In part 1/3 of this series, which you can find here, I discussed the importance of interactivity in distance learning (DL) and how technology has supported it to an increasing degree over history. In many contexts, the move to DL has quickly increased due to necessity during the COVID pandemic. Restating Anderson (2003), learning can be successful as long as one type of interaction is very well done i.e. learner-to-content, learner-to-instructor, or learner-to-peer. However, instructional design that successfully incorporates more types of interaction, “will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience” (p. 3).
If you, as an instructional designer, developer, instructor, or technological support for a training/educational institute, wish to provide a more satisfying learning experience to your students, I offer the following, with relation to the three forms of interactions, to consider in the context of DL.
Traditionally, in a face-to-face classroom course, students have interacted with their instructor before or after class, through feedback on assignments and sometimes through meetings that take place during office hours. The availability of the instructor has often been quite limited and the student may need to adjust their schedule in order to meet with the instructor during office hours. The instructor’s role in this form of interaction often includes lecturing on the course material, offering assistance and feedback on assignments to the students, and facilitating course activities and discussions. The student’s role in this form of interaction often includes clarifying content and instructions with the instructor, taking part in discussions on the content, and providing course feedback, as needed.
With newer technologies available to better enable DL, there are many options that can increase learner-to-instructor interaction. Students can interact asynchronously with their instructors through email addresses and through Learning Management Systems’ (LMS) internal messaging. Instructors often communicate with students within LMS threaded discussion forums on the course content, and news and social forums. LMSs often offer a chat system which allows for instant messaging as an interaction option. Video conferencing tools, such as MS Teams, and/or virtual classrooms, can also be used to enhance synchronous learner-to-instructor interactions.
It is important for instructors and academic institutes to consider which of these technologies optimize the potential for interactions between learners and instructors. From an administrative perspective, students should feel that they have sufficient access to the instructor, without the instructor having to be ‘on-call’ 24 hours a day. From a learning perspective, students should, either synchronously or asynchronously, be prompted and challenged by their facilitators who work to add depth to the learning process and outcomes.
As someone who strongly values sharing ideas and discussing concepts, this type of interaction is very important towards enriching learning experiences. Traditionally in a face-to-face classroom, students have interacted with other students in different ways. Some classes have tutorial sessions where students would work together to solve problems. Sometimes courses have group discussions where students hash out ways in which to deal with certain scenarios. Sometimes in these face-to-face situations, the more extroverted and dominate students engage fully in these discussions, while introverted students listen and quietly reflect. After-class discussions “around the water-cooler,” can sometimes lead to informal and social learning about classroom subjects.
Newer technologies in DL have advanced the ways in which students can interact with each other. Some of the examples include online discussion forums and communities of practice, group work through the use of wikis and other collaboration tools, and large group discussion in a video-conference or virtual classroom.
Discussion forums are one of the most common types of learner-to-learner interaction tools being used in asynchronous DL. They allow flexibility so that students can have the time to research in order to provide a more thoughtful response than they may have offered in a synchronous classroom discussion. Kassop (2003), an experienced classroom and DL instructor, posed the following thoughtful question to his readers, “When was the last time that you saw that many well-reasoned responses in a F2F [face-to-face] setting from the majority of the students in attendance?” (para. 8) As someone who enjoys the time to formulate a good response, I appreciate this distinction.
The role of learner-to-learner interactions include into DL, achieved through the use of technologies, can remove the feelings of isolation that can often accompany DL when it is merely a “solo endeavor.” Students can learn from each other through discussing others’ thoughts, interpretations, and former experiences. It can build a “sense of community” which research has shown is “an important factor for maximizing student satisfaction with the experience” (Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012, p.229).
Traditionally in a face-to-face classroom setting, students have interacted with course content by reading textbooks and by listening to lectures while taking notes. Traditional forms of correspondence courses have also been primarily focused on students reading a study package received in the mail.
Newer technologies have advanced the ways in which students can interact with the content. Although reading content is still common, students can now normally access all content online through the use of a Learning Management System (LMS). Often text can be accessed as a file attached to the LMS or a link that leads the students to a file on the internet. Although these are common practices for access to content, new and innovative ways for students to interact with content are increasing with the use of ever-evolving technologies. Students often watch videos through the use of a websites such as YouTube or Vimeo or streaming through their LMS. They listen to podcasts created by an instructor or subject matter expert. Links can be provided within the electronic content to supplemental reading on Internet sites in order to offer students more information to build upon what they are learning. Games can also be used as ways to offer variation and grab the learner’s interest. Different types of 3D simulation can now also provide more experimental learning, offering an immersive environment where students can practice scenarios related to the course content and even interact with 3D characters (not quite learner-to-learner interaction but it can make for an interesting alternative!).
The main role of this type of interaction in relation to DL, supported by different types of technologies, is to provide the learner with the content at a distance, whether that be 10 meters away or internationally. Students can then read, watch, listen, interact with, and reflect upon the content in various ways. Technologies can often improve the learner’s experience by making it more dynamic and active. It can also make learning more student-centered in that students exert more power over how they learn (e.g., the choice to watch a video or to read a text), and how much focus they place on the various subjects or modules based on their previous knowledge and experience.
Discussion: How Technologies Can Support or Impede Interaction
Technologies in DL can enable the three forms of educational interaction. As many of the examples given above have demonstrated, technologies can enhance interactions to improve the learning experience of the students. Adult learners often require flexibility in when, how, and where they interact with content, instructors, and peers and technologies can help provide this. Technologies can also support educational interactions for adult learners who may otherwise feel isolated by DL. I know from my own experiences during post-graduate studies, the three forms of interactions in DL provided me intellectually stimulating learning experiences when I might not have otherwise had these opportunities e.g., being home full-time with an infant or during the COVID pandemic lock-downs.
On the other hand, technology problems can also impede good interactions. If technologies fail or cause frustration to students or instructors who may be less ‘tech-savvy’, for example, it can cause negative attitudes which may, in turn, cause them to try to avoid attempting interactions. Power outages, bandwidth issues, and workplace firewalls (which many of us are far too familiar with!) are all examples that can lead to frustrated students whose abilities are impeded in successfully interacting with content, instructor, or peers.
While there are many technology options available to an educational institution, careful consideration must be given to choosing technologies which enhance and support interactions to optimize learning outcomes. Any issues with technologies that may impede interactions should be considered beforehand and contingency plans put in place (e.g., pdf versions of downloadable content should be made available to students who, intermittently, may be unable access the Internet due to connection issues or international travel).
In the third and final blog article of this series, I will share some of my doctoral research findings, specifically related to DL interactions and technology within my own organization, the Canadian Armed Forces.
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.
Kassop, M. (2003). Ten ways online education matches, or surpasses, face-to-face learning. The Technology Source, May-June.
Shackelford, J. L., & Maxwell, M. (2012).Sense of community in graduate online education: Contribution of learner-learner interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(4), 228-249. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1339