Technology-Enabled Interactions in Distance Learning : Part 1/3

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many traditional in-class courses, quickly, and often out of necessity, made the leap into distance learning (DL). Within different contexts, including academic, government, and military, many educational employees, including designers, developers, instructors, and administrators, made haste in order to rapidly acquire and practice new online skills. Some of these were specifically related to using online technologies, which were often new to the employees, such as virtual classrooms, desktop videoconferencing, and Learning Management Systems. Some of these new skills were related to optimizing training methodologies in an online format. Many of these skills were related to online facilitation, such as providing prompting questions in a threaded discussion forum for asynchronous DL, or, specifically within a synchronous DL environment, skills such as enabling online virtual discussions while simultaneously managing instant chat messages on the side, and enabling group work via virtual breakout rooms and/or collaborative document creation with Internet tools, such as Google Docs.

In these examples, technology has fulfilled a vital role in enabling the further adoption of DL, while providing opportunities for educational practitioners to offer students the three types of DL interactions: 1) learner to content; 2) learner to instructor; and 3) learner to learner (Moore and Kearsley (1996). With acknowledgment for the efforts of our organizations’ technology teams, we have, indeed, come a long way in a short time. The O365 MS-Teams rapid implementation federal-government wide (including DND/CAF) following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was, in some cases, a training lifesaver!

Long gone are the days of the “correspondence courses” when students received a huge package of course materials in the postal mail and set out on a lonely educational journey on the kitchen table (e.g., many of my more senior CAF colleagues and our Veterans may recall the Officer Professional Development Program (OPDPs) that dated all the way back to the 1970’s). Even earlier than that, as seen in the picture above, children, in the 1930’s, would gather around the home radio to hear school lessons due to the Polio epidemics. We have obviously seen significant changes in technology over the years and it continues to evolve providing new DL enabling tools.

There has been much research in the field of DL regarding the importance of interactions.  In response to a general frustration with the all-too-common boring “page-turner” DL courses, more and more learning practitioners are questioning how educational technologies can help maximize interactions to improve the learning experience of students. Technologies are now successfully being used in educational settings, not only to mimic the types of interaction that we have traditionally used in face-to-face classrooms, but to surpass commonly accepted classroom practices and create new innovative learning experiences for DL students (e.g. polls, online white boards, Internet learning games).          

Interaction in DL Defined

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, interaction can be defined as a, “mutual or reciprocal action or influence” (Interaction, 2022).  The previously shared three types of interaction remain true whether we discuss the traditional classroom setting or DL. An asynchronous DL course, that has little to no interaction with an instructor or other learners, may have its uses in certain circumstances and may be effective if done very well, but, from my own experience, is often less interesting and engaging. Anderson (2003) supports this in that he stated, “deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student-teacher; student-student; student-content) exists at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience. High levels of more than one of these modes,” however, “will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience” (p. 3).  This has been my experience. When possible, maximizing all three of these types of interaction is a worthy goal for instructional designers, developers, and instructors, if/when budget and time permit.

Two other types of educational interactions in DL have been postulated by educational theorists.  Hillman, Willis and Gunawardena (1994), interestingly, suggested that ‘learner to interface’ is another important type of interaction. Soo and Bonk (1998) also suggested ‘learner to self’ as another form of interaction in education.  It can be described as the reflections that the learner has regarding the course content. Reflective learning will surely be a future blog topic, as I am an enthusiastic believer in its value.

In the second part of this blog article, I will discuss, in more depth, the three types of interaction in DL and how technologies can either support or impede them. In the third part of this series, I will share some of the findings from my own doctoral research (Jones, 2020), i.e., 1) the importance of incorporating interactions in DL, and 2) DL technology in relation to learner satisfaction, both within the Canadian Armed Forces professional development context.


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.

Hillman, D. C., Willis, D. J., and Gunawardena, C. N. (1994). Learner-Interface Interaction in Distance Education: An extension of contemporary models and strategies for practitioners. The American Journal of Distance Education, 8(2), 30-42.

Interaction. (2022). Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved April 15, 2022, from

Jones, K.A. (2021). Satisfaction of Canadian Armed Forces Regular Fores Members with their Distance Learning Experiences [Dissertation]. Athabasca University.

Moore, M., and Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance Education: A systems view. Belmont, CA.: Wadsworth.

Soo, K. S. and Bonk, C. J. (1998) Interaction: what does it mean in online distance education? Paper presented at the Ed-Media and EdTelecom 98 Conference, Freibourg, Germany.

2 thoughts on “Technology-Enabled Interactions in Distance Learning : Part 1/3

  1. Pingback: Technology-Enabled Interactions in Distance Learning : Part 2/3 – Educational Musings

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