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Transactional Distance Theorys Influence in Virtual Education

Christina Narayan

Boise State University


Abstract Virtual education is expanding across the country in both scope and numbers. Online education is available from a rural farm to the biggest city, for kindergartners through higher education students. The growth numbers are staggering and it is clear that the rise of educational technology will support the virtual education movement. Michael Moore wrote the Transactional Distance Theory (TDT) to show distance and virtual educators the keys to close what he termed the transactional distance that exists between the distance or online instructor and their learner. Moores three elements include: 1) dialogue, 2) structure and 3) learner autonomy. This paper expands on Moores TDT and demonstrates its guiding hand in todays virtual education practices. The influence of his Transactional Distance Theory will be shown in the assessment of online learners satisfaction, online communication and online teaching strategies. While not all virtual educators, principals or learners may know or understand the Transactional Distance Learning Theory, Gookool-Ramboo (2008) states that a transactional approach seems to be consciously or unconsciously adopted by theorists and practitioners alike (p. 1).

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION Transactional Distance Theorys Influence in Virtual Education Virtual schools are increasing in both numbers and populations served. While this emerging technology first reached higher education, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (Wicks, 2010) reports that K-12 online schools, either full-time or supplemental are available in 48 of 50 states and also Washington D.C. (p. 13). In fact, the estimation by iNACOL (Wicks, 2010) is that 1.5 million K-12 students were engaged in online and blended learning for the 2009-2010 school year (p. 14). Who are these students? Online education is being used for various reasons for diverse student populations. Online education offers extra classes, credit recovery, classes not available at the local school, and full education requirements. Students reached include Olympic bound athletes, students with health issues, at-risk youth, pregnant girls, rural, traveling and those above and below grade level (Wicks, 2010, p.10). Given the expansion and the ability to access courses and learn via the Internet, GokoolRamdoo (2008) presses the importance of the Transactional Distance Theory being accepted as a global theory (p. 1). She further states that distance learning is in a theoretical impasse with little development due to its unwillingness to adopt this theory (p. 1). Gorsky & Caspi (2005) support the necessity for embracing theory quoting, Theoretical frameworks and models are essential to the long-term credibility and viability of a field or practice (p. 137). Distance education is clearly being adopted and growing in the United States, so what exactly is the Transactional Distance Theory and why is it important to virtual schools and their continued growth and success? Definition of Transactional Distance Learning Theory Michael Moore is the author of this theory and many researchers have further proven and researched his theory. Chen & Willits (1999) explain the Moores three key components of distance education 1) learner independence or autonomy, 2) interaction between learner and instructor, which he termed dialogue; and 3) certain characteristics of course design which he designated as structure (p. 46). To understand this applicable learning theory, it is important to next understand what transactional distance refers to. In a virtual school, you have the learner on one side and the teacher on the other. Stein, Wanstreet, Calvin, Overtoom & Wheaton (2005) state that Moores distance is a psychological and communications gap that is a function of the interplay among structure, dialogue, and autonomy (p. 106). Gookool-Ramboo (2008) further explains that

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION between them [teacher and learner] is the transactional distance, which is a space for misunderstanding and special procedures are required to remove this distance (p. 8). It is these procedures and considerations that online education can benefit from the information and application of the Transactional Distance Theory. The desired outcome in virtual education, according to the Transactional Distance Learning Theory, is the independence of the learner which is the result of shared negotiation through dialogue and structure between teacher and learner (Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008, p. 7). All educators and learners understand that communication is critical. Gookool-Ramboo (2008) quotes that the teacher and learner share control and responsibility of the two-way communications in distance education. Learning happens through mutual sharing and negotiations of meaning between teacher and learner that the locus of control shifts from one to the other constantly (p. 7). Gookool-Ramboo (2008) also explains the application of the structure element. She states that the theorys need for structure transitions students from the beginning of their online experiences as very structured (behaviorism) to less structured as they become established in their online program (constructivism) (p. 7). To sum up Moores Transactional Distance Learning Theory, virtual schools can decrease the undesirable transactional distance by supporting learner independence, having meaningful dialogue between learners and between learners and the instructor and providing the on-going correct amount of structure when needed by the student. finding success in Moores elements. TDTs Influence in Assessing Online Learners Satisfaction and Experiences Sherry, Fulford, & Zhang (2011) performed two case studies, one qualitative and one quantitative on the premise of the Transactional Distance Learning Theory. The desire of both studies was to learn the contentment of online learners with their learning environment. In step with the TDT, Sherry, Fulford, & Zhang (2011) studied learner-to-instructor, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-content interaction in distance education (p. 6). These interactions are specified in the TDT and proper attention and development of each can deduce the detrimental transactional distance. Chaney, Eddy, Dorman, Glessner, Green & Lara-Alecio (2007) also performed a study where they evaluated students opinions and perceptions of virtual education. Chaney et al. The following examples of

the influences of TDT on current online practices will demonstrate that virtual education is

