You are on page 1of 9

Interaction in Distance Education 1


Interaction in Computer Mediated Distance Education

Jennifer Maddrell

Old Dominion University

IDT 846 Distance Learning - Dr. Morrison

April 21, 2008

Interaction in Distance Education 2


Interaction is a well documented construct within distance education literature. A recent

search of the Education Resource Information Center (ERIC) database using the keyword

“interaction” returned over 46,000 articles. When additional “interaction” descriptors within the

ERIC database thesaurus are considered and filtered, as shown in Figure 1, the number of articles

balloons to over 71,000.

Figure 1. Interaction - ERIC database search.

Within these articles are various prescriptions of how to incorporate interaction into the

design of instruction, including within the design of distance education. However, a closer

review of the literature reveals a range of conceptions of what interaction is and, in turn, how it

should be fostered within an instructional setting.

Moore (1989) recognized this diversity and observed that the term “interaction” carries so

many meanings it is almost useless as a descriptive construct. This prompted a call from Moore

for consensus on the distinctions among three types of interaction which he labeled as 1) learner-

content interaction, 2) learner-instructor interaction, and 3) learner-learner interaction.

Interaction in Distance Education 3

This paper provides a brief review of how interaction is considered within current

distance education literature since Moore’s 1989 call for clarity. The following summarizes how

human and non-human interaction types have been considered within the context of computer

mediated distant education and examines both the Student-to-Content Interaction Strategies

Taxonomy and the Community of Inquiry Model as frameworks for future examination of

computer mediated interaction within a distance education setting.

Computer Mediated Interaction in Distance Education Literature

Of the 71,000 articles about interaction noted above in the ERIC database, just over 4,100

are tagged as “peer reviewed”. Within those, 91 were linked with a “distance education”

descriptor. A review of the article abstracts reveals a clear emphasis on human to human

interaction, either what Moore terms as learner-learner or learner-instructor interaction.

Bannan-Ritland (2002) reports the same finding in a comprehensive literature review of

interactivity in relation to synchronous and asynchronous computer mediated communication.

Her review yielded a total of 132 articles of which 83 were deemed primary research and 49

were viewed as conceptual. Echoing Moore, Bannan-Ritland describes the challenge of

conducting such a review given the lack of common operational definitions and interpretation of

interaction in the educational and distance education literature.

While Bannan-Ritland’s review revealed multiple definitions and interpretations of

interaction, she did find commonalities across what she terms “learner-human level interactions”,

such as patterns and amounts of communication, instructor activities and feedback, and other

social exchanges. She grouped the research based on how interactivity was defined within the

study, including interaction defined by: a) active involvement by the learner, b) patterns of

communication among learners and the instructor, c) instructor-learner communication, d) social,

Interaction in Distance Education 4

cooperative, or collaborative exchange, and e) instructional activities or technology.

Unfortunately, Bannan-Ritland (2002) reports finding no studies during the time period of her

review which focused on learner-content interactions in synchronous and asynchronous

computer mediated communication and suggests that prior literature reviews focused on the

technology as a delivery medium rather than the construct of interactivity.

A current search of the ERIC database using “content interaction” as a keyword phrase

supports Bannan-Ritland’s findings. 20 articles were returned and only one study is tagged as a

peer reviewed research article. Interestingly, within that article, Thorpe and Goodwin (2006)

highlight Moore’s conception of learner-content interaction within distance education, as well as

Bannan-Ritland’s previously mentioned observation of the lack of learner-content interaction

research. Unfortunately, Thorpe and Goodwin’s survey findings from a sample of 4,512 students

at the Open University in the United Kingdom provide little insight beyond a snapshot of the

instructional content delivery preferences of the surveyed distance learners.

Toward an Integrated Framework for Research and Design

Given the emphasis on human interaction within recent research on computer mediated

communication, it is of little surprise to find a like emphasis on strategies to overcome the

physical and time separation to facilitate social interactions during distance instruction. There is

pervasive call within the literature for computer mediated social interaction and “community

building” within the distance education setting to foster a greater sense of social membership,

presence and learner commitment (Rovai, 2002). However, while human interaction (learner to

learner and learner to instructor) is often stated as a desired instructional goal within distance

education, social interaction in and of itself not a guarantee of cognitive engagement or of

meaningful learning (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005).

Interaction in Distance Education 5

Dunlap, Sobel, and Sands (2007) refer to an “ideal of balanced interaction”; one in which

learner to content, learner to learner, and learner to instructor interaction are considered. They

offer a “Student-to-Content Interaction Strategies Taxonomy” for the contemplation of learner-

content interaction within a distance education setting in which ten content specific interaction

category types are mapped to Bloom’s lower level (remember, understand, and apply) and higher

level (analyze, evaluate, and create) cognitive process dimensions, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Student-to-Content Interaction Strategies Taxonomy.

