October 2006 IndexHome Page

Editor’s Note
: Brent shares his rich experience as researcher and practitioner to show how dialog  should be responsive to students needs and promote genuine interaction.

Doctoral Students:
Interactivity Experiences in Online Universities

Brent Muirhead


The author will discuss the issue of interactivity in graduate online classes. The paper highlights information gleaned from surveys with three adult learners who are pursuing doctoral degrees. Interactivity studies and professional experiences with adult learners will offer insights into quality of their educational experiences.

Study Participants

The study participants were two males and one female who are married and range in age from the mid 50s to their early 60s. The individuals have extensive professional experience working in corporations and human services industries. They are veteran online university teachers who hold leadership positions in higher education. The survey was created for an assignment for a graduate course called Technology and Human Development at The Teachers College, Columbia University.

Importance of Interactivity

The virtual environment lacks the normal face-to-face interaction of the traditional classroom. It places a greater burden on students to utilize the appropriate instructional resources to understand the subject matter. Instructors must focus greater attention to effectively communicating expectations for assignments and sharing relevant lecture notes. Educational literature contains frequent references to the importance of interactivity. Berge and Muilenburg’s (2005) research found that students considered the absence of social interaction as being the greatest barrier to positive online learning experiences.

The online setting holds potential for vibrant interaction and rich dialog. Unfortunately, online educational experiences can become quite wooden and lifeless at times, like a boring traditional classroom. Students can become disillusioned with the teaching and learning process when it lacks the personal touch of human interaction.

Interactivity Survey

The author developed a survey instrument based upon interactivity research studies. Distance education literature is slowly growing as more researchers are examining different aspects of the teaching and learning process. Reflective analysis of the 14 survey (see Appendix A) questions will highlight the study participant’s perceptions of interactivity within the online environment.

The first three questions were designed to provide background information on the study participants. Two of the individuals are seeking doctoral degrees in management and organizational leadership and have taken five online doctoral courses. The other individual is studying psychology and has taken six online doctoral courses. The three students have taught extensively in the online environment in higher education. They represent a wealth of teaching experiences and professional expertise.

Distance education represents a new frontier and online universities are rapidly growing. The University of Phoenix serves a student population of over 300,000 students and half of these students take online classes (UOP Fact Book, 2005). Educators have raised concerns about the quality of the instructional experiences when there is no face to face interaction. A major challenge for online instructors involves creating a consistent level of interaction that fosters genuine learning and cultivates a community atmosphere. The study participants had serious concerns about the lack of personal interaction and shallow online discussions that hindered meaningful interaction within the classes. One study participant was extremely disappointed in the instructors of their five online courses:

“The facilitators are arbitrary, arrogant, non-existent, non-instructional and there is no constructive feedback provided. Because you cannot see them it is like the anonymous customer service phone call they are free to be nasty and there are no repercussions for their actions. Because there is a shortage of graduate facilitators the universities do not terminate the worst offenders. This lack of accountability and autonomy paints all with the same brush.”

The comment reflects how distance education schools can become victims of their own success by enrolling large numbers of students but failing to properly train and monitor their instructors. Distance education programs vary in the quality of their classes and some offer poor learning experiences characterized by poor course design, inappropriate content or sequencing of learning activities and inconsistent teacher feedback (Janicki & Liegle, 2001). “Those involved in distance education grossly underestimate the difficulty involved in changing deeply entrenched teaching and learning habits, and consequently we grossly underestimate the difficulty of changing from a traditional classroom environment to a distance learning context” (Spitzer, 1998, p. 53).

Garrison and Anderson (2003) have developed a promising new distance education model known as the community of inquiry which involves three main three elements: social presence, cognitive presence and teacher presence. The author has observed that creating a community of inquiry is a challenging task because facilitators fail to implement effective communication practices. One of the study participants revealed how online dialogs can become ineffective when there is a lack of accountability in the teaching and learning process:

“If there is only one person talking it is a diatribe or a lecture but not a discussion. Discussions should be mandatory on all counts but at a graduate level if a student continuously is a non-contributor they should be dropped from the program. By the way, this applies to the non-participatory facilitator. This is not deism where it is creator and then there is no more interaction – setting it in motion is not sufficient.”

Study participants were ambivalent about the value of learning teams which are common feature in many online degree programs.

“Since this programs practices the use of Learning Teams, one impact is the negative effect on team deliverables, lessens the individual support structure.”

“For the most part I love the online world. Learning teams have been good and bad. When they are good they are very very good when they are bad they are horrid.

