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Donald G. Perrin Ph.D.
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   Brent Muirhead Ph.D.

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Muhammad Betz

Elizabeth Perrin Ph.D.


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Table of Contents

Editor’s Note: Interaction is key to the success of distance learning. This review of the literature distills and structures the findings of almost one hundred research studies. Although many of these practices are already implemented by instructional designers and practitioners, it is vital to have research confirmation of relevance and importance. It provides insights into the dynamics of interaction and suggests ways to enhance student participation and learning in a Web-based course.

Using these research findings as benchmarks, are you making optimum use of interaction and feedback in your web-based courses?

Understanding Interactions in Distance Education:
A Review of the Literature

Veronica Thurmond, Karen Wambach


Interaction in a traditional classroom is much different than the interaction that occurs in a Web-based course. The differences in interaction are largely due to the instructional media used in Web-based courses. Despite the difference in the pedagogical mediums, the interactive component that faculty design into a traditional classroom course is just as important – if not more so – in the Web-based course. Therefore, because of the proliferation of Web-based courses and the differences in interaction between the traditional and Web-based pedagogical platforms, a vital need exists to assess the effectiveness of interactivity in a Web-based course. The purpose of this paper is to provide a literature review on interaction as it pertains to distance education and Web-based courses. This review of the literature covers four types of interaction: learner - content, learner - learner, learner - instructor, and learner - interface.

Offerings of distance education (DE) and Web-based courses are on the rise. Between 1998 and 2001, one-fifth of the nation’s two-year and four-year educational institutions planned to offer distance education courses. Further, in 1999-2000 eight percent of undergraduates and 12% of master’s students enrolled in distance education courses (NCES, 2002a). According to the National Governor’s Association (NGA), in 1998 58% of two-year and four-year institutions offered distance education courses and 84% of all colleges were expected to follow by the year 2002 (NGA, 2001). As a medium for DE, course specific Web sites were used by about 40% of full-time faculty in a nationally representative sample of post-secondary institutions (NCES, 2002b). Without a doubt, Web-based classrooms are a reality in higher education.

However, the Web-based classroom differs substantially from the traditional classroom in several ways. An important example is that the interaction between students and faculty, other students, and the course content are very different. Despite the difference in the pedagogical mediums, the interactive component that faculty design into a traditional classroom course is just as important – if not more so – in the Web-based course. Therefore, because of the proliferation of Web-based courses and the differences in interaction between the traditional and Web-based pedagogical platforms, a vital need exists to assess the effectiveness of interactivity in a Web-based course. The purpose of this paper is to review the current literature on interactions in Web-based education and its effects on student outcomes.

Defining Interaction

The importance of interaction in distance education generally is acknowledged (Billings, Connors, & Skiba, 2001; Boyle & Wambach, 2001; King & Doerfert, 2000; Meyen & Lian, 1997; Moore & Kearsley, 1996; Muirhead, 2001a, 2001b; Sherry, 1996; Tuovinen, 2000; Wagner, 1994) and the concept of interaction in distance education has been the focus of much research (Billings et al., 2001; King & Doerfert, 2000; Muirhead, 2001a, 2001b). However, no consensual definition for interaction exists in the educational literature (Soo & Bonk, 1998). The concept of interaction is a core element of the seven principles of good practice in education (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). These practices include: encouraging faculty/students contact; developing reciprocity and cooperation; engaging in active learning; providing quick feedback; emphasizing the amount of time dedicated to a task; communicating high expectations; and respecting diversity.

Authors have described some of the dimensions that comprise the concept of interaction, such as communication, collaboration, and active learning (Kenny, 2002). Frequently the social process was highlighted in definitions (Beard & Harper, 2002; Crawford, 1999; Wagner, 1994). Additionally, interaction in Web-based courses can occur synchronously or asynchronously (Smith & Dillon, 1999). The definition of interaction used in this article is a compilation of the interaction descriptions offered by Moore (1989), Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena (1994), and Wagner (1994).

Thurmond (2003) defined interaction as:

…the learner’s engagement with the course content, other learners, the instructor, and the technological medium used in the course. True interactions with other learners, the instructor, and the technology results in a reciprocal exchange of information. The exchange of information is intended to enhance knowledge development in the learning environment. Depending on the nature of the course content, the reciprocal exchange may be absent – such as in the case of paper printed content. Ultimately, the goal of interaction is to increase understanding of the course content or mastery of the defined goals (p. 4).

