individual strategies for using the computer conference (interaction with the technology), which fits with the theory that learning styles are context specific, and learners will adapt their strategies to fit the situation.

It would be interesting to see research done using different measurements of personality characteristics, and their correlation to student interaction. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences or the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory might make interesting measurements of learner characteristics.

Future Research

As was mentioned in Chapter 4 of Moore and Kearsley, it is no longer reasonable to question whether distance education is as effective as traditional education in terms of learner achievement. However, it is important to study the particular components of distance education to determine what comprises a successful program. This includes students' interaction with the various components, and what types of learner characteristics affect their interactions.



Eastmond, D. V. (1992). Learning approaches of adult students taking computer conferencing courses. Paper presented at the Northeastern Education Research Association Conference; Ellensville, New York, October 28-30, 1992. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 352 938)

Gunawardena, C. N., and Boverie, P. E. (1993). Impact of learning styles on instructional design for distance education. Paper presented at the World Conference of the International Council of Distance Education; 16th, Bangkok,Thailand, November 8-13, 1992. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 359 926)


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