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Editor’s Note
: Distance learning requires feedback and interactivity to compensate for lack of face-to-face contact. This paper discusses student expectations, value of timely instructor feedback, instructional strategies, and ways to increase interaction through instructional design, peer-learning, and interactive multimedia.

Research Insights into Interactivity

Brent Muirhead


Interactivity research studies involving online classes reveal that students value their opportunities to communicate with their peers and instructors. The author will briefly highlight student expectations for their online classes, discuss important findings from interaction studies and recommend several instructional ideas to enhance the quality of interaction in today’s distance education classes.

Student Expectations

The literature on distance education reveals that students can experience problems which have a negative impact on their online education. Hara and Kling’s (2000) study describes some of the frustrations that online graduate students have due to the absence of technical support and timely instructor feedback. In fact, distance educators are developing a new set of terms to describe the learning problems in virtual classes. The word cyberia refers to “a place to which online students feel they have been regulated when they receive no feedback from their instructor” (Jargon Monitor, 2000, p. A51).

Contemporary course designers, administrators and instructors must pay close attention to the learning needs of students. As Palloff & Pratt (2003) relate “what the virtual student wants and needs is very clear: communication and feedback, interactivity and a sense of community, and adequate direction and empowerment to carry out the tasks required for the course” (pp. 129-130). Today’s online students need appropriate guidance for their assignments and relevant class discussions and activities. Instructors can diminish student motivation by assigning an excessive number of assignments and having numerous discussion questions in their weekly dialogs. Shearer (2003) observes that “while the students probably do not shy away from courses with extensive workloads, they do not want busy work to usurp the time they could be spending more productively on other tasks” (p. 13).

It should be recognized that distance education degree programs are not for all students. The author has observed that some students at the University of Phoenix (UOP) have related stories of being frustrated in their online classes. The students decided to switch to conventional face-to-face classes because they missed the physical presence of teachers and students. This naturally raises the question, what are the characteristics of a successful online student? The literature points to three key characteristics: good work ethic, ability to work collaboratively and the ability to think reflectively. Enrollment officials and administrators must work together to insure that they help prospective students assess whether they can effectively participate in online classes. Palloff & Pratt (2003) describe students who do not correctly assess their readiness “…they are not only minimizing their own chances for success but also limiting the ability of their classmates to get the greatest benefit from the course”
(p. 7).

Student Interactions

Student-to-student interaction involves students communicating online with each other as individuals or as a group. In constructivist based learning, educators stress the value of learners interacting with other students by utilizing small group instructional activities that can enhance their skills in knowledge building and social cognition. This places a strong emphasis on collaborative and cooperative learning (Anderson, 2003). Student-to-student interaction in group work fosters inter- and intra-peer collaboration.

Peer to peer learning is an interactive and dynamic process that involves learners in discourse, assessment, critique and value judgment as to the quality and standard of the work of their classmates. This process also involves providing feedback to their peers enabling them to enhance their academic performance (Juwah, 2003).

The instructional goals for small group activities can be used for a variety of learning objectives. Educators should utilize learning teams to foster community relationships, promote reflective thinking and enhance understanding of the subject matter (Palloff & Pratt, 2001). Contemporary educators often favor learning teams due to an assortment of learning benefits:

  •  encourages multiple perspective on issues

  • facilitates higher developmental learning skills

  • reduces learner uncertainty during complex activities

  •  increases learner participation in the educational process

  • promotes cognitive processes such as verbalization (Harasim, 2003).

Harasim’s (2003) model of conceptual change focused on collaboration as a key element in the mutual construction of knowledge by stressing three phases: idea generating, idea linking and intellectual convergence. Collaboration and discourse has played a vital role in making innovative contributions to new schools of thought and practice in the business and academic communities. Mark (2001) highlights the potential positive benefits to a social web:

  • enhance social life through knowledge and mutual participation in new types of cultural and leisure activities

  • encourage a shared community of knowledge that is international in scope

  • provide opportunities to meet others who have similar interests, goals and needs which can foster.