Wagner (1994, 1997) made a distinction between interaction and interactivity. According to Wagner (1997), interactions “occur when objects and events mutually influence one another. Interactivity . . . appears to emerge from descriptions of technology for establishing connections from point to point . . . in real time” (p. 20). The disparity seems to be that interactivity involves the technology used in learning, while interactions describe behaviors of individuals and groups.

Types of Interaction

Four types of interaction have been cited frequently in the literature: learner-content, learner-learner, learner-instructor, and learner-interface (Chen, 2002; Crawford, 1999; Ehrlich, 2002; Kirby, 1999; Meyen & Lian, 1997; Navarro & Shoemaker, 2000; Rovai, 2002; Sherry, Fulford, & Zhang, 1998; Smith & Dillon, 1999; Swan, 2001). The first three forms of interaction can be found in both traditional classrooms and Web-based courses. The last type of interaction, learner-interface, may be present or totally absent in traditional classroom courses; thus, instructors may not need to consider this interaction. However, in a Web-based course, the learner-interface interaction can have a tremendous bearing on students learning the content (Hillman et al., 1994); consequently, instructors need to consider the impact that Web-based technology will have on learning when designing Web-based courses. Moore and Kearsley (1996) provided an in-depth explanation of the first three types of interaction, while Hillman and colleagues (1994) described the last interaction.

This literature review regarding studies examining interaction variables has been divided into these four types. Although specific sections have been delineated for this literature review, in reality it is difficult to separate the types of interaction and overlapping may occur in a Web-based course (Kirby, 1999). The four types of interactions are not mutually exclusive.

Learner-Content Interaction

Learner-content interaction results from students examining/studying the course content (Moore & Kearsley, 1996) and from participating in class activities. Part of the learning process includes how students interact with the content presented in the Web-based course. Studies on learner-content interaction were not always easy to discern and may have been tied to other variables such as learner-learner interactions or learner-interface interactions. Factors that affected students’ perception of learning the course content included continuous contact with the content (Leasure, Davis, & Thievon, 2000); clarity of course design (Swan, 2001); time (Atack & Rankin, 2002); participation in online discussions (Jiang & Ting, 1999); and mode of delivering course content (Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000)

Continuous Contact With Content

Learning in a Web-based course may be enhanced by continuous interaction with the content (Leasure et al., 2000; Swan, 2001). The Web-based format may encourage deeper immersion and interface with course content than the traditional course format. Leasure and colleagues (2000) reported that nursing students in a Web-based course interacted with the course content throughout the week via electronic bulletin board discussions, readings, and talking to group members. In contrast, students in the traditional course tended to come to weekly class meetings and complete course assignments a couple of days prior to class. Continuous, extensive contact with the course content in the Web-based section increased enthusiasm for the course and may have resulted in improved grades for online students (Leasure et al., 2000).

Clarity of Content Design

Students may perceive learning in a Web-based course easier if the material is presented using a similar format for each content area (Swan, 2001). Also, students perceived more learning when greater consistency was found in the structural design of the course modules (r = .74, p < .01). Interestingly, students reported greater levels of learning in courses that had fewer modules. A key to enhancing learner-content interactions appeared to be clarity of course design (Swan, 2001). Streamlining structural course content for simplicity and repetitiveness may help enhance learner-content interactions and help compensate for the lack of face-to-face meetings.


One barrier to interacting with the course content is the lack of time to participate in coursework. Atack and Rankin (2002) collected data from 57 nurse participants and reported that one of the greatest obstacles to learning in the online environment was the lack of time available to devote to the course content. The participants reported that they did not have time to access the content at work, indicating that their work environment probably was not an ideal environment for learner-content interactions. The issue of lack of time extended to the home environment because subjects had to compete with others to access their computer at home.

Web-Based Medium

The medium used to deliver course information may affect whether students actually learn the content. Navarro and Shoemaker (2000) studied 151 students enrolled in a traditional class format and 49 in a cyberspace format. The cyberspace course provided lectures on CD-ROM, electronic bulletin, electronic mail (e-mail), and chat rooms for asynchronous discussions. Additionally, online discussion rooms were available for synchronous discourse. Students in the online format performed significantly better (p < .01) in the course as reflected in their final exam grade. For those using the online format, the mean average was 11.3 (SD = 2.6, n = 48) and for the traditional class the mean was 9.8 (SD = 2.5, n = 145).