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION (2007) used fourteen indicators after extensively reviewing literature on the topic (p. 146). Here are the indicators assessed: Student-teacher interaction Prompt feedback from instructor Program evaluation and assessment Clear analysis of audience Documented technology plan to ensure quality Institutional support and institutional resources Course structure guidelines Active learning techniques Respect diverse ways of learning Faculty support services Strong rationale for distance education that correlates to the mission of the institution Appropriate tools and media Reliability of technology and implementation of guidelines for course development and review of instructional materials Each of these fourteen indicators, which were selected after significant research, can fit under one of the three aspects of TDT: dialogue, structure or learner autonomy. This supports Moores TDT as learner satisfaction is based on those elements he identified as necessary to diminish or eliminate the transactional distance. TDTs Influence in Online Communication Dialogue is one of the three critical elements Moores TDT presents and Sherblom (2010) also discusses communication in his study. He describes the importance of creating a supportive network and that within a participatory, collaborative, learning community: dynamic, interactive relationships can become more cognitively elaborated, exploit lag time to better develop thoughts, and transcend traditional classroom cultures in innovative teaching and learning capabilities (Sherblom, 2010, p. 513). Classroom teachers are taught to maintain a three to five second wait time for students to respond after posing a question. Virtual teachers have to employ the same strategy when teaching synchronously, but when discussions are

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION asynchronous, learners have more time to prepare answers and the same applies to the learners and instructor responding. Another development from the time Moore first introduced his theory when distance education referred only to classes taken by correspondence, is videoconferencing. Chen & Willits (1999) researched the effects of videoconferencing in online education and related its findings to Moores TDT. For their study, they defined dialogue as two-way communication between student and teacher and among students that can take the form of synchronous and/or asynchronous verbal and electronic communication (Chen & Willits, 1999, p. 47). At the end of their study, Chen and Willits (1999) implore online teachers to vary the types of dialogue they have with their students (p. 57). Educational technology provides these prescribed varied communications. Virtual classroom learners and instructors communicate through both synchronous and asynchronous methods. Some examples are web conferencing, phone calls, instant messaging, emails, voice threads, discussion posts, podcasts, screencasts, video tutorials, blogs and wiki spaces to name a few. Chen & Willits (1999) researched other avenues of structure and learner autonomy in their study as well, but Gorsky & Caspi (2005) did all their research strictly on dialogue. Gorsky & Caspi (2005) set forth the following assumptions for the theoretical framework: 1. Learning is an individual activity characterized by internal mental processes. 2. Learning is mediated by intrapersonal dialogue. 3. Learning is facilitated by interpersonal dialogue. 4. Dialogue is enabled by structural and human resources. 5. Dialogue and learning outcomes are correlated (p. 138). Intrapersonal dialogue occurs when learners set out to learn from texts, online videos, etc. and Piagets assimilation and accommodation are used to describe this type of learning (Gorsky & Caspi, 2005, p. 139). Individuals are not necessarily talking with themselves in actual dialogue. Essentially, this is the thinking process a person goes through when consciously thinking and processing material and information. Interpersonal dialogue occurs in a message loop that follows Moores descriptions of interactions. Learners communicate with other learners. The instructor communicates with the learners. And as pointed out by Gorsky & Caspi (2005), the learner communicates with the instructor (p. 139). Interpersonal dialogue is an obvious key element in learning and teaching.

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION Gorsky & Caspi (2005) describe two types of resources for dialogue: structural and human (p. 140). Structural resources are what students use to learn such as texts, web-based instruction and instructor created materials. Gorsky & Caspi (2005) list instructional design, group size and how accessible both teacher and students are each have a huge impact on interpersonal dialogue (p. 140). The cumulative effect of these resources is to determine a potential, an upper limit of interpersonal dialogue that may occur in a distance education system (Gorsky & Caspi, 2005, p. 140). These elements are executed different by virtual school, program type, grade level, teacher preference, state standards, etc. For instructional design, some online schools have their courses designed by outside vendors or companies, others have instructional designers on staff, and in other online environments, the teachers design the instruction as well as teach the material. Group size is another variable. A group may be as small as a one on one live tutoring session to an online class where the instructor is the mentor to a hundred or more students. The size of the group and expectations of the online learning environment play a big part in the accessibility of teacher and student. Twenty-four to forty-eight hours to return a phone call or email during the school week, for both teacher and student, is a common expectation but the instructor or school sets this expectation. The human resources in Gorsky & Caspis (2005) research obviously refer to the instructor and the students (p. 140). There could also be others, such as guest lecturers or students presenting from different classes. All of the individuals involved in the online learning process are important resources to the dialoging process, providing instruction, experience, feedback and defining questions. The dialoging piece is at the foundation of learning and education both virtually and in a traditional bricks and mortar classroom. Moores dialogue element is an important influence in virtual school communication and its effectiveness can eliminate or widen the transactional distance. TDTs Influence in Online Teaching Strategies Sherblom (2010) spoke to the transactional distance defined in the TDT when he quoted, there is a concern that online education lessens the opportunity for student connection with faculty and other students, reduces academic and social integration into the learning process, and results in alienation and isolation (p. 497). After defining both concerns and benefits of

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION computer mediated communication, CMC, Sherblom (2010) concludes that there are important implications to examine for the CMC class (p. 508). First, speaking to learner satisfaction, when instructors eliminated student frustration with the technology, developed interactive features, and improved consistency in delivery, student satisfaction increased, withdrawal rates dropped, and student learning increased (Sherblom, 2010, p. 508). All these elements describe reducing or eliminating the transactional distance with appropriate levels of structure. Stein, Wanstreet, Calvin, Overtoom & Wheaton (2005) used Moores theory of TDT to find ways to bridge the transactional distance gap in online environments (p.105). Stein et al. (2005) shared Moores recommendation to include the following interactions in online classrooms: instructor-learner, learner-learner and learner-content (p. 108). Another study explained that instructors have to specifically plan interactions in order for them to be meaningful (Stein et al., 2005, p. 108). Online instructors need to design and provide the right inquiry-based environment, where learners feel safe and supported, and pose proper, taxonomy based questions for maximum learning and discussion. Interaction is the first element highlighted in an article by Hill, Domizi, Collier, & Blandin (2011). Interaction does not just happen; rather it is generated and facilitated (Hill et al., 2011, p. 93). Furthermore, students who perceived more social presence in their courses reported more satisfaction with their experience, felt they learned more, and had higher opinions of their teacher (Hill et al., 2011, p. 96). Building student/teacher relationships and relationships among students benefits learning. Assessment is another essential component in virtual education and Hill et al. state it as a strategy to decrease the distance. Hill et al. (2011) list many assessment types to employ. In addition to the traditionally implemented assessments, an instructor can also use self-assessments and peer-assessments which allow for more learner reflection (p. 94). Authentic assessments, including problem and scenario-based learning prove meaningful as well (Hill et al., 2011, p. 95). The instructional design of courses includes assessments and offer feedback to both the learners and instructor. Scaffolding is another obvious learning strategy in closing the transactional distance between learner and instructor. Hill et al. (2011) explain that in distance education, scaffolds can help learners to master content, meet personal learning goals, maintain focus and sense of location in hypertext environments, and interact collaboratively with peers and experts across time and/or space (p. 96). If an instructor conducts a needs assessment at the beginning of the

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION course and assesses throughout, the timing and degree of scaffolding needed for leaners can be provided effectively. Lastly, to sum up both the learner independence and structure elements, learner autonomy is chief among the distance design considerations. How much or how little structure is appropriate for a given learner to experience success? Less structure may be suitable for more experienced learners, whereas more structure is important for novices (Hill et al., 2011, p. 97). Conclusion The connections between Moores Transactional Distance Learning Theory and current virtual education practices are obvious. The influence of dialogue, structure and learner autonomy to close the distance that can exist in a virtual classroom is clear. The best online practices for instruction, assessment and communication can all be linked to these three elements. While not all virtual educators, principals or learners may know or understand the Transactional Distance Learning Theory, Gookool-Ramboo (2008) states that a transactional approach seems to be consciously or unconsciously adopted by theorists and practitioners alike (p. 1).

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION References Chaney, B., Eddy, J. M., Dorman, S. M., Glessner, L., Green, B., & Lara-Alecio, R. (2007). Development of an Instrument to Assess Student Opinions of the Quality of Distance Education Courses. American Journal of Distance Education, 21(3), 145-164. doi:10.1080/08923640701341679

Chen, Y., & Willits, F. K. (1999). Dimensions of educational transactions in a videoconferencing learning environment. American Journal of Distance Education, 13(1), 45-59. doi: 10.1080/08923649909527013

Gokool-Ramdoo, S. (2008). Beyond the Theoretical Impasse: Extending the applications of Transactional Distance Education Theory. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, 9(3), Article 9.3.3. Retrieved from

Gorsky, P. & Caspi, A. (2005). Dialogue: a theoretical framework for distance education instructional systems. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(2), 137-144.

Hill, J. R., Domizi, D. P., Collier, N. D., & Blandin, B. (2011). Design and Teaching: A Bibliographic Essay. American Journal of Distance Education, 25(2), 91-104. doi: 10.1080/08923647.2011.565241

Sherblom, J.C. (2010). The computer-mediated (CMC) classroom: a challenge of medium, presence, interaction, identity, and relationship. Communication Education, 59(4), 497-523. doi:10.1080/03634523.2010.486440 Sherry, A. C., Fulford, C. P., & Zhang, S. (2011). Assessing distance learners satisfaction with instruction: A quantitative and a qualitative measure. American Journal of Distance Education, 12(3), 4-28. doi: 10.1080/08923649809527002

TDTS INFLUENCE IN VIRTUAL EDUCATION Stein, D. S., Wanstreet, C. E., Calvin, J., Overtoom, C., & Wheaton, J. E. (2005). Bridging the transactional distance gap in online learning environments. American Journal of Distance Education, 19(2), 105-118. doi:10.1207/s15389286ajde1902_4 Wicks, M. (2010). A national primer on K-12 online learning. iNACOL Report, version 2, 1-48. Retrieved from