Interaction in Distance Learning

Interaction in Distance Learning

Mary Bold
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 6
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-198-8.ch178
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Interaction refers to the exchange of information between and among individuals in a distance learning (DL) environment, encompassing exchanges for students, instructors, and technology staff. Research has begun to distinguish between interactivity (provided by technology) and interaction (the behaviors among the humans), with the former making the latter possible (Roblyer & Ekhaml, 2000). One assumption about interactivity is that it is beneficial to learning (Sims, 2003) although its impact is complex due to variable factors such as maturity of the technology, learning curve for the technology, response time to messages or exchanges, group composition, and so forth. In fact, it is suggested that high levels of interactivity may create cognitive stress for some students (van Merrienboer & Ayres, 2005).
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Identifying interaction within a DL course, Bouhnik and Marcus (2006) suggested the main areas of interaction with content, with student peers, with instructor, and with the learning system itself (for example, an Internet interface such as a learning management system). Another model is to distinguish interaction by type: academic, collaborative, and social (Jung, Choi, Lim, & Leem, 2002). Increasingly, we see blending across these types, such as in gathering spaces like Second Life, a virtual environment in which participants are represented by avatars (computer representations of themselves). A common dichotomous model is based on time of interaction: synchronous (same time) and asynchronous (different time). Little agreement exists on how best to categorize interaction although a growing trend is to recognize the learner’s need for time and training for interaction with the technology as distinguished from learner interaction with the course’s content knowledge.

As DL has proliferated at all levels of education, terminology has developed with some typical language appearing in applied research. As noted in the Introduction, some distinction is made between interaction and interactivity, and so sample terms are presented here. Across technologies and institutions, many terms are used to describe both.


Interaction is best described by function of exchange. As these terms suggest, the language is highly related to pedagogy:

  • Discussion

  • Collaboration

  • Cooperative exchange

  • Peer-to-peer learning

  • Interdependence

  • Learning cell

  • Dialogue

  • Group work

  • Peer review

  • Feedback

  • Teaming

  • Mentoring


Interactivity is best described as methods for exchange. The common terminology is specific to the technology or the electronic medium. As such, we can expect to see an evolution in the terms as new technologies develop.

  • Threaded discussion

  • Public discussion board

  • Chat (synchronous, live)

  • Instant messaging (IM)

  • One-on-one electronic mail (e-mail)

  • One-to-one texting

  • One-to-many computer and phone texting

  • Private message in learning environment

  • Group message in learning environment

  • Social software (wiki, blog, etc.)

  • Social networking (web, video, file exchange)

  • Really Simple Syndication (RSS)

  • Virtual environment chat/talk

  • Desktop videoconferencing

  • Web conferencing

Key Terms in this Chapter

Interactivity: Inherent quality of a medium or learning environment that supports learning or in some way influences interaction between the learner and his or her peer, instructor, subject of study, or the medium itself.

Unbundling: Process by which distance learning instructors hand off certain tasks to support personnel such as teaching assistants or technology staff.

Asynchronous: Occurring at different times; interaction is achieved across time, typically through one individual’s reply or comment to another individual’s communication.

Synchronous: Occurring at the same time: interaction is immediate or nearly immediate for individuals who are utilizing the same communication channel, such as an Internet-based discussion board, conference, messaging system, or e-mail.

Virtual Learning Environment: Online setting in which participants communicate through the use of avatars, or computer-created representations of themselves.

Interaction: Exchange of information between and among individuals in a distance learning (DL) environment.

Social Presence: Individual’s ability to participate in an online community.

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