In contrast, some students in other studies have indicated a preference for the traditional classroom format (Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000; Sole & Lindquist, 2001). Two researchers compared three methods for teaching an introductory course in social work to undergraduate students (Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000) and found dissimilar findings. One section of the course was taught in the traditional class format, the second using the Internet only, while the third combined the strategies in the first two methods. The results of the study indicated that students preferred learning the content from an instructor rather than the Internet. Students reported that they were unable to learn the content through the Internet and were uncomfortable learning information from only one medium. Also, the students commented that they preferred listening to the content rather than reading it (Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000). Likewise, Sole and colleagues (2001) found that students preferred learning in a live, traditional classroom format – as opposed to a Web-enhanced video course.

Level of Content Interaction

As in the traditional classroom course, learner-content interaction in a Web-based course can take the form of discussions. Online discussions are not only a form of learner-content interaction, but also learner-learner and learner-instructor interaction. In online discussions, students learn the course content by the text supplied by others participating in the discussions. Swan (2001) evaluated perceived learning as it related to students’ perceptions of interacting with the course content by collecting data from over 1,400 students in 73 asynchronous courses. The findings revealed a positive relationship between high levels of activity in the courses and learning. The more students believed that their participation in discussions enhanced their learning, the more they thought they learned (Jiang & Ting, 1999). Additionally, Swan (2001) found that students were more satisfied with the course and perceived greater learning when more of their course grade was based on participating in discussions.

Summary of Learner-Content Interaction

These findings from the studies provide support that students interacting with course content in a Web-based format can and do learn the material. Other findings revealed that increased student interaction with the content, consistency in structural design of course modules (Swan, 2001), and perceived contribution to online discussions (Jiang & Ting, 1999) lead to higher levels of learning. Lack of time to participate in course work has been identified as a barrier to learner-content interaction (Atack & Rankin, 2002). Overall, students may have more continuous interaction with the content in a Web-based course (Leasure et al., 2000), which may contribute to more learning and overall greater satisfaction with the course. In contrast, other studies reported that students preferred to learn the course content in the traditional classroom setting where they could listen to the content rather than read it (Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000) or preferred live instructions rather than video taped/Web-facilitated interactions (Sole & Lindquist, 2001).

Learner-Learner Interaction

The interaction that occurs among students is extremely dissimilar between a Web-based course and the traditional classroom course. The Internet format excludes physical interaction, which may have an impact on learning (Beard & Harper, 2002). Learner-learner interaction can be between one student and another or between several students. In order for effective learning to occur, four types of peer behavior are necessary in a computer mediated environment: (a) participation, (b) response, (c) provision of affective feedback, and (d) short, focused messaging. Team work, or collaborative learning, involves students working together in groups to complete academic assignments (Alavi, 1994; Palloff & Pratt, 2001). This form of learner-learner interaction is intended to promote understanding the course content and stimulate critical thinking. Collaborative projects may lessen feelings of isolation and promote a sense of a learning community (Abrahamson, 1998; Palloff & Pratt, 2001) in the Web-based classroom.

On the other hand, students who were required to participate in teams or group projects in a Web-based course have reported less satisfaction with the course (Thurmond, Wambach, Connors, & Frey, 2002). Thurmond and colleagues (2002) stated that the reason for the dissatisfaction may have been due to the challenge of completing course assignments without the face-to-face contacts.

Studies addressing learner-learner interactions in Web-based courses highlight the need for students to connect with their classmates (Atack & Rankin, 2002; Billings, Connors, & Skiba, 2001; Fredericksen, Pickett, Shea, Pelz, & Swan, 2000; Jiang & Ting, 1999; Muirhead, 1999, 2001b; Soo & Bonk, 1998; Swan, 2001). Although Web-based courses may not have face-to-face interactions, properly designed forms of interactions between students using the Internet may have more depth. Some authors have indicated that students reported the quality of their interactions with other learners in Web-based courses were similar to those in the traditional classroom. Furthermore, the interactions were sometimes increased in the Web-based course (Lenhart, Lytle, & Cross, 2001).

Although the interactions that occur in the Web-based course are through an electronic medium, the electronic format seems to be an effective medium for dialogue (Larson & Keiper, 2002). Larson and Keiper (2002) examined discussions that occurred in a secondary Social Studies course and compared qualitative data gathered from face-to-face in class discussions, as well as electronic threaded discussions. The researchers reported that some of the students who often did not participate in the face-to-face classroom discussions talked more in the online discussions. Additionally, students have reported enjoying the interaction and attention more from their instructors and peers in an online course (Aase, 2000).

Students’ interaction with their classmates in a distance learning environment can contribute to learning (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). For example, a study by Fredericksen and colleagues (2000) examining asynchronous learning found that students who reported greater interaction with other students in an online course stated higher levels of perceived learning. Muirhead (1999) reported that students believed their learning was influenced negatively by other students who participated late in online class discussions.

Similarly, instructors have reported on the importance of learner-learner interaction (McGinn, 2000; Muirhead, 1999, 2001a; Soo & Bonk, 1998). In a study with eight experienced distance education instructors, Soo and Bonk (1998) used the Delphi Technique and reported that the teachers in online learning rated the learner-learner interaction as the most important form of interaction, followed by learner-instructor interaction. This finding supports the idea espoused by other researchers that the student is central to any learning (Ehrlich, 2002; Soo & Bonk, 1998) and that instructors are needed to guide the students.

Despite the design of interactive components in Web-based courses, some students still may prefer to interact with their peers or faculty much as they would in the traditional classroom setting. Billings and colleagues (2001) reported that students (N = 219) enrolled in Web-based courses were less likely to interact, with both students and faculty, than they were in their traditional classroom.

Summary of Learner-Learner Interaction

Findings regarding learner-learner interaction indicated that students who interacted more in a Web-based course may perceive greater learning. Also, collaborative group interaction can help in learning the course content and easing feelings of isolation. However, some students may prefer the interaction that is found in the traditional classroom setting.

Learner-Instructor Interaction

The interaction that transpires between students and faculty is intended to help reinforce student understanding of the material or elucidate meanings. Interacting with instructors can help students clarify nebulous points and reinforce correct interpretation of course information. In the traditional classroom setting, oftentimes learner-instructor interaction can occur in a face-to-face, physical meeting. In the Web-based course, most often this type of interaction must be transmitted by electronic means, such as chat discussions or e-mail communications.

The role of the instructor in a Web-based pedagogical format is a dramatic change from one in the traditional classroom. In the traditional classroom, the instructor often takes center stage and becomes a lecturer; in the Web-based format, the instructor becomes more of a facilitator (Gutierrez, 2000). Not only is the role of the instructor markedly altered in a Web-based course, but so is the interaction that occurs between the students and the instructor (Gutierrez, 2000). Despite the differences, the interaction between the student and teacher is as crucial in the Web-based classroom as it is in any learning environment (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Jaffee, 1997; Moore & Kearsley, 1996; Muirhead, 1999, 2001b). Some researchers have indicated that the quality of interactions in the Web-based courses between students and instructors were equal to, or better than, interactions in the traditional courses (Lenhart et al., 2001).

The literature on learner-instructor interaction has been linked to variables such as face-to-face encounters (Restauri, King, & Nelson, 2001; Thurmond et al., 2002); timely feedback (Atack & Rankin, 2002; Berge, 2002; Billings et al., 2001; DeBourgh, 1999; Sciuto, 2002; Soon, Sook, Jung, & Im, 2000; Thurmond et al., 2002; Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999); performance (Fredericksen et al., 2000; Jiang & Ting, 1999; Swan, 2001; Woodside, Wong, & Weist, 1999); and instructor presence in the learning environment (Atack & Rankin, 2002; Billings et al., 2001; Gunawardena, 1995; Schoenfeld-Tacher, McConnell, & Graham, 2001; Thurmond et al., 2002; Volery, 2001). Students value the interaction with their teachers (DeBourgh, 1999; Jiang & Ting, 1999; Thurmond et al., 2002) and much of the research reported in the literature strongly supported learner-instructor interactions. Thurmond and colleagues (2002) reported that students who felt they knew their instructor also believed that the course offered a variety of ways to assess their learning and actively participated more in online discussions.

Learner-instructor interactions help to reinforce understanding of the course content and/or clarify nebulous learning points. Using survey data collected from 287 students in 78 Web-based courses, Jiang and Ting (1999) examined what variables were predictive of student’s perceived learning. Results of multiple stepwise regression analysis indicated that learner-instructor interaction was the most significant predictor of perceived learning. Similarly, Fredericksen and associates (2000) reported the most significant variable to learning in an online course was students’ interaction with the teacher.

Face-To-Face Interaction

The concern regarding the absence of the face-to-face interaction between students/instructors, and the potential impact on student learning, has been broached by many (Barnes, 2000; Beard & Harper, 2002; Chen, Ou, Liu, & Liu, 2001; Ehrlich, 2002; Restauri et al., 2001; Schoenfeld-Tacher et al., 2001). In an attempt to better understand the differences between the traditional classroom environment and a learning environment augmented or replaced with distance education technology, Restauri (2001) compared end of course evaluations between a video conferencing distance education course and an online course.

Data were collected from 142 video conferencing students and 62 online students. Of the online students, 90.3% reported that because of the online format, their interaction with their instructor either improved or remained the same. These same students (61.3%) also reported that they were more willing to respond and partake in the online course than in their traditional classes. These findings provided support that the online format was an acceptable medium for interaction.

Restauri (2001) concluded that the face-to-face factor was not important, rather students’ interaction needs in the online environment was more dependent on frequency and personalized contact. Furthermore, high frequency of private e-mail communication between student and instructor has been identified as a strong predictor for higher student grades (Stocks & Freddolino, 1998). In contrast, Beard and Harper (2002) reported that students and instructors were concerned about the lack of learner-instructor interaction in a class that was delivered both in the traditional and Web-based format.

Timely Feedback

Feedback is defined as the exchange of information between student and instructor about an action, event, or process that results in enhanced student learning. Timely feedback has been noted as an important variable in student learning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987) and distance education courses (Berge, 2002; Billings et al., 2001; Boyle & Wambach, 2001; Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996; Sciuto, 2002; Soon et al., 2000; Thurmond et al., 2002; Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999). Feedback is critical to assessment and provides students information about their progress in the course (Collis, DeBoer, & Slotman, 2001).

In a Web-based course, the need for quality feedback becomes more paramount because of several factors. First, because a Web-based course lacks face-to-face interaction, receiving written comments from the instructor becomes even more crucial. One of the most important areas where students interact one-on-one with the instructor is when instructors provide individual feedback. Second, the geographic separation between student and teacher may limit physical contact (Price, 1997) and foster a sense of being disconnected from those in the course (Atack & Rankin, 2002; Billings et al., 2001). Third, the flexibility in the pace of Web-based courses allows students to work ahead. Therefore, faculty need to provide timely feedback so that students can maintain their own pace and schedule. Finally, the use of the Web technology for providing feedback may create the need for additional faculty support (Collis et al., 2001). If a large number of students are enrolled in a Web-based course, some faculty may need assistance responding in a timely manner.

Vrasidas and McIsaac (1999) focused on interactions among students and between students and instructors in a graduate telecommunications course consisting of seven students and the instructor. The course was structured to include both face-to-face and online sessions. Through observations, tape recordings, and semi-structured interviews, the researchers reported that the qualitative data indicated several major factors influencing interactions. Among the major influencing factors was receiving prompt feedback. When students perceived that instructors did not respond in a timely manner, they felt discouraged and curtailed their participation. Lack of timely feedback can result in learners’ ambiguity about their performance in the Web-based course and can contribute to their frustration (Hara & Kling, 1999). Therefore, instructors need to provide students with timely feedback to keep them engaged in the learning.

Similar findings were reported by Soon and colleagues (2000). The researchers obtained course feedback from 60 students on their satisfaction with an Internet distance-learning course. One area that received negative responses from the students included insufficient feedback from professors regarding reports and questions. Thurmond and associates (2002) reported that in examining satisfaction in 120 students enrolled in Web-based courses, one of the strongest predictor variables was timely comments from instructors. Providing more prompt feedback may enhance students’ satisfaction (Leong, Ho, & Saromines-Ganne, 2002). The issue of timely feedback is important because students need to know how they are progressing, as well as have an idea on how they can improve their performance in the course (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996; Chickering & Gamson, 1987).

Course Performance

Course performance is a variable that has been linked to learner-instructor interaction. In one study, students’ perceptions of interactions with their instructors were related positively to the percentage of their course grade that came from participation in the course discussions (Swan, 2001). The more students’ course grade relied on partaking in the online course discussion, the more they believed that they interacted with the instructor (r = .31, p < .01).

Fredericksen and colleagues (2000) found a positive relationship between reported level of interaction with the instructor and level of perceived learning. Data from this study came from 1,406 students enrolled in an asynchronous online course. This relationship was significant because those students who felt they did not have adequate access to their online instructors tended to feel that they learned less. The finding supports the need for faculty to have frequent, constructive communications with their students (Restauri et al., 2001). The researchers also reported a positive relationship between students’ level of interactions with other students and perceived level of learning (Fredericksen et al., 2000).


Social presence is a variable that may affect learner-instructor interactions in distance education courses and is an important aspect to effective online learning (Volery, 2001). Social presence is the extent to which learners exist in the distance learning classroom (Crawford, 1999). Presence extends beyond geographic boundaries (Shin, 2002) and may not be an easy notion to conceptualize. Based on an extensive literature review, Lombard and Ditton (1997) described six ways to conceptualize presence as: (a) social richness; (b) realism; (c) transportation; (d) immersion; (e) social actor within the medium; and (f) medium as social actor.

Because of the lack of physical, face-to-face contact in Web-based courses, students may not feel the instructor’s presence in the course. The absence of the visual cues that normally exist in the traditional classroom may lead to feelings of isolation or lack of connection with students and instructors in the Web-based environment (Atack & Rankin, 2002; Billings et al., 2001). Getting to know the instructor is more difficult in a Web-based environment because of the absence of the face-to-face interaction and the lack of visual cues. In examining 120 students enrolled in Web-based courses, Thurmond et al. (2002) reported that students who responded more positively to knowing their instructors also tended to believe that there were a variety of ways to assess their learning; reported more timely feedback from the instructor; and participated more actively in course discussions. Similarly, others have reported that students’ perceptions of social presence were significant predictors in students’ perception of overall learning (Richardson & Swan, 2001).

Schoenfield-Tacher, McConnell, and Graham (2001) investigated how instructor’s presence affected student group interactions in an online course. Subjects were students enrolled in a university Histology course – 33 in a traditional course format, 11 in an online course. The study used both a qualitative and quantitative methodology. Qualitative data consisted of observations of classroom interactions in online chat sessions and on-campus lectures, both of which included the instructor. Students were also observed in an on-line review, where the instructor was not present. The interactions were coded and categorized as either content, administrative, management, and social; this information, along with course exams, provided the quantitative data.

The researchers reported several interesting findings. First, when pretest performance was controlled, online students’ posttest results were significantly above those in the traditional classroom (F = 5.95, p < .05), with a small to medium effect size (η2 = 0.192). Second, both forms of online interactions (chat and review) were significantly higher than for campus students. Finally, no attempts at social interactions were observed in the lecture setting. These findings provided strong support for the idea that online students performed better than their classroom counterparts. Additionally, the study indicated that interactions in an online course may surpass those in traditional classroom courses (Schoenfeld-Tacher et al., 2001).

Summary of Learner-Instructor Interaction

Studies reviewed have linked learner-instructor interaction with variables such as face-to-face interaction, timely feedback, course performance, and presence. The studies supported that students did not consider the face-to-face interaction with their instructor an important issue. Students interacted as much, or more, in an online course. Their performance online was also better than their classroom counterparts (Schoenfeld-Tacher et al., 2001). The absence of the instructors’ physical presence did not appear to affect student performance in an online course because students seemed more willing to participate in the online course than if they were in a traditional course format (Restauri et al., 2001). Additionally, students perceived more interaction with their instructor the more their course grade depended on their participation (Swan, 2001). There was also a positive relationship between the amount of interaction with their instructor and their level of perceived learning (Fredericksen et al., 2000). Finally, students agreed that timely, prompt feedback from their instructor contributed to positive perceptions of learner-instructor interactions. (Collis et al., 2001; Thurmond et al., 2002; Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999). 

The findings regarding learner-instructor interactions are important because they provide instructors with information on ways to enhance student participation and learning in a Web-based course. Also, the studies put to rest some of the fear that faculty may have about the detrimental affects of the absence of face-to-face interactions. The key to positive student outcomes regarding learner-instructor interactions seem to be linked to frequent, personalized contact with the students (Stocks & Freddolino, 1998).

Learner-Interface Interaction

The affect of computers on student learning has been studied by many researchers (DeBourgh, 1999; Hillman et al., 1994; Kenny, 2002; Leasure et al., 2000; Payne, 2002; Stocks & Freddolino, 1998; Wilson & Weiser, 2001). The narrative essay by Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) on the use of technology in education strongly advocated that technology use should support the seven principles of good practice in education. In essence, the relationship between student and technology should work in tandem to promote online learning. The technological tools themselves are neutral (Payne, 2002); therefore, the manner in which students interact with the technology is what impacts on their learning. The desired outcome of students’ interaction with computer technology is that they learn the content and that computer use fosters their willingness to continue with the online course. The major variables linked to learner-interface interactions included computer experience, students’ perceptions regarding the technology, and access to technology.

Computer Experience

Students’ experiences with computers can affect their learning in a Web-based course (Leasure et al., 2000; Stocks & Freddolino, 1998; Wilson & Weiser, 2001), as well as improve their computer skills (Atack & Rankin, 2002). Soon and colleagues (2000) obtained end-of-course feedback from 60 students on their satisfaction with an Internet distance learning course. The authors stated that in order to participate effectively in the course, computer proficiency was required. Unfortunately, many students had difficulty with interfacing with the technology because approximately 60% of the subjects were new to the computer course. Another learner-interface issue was the problem with connecting to the Internet. The difficulties students experienced with interfacing with the technology was a strong, negative barrier to learning (Schrum & Hong, 2002; Soon et al., 2000).

However, difficulty with interacting with the technology did not always lead to negative outcomes (DeBourgh, 1999; Kenny, 2002; Leasure et al., 2000); furthermore, other studies reported that students’ experiences or skill level with computers did not influence their overall satisfaction with the course (DeBourgh, 1999; Leong et al., 2002; Thurmond et al., 2002). Findings from one qualitative study indicated that, although students dreaded having to learn the computer technology, learning via an online medium helped increased their confidence in using a computer (Kenny, 2002). Others have echoed this finding by reporting that the Web-based format exposed students to activities with computers that helped increase their confidence (Billings et al., 2001; DeBourgh, 1999; Leasure et al., 2000; Yucha & Princen, 2000). Additionally, students had a positive perception of their interaction with computers because of their ability to access coursework anytime (Kenny, 2002). The interaction with the computers increased their independence and fostered responsibility. They were able to overcome the frustration and technical difficulties associated with the computer medium and reported satisfaction with the course (DeBourgh, 1999). Surprisingly, Kenny (2002) wrote that students found the interactive nature of the course addictive.

Perceptions About Technology

If students have difficulty interacting with the technology used in Web-based learning, they could come to view the technology negatively – thus affecting their overall learning in the course. In a comparison between a traditional, a Web-based, and a combination of the two teaching platforms, Faux and Black-Hughes (2000) found that students did not like interacting with the computer technology for their learning. The students commented that they did not feel comfortable with learning the course content totally through the Internet, and that they got lost on the Internet because of their lack of comfort with the computer. The students reported that they preferred to listen to the content rather than interface with the technology to learn it. The implication of this last finding is that the students preferred to learn the course content by listening to the instructor in the traditional classroom setting, rather than interacting with the computer and reading the course content.

Daley and colleagues (2001) conducted a qualitative, participatory action research study of 46 graduates and five professors from five universities worldwide (United States, England, and Australia). The researchers found that students’ attitudes and the way they perceived technology influenced their learning. They tended to reflect negatively on their learning if they viewed the technology as time-consuming or contributing to delay in response time. In contrast, students perceived learning more positively if they viewed the time delay as time for reflection. These findings were significant because of the focus on students’ attitudes and perceptions regarding the technology. The implication is that online instructors need to develop a climate where students view the learner-interface interaction in a favorable light.

Access to Technology

One facet that affects how students view their interaction with technology is their access to the technology (Stocks & Freddolino, 1998; Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999; Zafeiriou, Nunes, & Ford, 2001). Many students may not have access to the computer lab or a personal computer. Although this technical requirement generally is stated for students early in the course (Morris, Buck-Rolland, & Gagne, 2002), the inadequate access to computers remains an issue. In one study, despite students being informed about the hardware and software requirements for the course, students who elected to take the course were frustrated when they encountered the lack of speed in accessing the content (Morris et al., 2002). Those less comfortable with the technology in Web-based courses may become even more frustrated because of their issues with access (Hara & Kling, 1999).

Technological problems can cause frustration in even the most seasoned computer user. Sometimes the problem is due to incompatibility between the hardware and software resources students may be using. Students are sure to become frustrated if they are not made aware of technical specifications early in the course. The issue of technology is a significant concern, especially in remote areas where the lack of necessary infrastructure support may result in difficulty accessing the course content.

Schrum and Hong (2002) discussed the learner-interface issue in terms of access to the technological tools in online learning. Results from surveys of 14 educators indicated that the greater the challenge for students in accessing the tools to partake in coursework, the more readily students could provide reasons for withdrawing from an online course. This finding is significant because learners may not have the necessary hardware or software readily available in their home or work environment. Subsequently, if students are inconvenienced unnecessarily each time they have to access the technology for school, they may come to resent the learner-interface interaction. Conceivably, the inconvenience could be a deterrent for remaining in the class or enrolling in future online courses.       

Summary of Learner-Interface Interactions

In summary, variables that have been linked to learner-interface interactions included computer experience, perceptions about the technology being used, and access to technology. Studies reviewed provided conflicting findings regarding the affect of students’ perceptions of their interaction with the technology. Unfamiliarity with the technology has been cited as a negative barrier to learning (Schrum & Hong, 2002). Furthermore, students have indicated that the use of such technology has resulted in their getting lost on the Internet (Faux & Black-Hughes, 2000) – stating a clear preference to listening to the course content in the traditional classroom setting, rather than reading it online. Also, students’ perceptions of the access to technology clearly influenced whether they believe the technology was helpful or an inconvenience (Schrum & Hong, 2002).

Conversely, other studies have concluded that despite the inexperience with the technology, students have reported increased confidence in computer use (Billings et al., 2001; Kenny, 2002; Leasure et al., 2000; Yucha & Princen, 2000) and have come to view the delays associated with the technology as a time for reflection (Daley et al., 2001). Finally, other studies reported that computer experiences had no impact on overall student satisfaction (Leong et al., 2002; Thurmond et al., 2002).

In essence, lack of computer experience or difficulty with interacting with the technology does not lead necessarily to negative learner-interface interactions. Much of the learner-interface interaction seems to hinge on how students perceive the technology. Thus, students who are not experts in the use of the technology for learning may still report positive student outcomes in the course.

Recommendations for Future Research

The literature reviewed provided valuable knowledge regarding interactions and online courses. However, researchers need to continue to investigate the impact of interactions in Web-based courses. One area that may yield worthwhile information is in studying various types of module designs in online courses. Swan (2001) reported that students learned with fewer modules and when the modules had similar designs. Perhaps repetition in structural designs of online course modules contribute to more positive student outcomes. Various types of modules designs could be evaluated to determine the types students find most useful. Complex and simple modules could be compared to assess how easily students can navigate through the course content and to obtain feedback on their style preferences. Such information could be very beneficial to those involved in designing Web-based courses.

Another area that needs further research is the amount of time spent interacting with the course content. Leasure and colleagues (2000) reported that students in Web-based courses had more continuous contact with the course content because of their participation in electronic discussion and e-mail exchanges, than did students in the traditional classroom setting. As a result, students in the Web-based course were more enthusiastic and performed better. More research examining the amount of time spent with the course content is needed. A comparison between study time in the traditional classroom setting and the virtual environment also could prove enlightening.

Finally, research in the area of instrument development needs critical investigation. Attention needs to be directed towards development and use of psychometrically sound instruments to assess interactions in Web-based courses. Some of the studies evaluated did not provide solid information on the reliability or validity of the instruments used in the study (Merisotis, 2001; Merisotis & Phipps, 1999). The lack of valid measures could result in reporting of inaccurate findings. Furthermore, the use of inappropriate measures of interactions stifles the progress of interaction research. Consequently, a worthwhile endeavor would be time devoted to the development and refinement of an instrument that assess the four types on interactions discussed: learner-content, learner-learner, learner-instructor, and learner-interface.

Development of such an instrument would require a protracted amount of time and should be tested in different populations. One way to obtain a psychometrically sound instrument would be through a collaborative effort among those who design and teach Web-based courses. The sharing of results from the use of a central instrument assessing Web-based interactions would help in refining the instrument to better reflect the different types of interactions described. Feedback from those who have used and tested the instrument would be useful in making the necessary adjustments for specific populations. Such a collaborative effort could result in a psychometrically sound instrument that accurately reflected the dimensions of interactions, as well as proved invariant across varying populations.


The review of the literature on interaction reveals two strengths. First, the studies examining various interaction variables in distance education and Web-based courses provide support that the concept of interaction is an important factor to evaluate in student learning. Second, the literature review addressed both positive and negative findings. Caution should be taken regarding interpretation of the literature review because the bulk of research in distance education has not used a true experimental design, which allows researchers to make stronger causal inferences. The majority of the studies reviewed used a descriptive, exploratory design conducted in the natural setting. The next steps in interaction research in Web-based courses should include more studies using quasi-experimental designs so that stronger statements can be made about the affects of interaction in Web-based courses on student outcomes.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.


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About the Authors

Veronica Thurmond, Ph.D. is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Nurse Corps. She obtained her Ph.D in nursing from the University of Kansas. Her dissertation study focused on examining the effects of interaction activities on students' satisfaction and likelihood of enrolling in future Web-based courses.

Dr. