Designing for Interaction in Online Courses

Designing for Interaction in Online Courses

Barbara A. Frey (D. Ed. University of Pittsburgh, USA), Richard G. Fuller (Robert Morris University, USA) and Gary William Kuhne (Penn State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-865-4.ch004
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Forms Of Interaction In Online Courses

A key component in designing distinctive online courses is the instructional interaction with all of its forms and purposes. The term “interaction” refers to the broad spectrum of learning activities that engage students. Thurmond (2003) wrote, “Ultimately, the goal of interaction is to increase understanding of the course content or mastery of the defined goals” (p. 4). In this chapter, interaction refers to the learner’s engagement with course-related content and stakeholders, which may be in the forms of reading, writing, researching, discussing, practicing, collaborating, or reflecting on a body of knowledge. Wagner (1994, 1997) highlights the difference between interactivity and interaction by pointing out that interactivity is best thought of as a property that is afforded by a medium, while interaction is a behavior where individuals and groups directly influence one another. We make this distinction to highlight the importance of interaction within distance education and the need not to confuse it with the affordances of interactivity.

Mason (1994) emphasizes the educational importance of interaction, but appears to use interactivity and interaction as synonymous terms. Mason points to the range of uses for the term interactivity, and then states that “It would be useful if the word ‘interactivity’ were reserved for educational situations in which human responses−either vocal or written−referred to previous human responses.” (p. 25). The rationale for interaction is clear: “Interaction has been shown to benefit learners at the affective level. It increases motivation and interest in the subject….Opportunities for learners to express their own points of view, explain the issues in their own words and to formulate opposing or different arguments, have always been related to deep-level learning and the development of critical thinking” (p. 26).

Focus on various forms of interaction began in 1989, when Moore noted three types of interaction in a distance education editorial–learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction. In 1994, Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena argued that these three types of interaction could not take place unless the learner interacted with the medium. Consequently, they introduced learner-interface interaction as a fourth type of interaction that is especially pertinent in the Web-based learning environment. While the types of interaction may overlap, each type fulfills a unique and critically important purpose in online learning.

  • Learner-Content Interaction refers to the student’s engagement with the course subject matter, such as reading or outlining a textbook chapter, writing a research paper, studying a chart, self-testing with a practice quiz, or interviewing a subject matter expert. The learner is influenced by the learning content.

  • Instructor-Learner Interaction may be in the form of private one-to-one communication between the instructor and student or one-to-many communication between the instructor and a group or class of students. One-to-one communication may be in the form of emails or feedback on an assignment. Online course examples of one-to-many interaction include the instructors’ welcome announcements and discussion forum postings.

  • Learner-Learner Interaction involves communication among two or more students. Examples may be in the form of asynchronous discussion forums, real-time team review sessions in chat, collaborative wiki Websites, or an audio conference call to review an assignment. Much of the learner-learner interaction is based on the constructivist philosophy in which learners collaborate to construct knowledge based on their experiences.

  • Learner-Interface Interaction involves technology tools that engage learners, such as online practice quizzes, blogs used for journal entries, statistical software packages, or business simulations. In Web-based courses, learner-content, instructor, learner, and learner-learner interaction all occur within the learner-interface context.

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