Garrison & Anderson (2003) relates, “a problem with many forms of student to student interaction theory is that they nearly always assume that individuals share a content interest within a shared time space” (p. 44). Students will select certain distance education programs and institutions because they enjoy the freedom to pursue independent studies. Group discussions can be counter productive at times due to misinformation, group think mentality, dominating learners who undermine dialog and conflicts with individual learning styles. Hopper (2003) raises concerns that an excessive emphasis on consensus in learning teams can foster mediocrity and fail to affirm the creative contributions of independent thinkers. Hopper’s graduate online group experiences were very frustrating. “I expected graduate work to put me in close contact with more learned minds, accomplished and respected in the discipline, who would challenge and guide me. I felt disappointed and frustrated to feel so often awash in the bland discourse of novices like myself” (p. 27).

Instructional Insights to Enhance Interactivity

Students have legitimate concerns about working in distance education classes such as isolationism and working with students who are less motivated about doing their assignments. Hannafin, Hill and Land (1997) believe that most students lack the substantial self-monitoring skills that are necessary for working in online classes. They suggested student academic success would need more academic support from their peers and teachers and empowerment through thoughtful interaction to acquire the necessary skills to work effectively in an open-ended setting.

Thurmond (2003) and Burge’s (1994) studies affirmed the presence of specific peer behaviors that are essential for effective computer-mediated classes. The four major types of peer behavior are:

  • Participation-share different perspectives demonstrate application of knowledge, risk sharing tentative ideas, and show interest in the educational experiences of other learners.

  • Response-provide constructive feedback, respond to questions without being repetitive, be a dependable small group member, share positive remarks with others, and actively participate in relevant dialog.

  • Affective feedback-use learner’s names during course work, provide a sense of community or belonging to others, show patience, offer compliments, and encourage a learning atmosphere that is affirming and supporting.

  • Focused messaging-use concise statements and avoid excessive messages that fail to contribute to group learning (Burge, 1994).

Online interaction has brought attention to the affective benefits found in distance education. Research studies on the affective dimension of learning indicate that it can have positive impact on academic achievement but it is area that needs more study (Brophy, 1999). Affective benefits represent important social and emotional aspects to the online experiences. Learners enjoy sharing personal stories that bring a human element to their classes where they can freely share their ideas and frustrations (Spitzer, 2001). In most online learning programs, learners are required to share a personal biography at the beginning of each class. The biographies provide an informational reference point for learners to share during the course. It helps learners create personal online identities which encourage more in-depth dialog (Muirhead, 2001).

Distance educators promote a philosophy of teaching and learning that integrates social interaction into a learner-centered environment. Teachers are encouraged to become facilitators who guide their students into instructional experiences that foster interaction with other learners. The online setting can create some communication anxiety among people who miss the social cues such as facial expressions. The act of posting comments in a class discussion forum involves a certain amount of personal risk. Students who send messages wonder how others will receive their written thoughts. Individuals who possess fewer cognitive and computer skills can feel even more anxious in their first online class. Seaton (1993) states that “students who are cognitively immature are not as likely to be active participants in CMC [Computer Mediated Communication] learning situations. They are likely to want faculty to provide the ‘right answer’ viewing knowledge not as critical thinking but as a collection of information” (p. 51).

Affective responses have a major impact on the quality of communication and interaction within an online class. Garrison & Anderson (2003) argues for classifying interactions under a broader category called social presence which includes three categories: affective, open communication and cohesive communication. What is social presence? According to Meyer (2002), it refers to “the degree to which a person is perceived as real in an on-line conversation” (p. 59). Therefore, social presence is part of a larger and complex set of interactions involving learner control and communication factors (Mortera-Gutierrez, 2002).

Student-teacher interaction is a multidimensional relationship that contains several variables such as the teacher’s level of social presence, quality of feedback (i.e. accurate and timely) and intellectual depth of dialog (Berge, 2002, Gunawardena, 1995; Swan, 2001). As many learners may be new to distance and online education, teachers need to develop strategies that validate student’s current academic development while helping them pursue their professional and personal goals. Teachers must create a class structure that stimulates social interaction and promotes independent learning skills (Jaffee, 1999). Obviously, the amount of teacher involvement varies from one educational context to the other because the learning process is a dynamic entity that transcends any exact formula. Collis (1998) believes communication patterns should be flexible for both students and teachers. Students should be able to ask the teacher questions when they have definite needs and expect a response in a reasonable amount of time.


A major challenge for today’s online instructors involves creating a consistent level of interaction that fosters academic learning and cultivates a community atmosphere. This will require developing strategies that provide appropriate guidance and instruction for individuals and student groups. Roblyer & Wiencke (2003) note that “the more comfortable the students become with distance formats, the more likely they are to participate both spontaneously and when required” (p. 89). The literature affirms the importance of training new online instructors to equip them with the skills and professional knowledge to foster dynamic interaction in their classes (Muirhead 2002; Muirhead & Betz, 2002).


Anderson, T. (2002). An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction.

Berge, Z. L. (2002). Active, interactive, and reflective elearning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 3, 181-190.

Brophy, J. (1999). Toward a model of the value aspects of motivation in education: Developing appreciation for particular learning domains and activities. Educational Psychologists, 34 (2), 75-85.

Burge, E. J. (1994). Learning in a computer conferenced contexts: The learner’s perspective. Journal of Distance Education, 9(1), 19-43.

Collis, B. (1998). New didactics for university instruction: Why and how? Computers & Education, 31 (4), 373-393.

Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London, UK: RoutledgeFarmer.

Gunawardena, C. N. (1995). Social presence theory and implications for interaction and collaborative learning in computer conferences. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1, 147-166.

Hannafin, M. J., Hill, J. R. & Land, S. M., (1997). Student-centered learning and interactive multimedia: Status, issues, and implications. Contemporary Education, 68 (2), 94-99.

Hara, N. & Kling, K., (2000). Student distress with a web-based distance learning course: An ethnographic study of participants’ experiences. Available:

Harasim, L. (2003). What makes online learning communities successful? In C. Vrasidas & G. V. Glass (Eds.). Distance education and distributed learning (181-200). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Hopper, K. B. (2003). In defense of the solitary learner: A response to collaborative, constructivist education. Educational Technology 43 (2), 24-29.

Jaffee, D. (1999). Asynchrous learning: Technology and pedagogical strategy in a computer-mediated distance learning course. Available:

Jargon Monitor (2000). The Chronicle of Higher Education, 57, 13, A51.

Juwah, C. (2003). Using Peer Assessment to Develop Skills and Capabilities. Journal of the US Distance Learning Association – Available:

Mark, G. (2001). Social foundations for collaboration in virtual environments. In F. T. Tschang & T. D. Senta (Eds.) Access to knowledge: New information technologies and the emergence of the virtual university (pp. 241-263). Oxford, UK: Elservier Science.

Meyer, K. A. (2002). Quality in distance education: Focus on on-line learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mortera-Gutierreze, F. & Murphy, K. (2000). Instructor interactions in distance education environments: A case study. Concurrent sessions presented at the annual distance education conference sponsored by the Texas A&M Centre for Distance Education, Austin, TX.

Muirhead, B. & Betz, M. (2002). Faculty training at an Online University. USDLA Journal, 16 (1). Available:

Muirhead, B. (2002). Training new online teachers. USDLA Journal, 16 (10). Available:

Muirhead, B. (2001). Practical Strategies for Teaching Computer-Mediated Classes. Educational Technology & Society, 4 (2). Available:

Palloff, R. M, & Pratt, K. (2003). Virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roblyer, M.D. & Wiencke, W. R. (2003). Design and use of a rubric to assess and encourage interactive qualities in distance courses. The American Journal of Distance Education, 17 (2), 77-98.

Seaton,W. J. (1993). Computer-mediated communication and student self-directed learning. Open Learning, June, 49-54.

Shearer, R. L. (2003). Interaction in distance education. Special Report 2 (1). Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Spitzer, D. R. (2001). Don’t forget the high-touch with the high-tech in distance learning. Educational Technology, 61 (2), 51-55.

Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22, 306-331.

Thurmond, V. A. (2003). Examination of interaction variables as predictors of students’ satisfaction and willingness to enroll in future Web-based courses. Doctoral dissertation. University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS.

About the Author



Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.).

Dr. Muirhead is the area chair for the MAED program in curriculum and technology for the University of Phoenix Online (UOP) and teaches a variety of master level courses. Also, he mentors faculty candidates in their graduate education programs. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology & Society and recently was a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. He may be reached via email:


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