Cognitive Process Dimensions

Content Interaction Type Remember Understand Analyze Evaluate Create
Enriching      
Supportive      
Conveyance   
Constructive  
Triggering   
Exploration   
Integration   
Resolution  
Reflective Inquiry  
Metacognitive  

The content interaction types are a synthesis of the categories presented by Stouppe

(1998) and Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) within the Community of Inquiry Model,

discussed in greater detail below. Stouppe focuses on four content interactions, including

enriching interactions (which allow access to information), supportive interactions (which assist

the learner to understand material), conveyance interactions (which demonstrate the concept),

and constructive interactions (which require the learner to organize or map knowledge and

understanding). In addition, Garrison et al. emphasize interactions which support critical

thinking, including triggering interactions(which lead to recognition of a problem), exploration

Interaction in Distance Education 6

interactions (which encourage learners to further explore), integration interactions (which

facilitate connection of ideas to create solutions), and resolution interactions (which foster

application and assessment of solutions). Dunlap et al. included two additional interactions

focused on reflective inquiry (requiring deliberation and action) and metacognition (encouraging

self-reflection on the learner’s own cognitive process).

Dunlap et al. suggest that these content interaction types help to support various cognitive

process dimensions. Given Bloom’s established framework which helps designers map learning

objectives to cognitive process dimensions, Dunlap et al. propose that their taxonomy of

strategies is a means of supporting learning objectives with specific content-interaction


In addition to Moore’s learner-content, learner-learner, and learner-instructor interaction.

Anderson (2003) suggests that addition interaction types must be considered and adds three

“learner-environment” dimensions of teacher-teacher, teacher-content, and content-content.

These six types of interactions are incorporated within the Community of Inquiry Model by

Garrison et al. (2000) which recommends an integration of cognitive, social, and teaching

presence within a computer mediated distance education setting.

According to Garrison et al. (2001), cognitive presence is the ability for learners to

construct and confirm meaning most often associated with critical thinking and is linked to the

categories of learner-content interaction highlighted previously within Table 1. Social presence is

considered the ability of learners to project their own personalities within the distance learning

environment as measured in terms of emotion expression, open communication, and group

cohesion (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, and Archer, 2001). In contrast, teaching presence
Interaction in Distance Education 7

considers instructional management, including both the design and delivery of instruction

(Garrison et al., 2001).

The foundation of the Community of Inquiry Model is that neither social interaction

alone nor an exchange of information are sufficient, but rather, “quality interaction and discourse

for deep and meaningful learning must consider the confluence of social, cognitive, and teaching

presence – that is, interaction among ideas, students, and the teacher.” (Garrison and Cleveland-

Innes, 2005, p. 144). When paired with the Student-to-Content Interaction Strategies Taxonomy

proposed by Dunlap et al., a comprehensive framework for future examination of computer

mediated interaction within a distance education setting emerges which contemplates multiple

levels of both human and non-human interaction.

Interaction in Distance Education 8


Anderson, T. (2003). Modes of Interaction in Distance Education: Recent Developments and

Research Questions. In M. Moore and G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of Distance

Education. (pp. 129-144) NJ: Erlbaum.

Bannan-Ritland, B. (2002). Computer-Mediated Communication, E-learning, And Interactivity.

Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 3(2), 161.

Dunlap, J. C., Sobel, D., & Sands, D. I. (2007). Designing for Deep and Meaningful Student-to-

Content Interactions. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning,

51(4), 20-31.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment:

Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3),


Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical Thinking and Computer

Conferencing: A Model and Tool to Assess Cognitive Presence. American Journal of

Distance Education.

Garrison, D. R., & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating Cognitive Presence in Online

Learning: Interaction is Not Enough. American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3),


Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction [Electronic version]. The American Journal of

Distance Education, 3(2). Retrieved from
Interaction in Distance Education 9

Rourke, L., Anderson, T. Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing social presence in

asynchronous, text-based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 14(3),

51-70. Retrieved from .

Rovai , A. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a Distance. International Review of

Research in Open and Distance Learning, Retrieved from

Stouppe, J. R. (1998). Measuring Interactivity. Performance Improvement, 37(9), 19-23.

Thorpe, M., & Godwin, S. (2006). Interaction and e-Learning: The Student Experience. Studies

in Continuing Education, 28(Nov), 203.