My last two teams were aces and we really were a great team playing to strengths and looking out for each other.”

“Lessen the experience because I do not benefit from their experiences.”

Academically weaker students who lack the motivation to do class assignments will let their colleagues do all their group work. This creates negative experiences for hard working students who will compensate for lazy students by completing the assignments. The author addresses these situations by using team charters and end of course team evaluations to document student performance and give lower grades to those who fail to make significant contributions to their group work.

The survey highlighted the important role instructor’s play in establishing and maintaining a favorable learning climate. Students want instructors who provide timely and fair evaluations of their work while keeping a social and intellectually stimulating presence in their classes. Instructors are expected to share professional insights and demonstrate creativity in stimulating dialog (e.g. Dilbert cartoons).

“Facilitators should be personable, supportive and add value. Questions should be answered – personal experiences given – at least once a day. I have had facilitators who showed up to post the dqs [discussion questions] and then feedbacks – never saw or heard from them any other time. So, my needs are simple. I do not want to be their best friend but if I cannot learn something from them why am I taking the class?”

It is interesting to observe teachers who claim to be student-centered in their educational philosophy but actually are quite controlling in their classes. Teachers can dominate online dialogs by posting an excessive number of messages that highlights the instructor’s knowledge expertise but undermines the communication process. Instructors can become threatened by the online setting which has an open ended quality which causes some individuals to strive for security through greater control. Sadly, students are receiving a less academically rigorous education because they are not challenged to be independent thinkers. Students wonder about the quality of their ideas because the teacher fails to create a legitimate dialog that affirms the worth of their questions and concerns. A study participant expressed frustration about an instructor who was excessively absent from their online class:

“In my doctoral program none – they were so aloof that we all began to feel like we were floating on an iceberg by ourselves. In one class, I taught the material because the paid facilitator was never there and it was material I had experience with and so I did the facilitation with not a word from the instructor except to stay in track.”

Potential New Directions in Distance Education

A major challenge for today’s online instructors involves creating a consistent level of interaction that fosters genuine learning and cultivates a community atmosphere. This will require developing strategies that provide guidance and instruction for individuals and student groups. The study participants were united in their desire to have relevant, personal and intellectually stimulating learning opportunities. Stephen Downes (2006) takes a creative perspective on the issue of interactivity by looking at how online communities are created in classes. “The community owes its existence to the course, and ends when the course does. But the relation ought to be the other way around: that the course content (if any) ought to be subservient to the discussion, that the community is the primary unit of learning, and that the instruction and the learning resources are secondary, arising out of, and only because of, the community” (p. 22).

The distance education movement is entering an important phase of development as competition for students continues to increase as more institutions add courses and degree programs. Educators and administrators will be faced with making choices about the direction of their degree programs. A potential temptation is to become more like traditional universities but this could hinder efforts to seek new and innovative ways to enrich the online environment. One study participant mentioned the need to integrate multimedia into their courses “instructional designers need to convert many narratives, which are easy to build, to visuals that can be used in the class dialogue for the instructor to explain concepts and the student to interact with and together.”

The author has devoted the past nine years to studying interactivity (communication, participation and feedback) in online classes. Examining research studies on student interaction with course content is often complicated by a multitude of variables. Thurmond (2003) highlights five factors that can influence student perspectives on their ability to learn course curriculum:

  • continuous contact with the content – enables students to gain mastery

  • clarity of course design – the structuring of the materials and the manner in which it is sequenced will help make it both accessible and easy to understand

  • time – adequate time is needed for students to engage with the materials and discourse and to reflect on their learning

  • participation in online discussions – this enables students to learn by constructing meaning and knowledge through dialogue and from other perspectives

  • mode of delivering course content – appropriate sequencing of content and learning activities will enhance interactivity and make learning more effective and meaningful.

The five factors reveal the complexity within the concept of interactivity and how it plays a pivotal role in determining the quality of the student’s experiences. This discussion highlights the nature of the learning problems were not technological but involved human interaction issues and the instructor’s communication strategies (e.g. sharing expertise in dialogs).

Research studies have identified three basic student characteristics that are often found in successful online learners: internal locus of control, self-motivation and independence. (Vrasidas and Glass, 2002). Doctoral students are highly motivated but they continue to need guidance Study participants did acknowledge positive benefits to learning teams such as becoming skilled in working together on projects and helping one another. Yet, they expressed concerns about how learning teams contributed to individual intellectual growth and development. Writing a dissertation is not a team project and students who are overly dependent upon their colleagues could have major problems when conducting research. The author mentors online doctoral students and they will comment that dissertation work seems very lonely after working with learning teams for two years.

The research literature supports the need for having a more flexible and informal educational model. Contemporary educators are constantly advocating for more individualized instruction but it continues to be an elusive goal. Perhaps, the problem has been looking at formal teaching and learning models which are too rigid for today’s students. The author is just becoming acquainted with informal learning literature that has the potential to engage learners in more meaningful experiences. Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is an example of one of these informal learning theories. Emphasis is place on using technology as a tool to meet educational needs by effectively connecting individuals and resources across a variety of academic disciplines. PLE has the potential to personalize the interaction between people and instructional resources because it is a student driven model with a problem solving orientation (Attwell, 2006; Downes, 2006).

Students vary in their cognitive maturity and educators must develop a set of flexible instructional strategies that will help them to meet a diversity of student needs. Teachers should foster a rich intellectual environment built upon an assortment of multimedia resources (e.g. simulations). A less formal class structure can encourage independent learning activities built around student interests while promoting creativity, reflective thinking, and self-directed learning. It is important that teachers enable students to have the freedom to ask questions and take intellectual risks in their assignments and class discussions. Teachers should facilitate lively discussions by creating meaningful discussion questions that encourage critical thinking and stimulate student contributions.


This brief discussion offers some unique perspectives into the interactivity challenges during the early stages of online doctoral degree programs. Students expressed being frustrated with instructors who failed to share their expertise with them, were inconsistent in their online presence and fostered superficial dialogs. Educators should devote more attention to developing learning opportunities that are more responsive to student needs and promote genuine interaction with others. Research studies indicate interactivity is closely connected to individuals enjoying their online classes, being effective learners and increases the possibility of them taking another online course (Berge & Muilenburg, 2005).


Attwell, G. (2006). Why a personal learning environment and why now? The Wales-Wide Web. Available: http://www.knownet.com/writing/weblogs/Graham_Attwell/entries/6521819364

Berge, Z.L. & Muilenburg, L.Y. (2005) Student barriers to online learning: A factor analytic study. Distance Education, 26(1), pp. 29-48.

Downes, S. (2006). Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge, Instructional Technology Forum, 1-26. Available: http://it.coe.uga.edu/itforum/upcoming.html

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

Janicki, T. & Liegle, J. O. (2001). Development and evaluation of a framework for creating web-based learning modules: a pedagogical and systems approach. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (1). Available: http://www.aln.org/publications/jaln/v5n1/v5n1_janicki.asp

Spitzer, D. R., (1998). Rediscovering the social context of distance learning. Educational Technology, 38 (2), 52-56.

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.

Vrasidas, C. & Glass, G. V. (2002). A conceptual framework for studying distance education. In C. Vrasidas and G. V. Glass (Eds.). Distance education and distributed learning. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

UOP Fact Book (2005). University of Phoenix. Phoenix, AZ.



Interactivity Survey

The purpose of this survey is to investigate interactivity during online graduate courses. The term interactivity (communication, participation and feedback) refers to learners relating to other learners and learners communicating with their instructor. All comments will be kept completely anonymous.


1. What online doctoral degree are you pursuing?

2. How many online graduate courses have you taken?

3. How many online university courses have you taught as an instructor?

4. What do you consider the major advantages and disadvantages to online graduate education?

5. In what ways do classmates who do not keep up with weekly online discussions influence the quality of your learning experiences?

6. If you have participated in online learning team activities, how effective and enjoyable have these activities been for you?

7. What are your expectations for interacting with your instructor during your online class?

8. What makes for quality interactivity in your online classes?

9. In what ways have instructors offered help for your online assignments and projects?

10. What type of online course activities encourages your participation?

11. What has been your experience with the intellectual quality of online discussions?

12. In what ways have online classes discussions promoted growth in your professional knowledge?

13. In what ways can instructors improve the quality of interactivity in online courses?

14. In what ways could instructional designers enhance the quality of online educational experiences?

About the Author

Brent Muirhead Ph.D

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.). He is currently taking graduate classes in cognition and technology at The Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dr. Muirhead is the Lead Faculty and Area Chair for Business Communications at the University of Phoenix campus in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches a diversity of undergraduate and graduate level courses in Atlanta and online. He mentors faculty candidates and doctoral students. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society and he has worked as a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland.

He may be reached via email at: bmuirhead@email.uophx.edu.




go top
October 2006 Index
Home Page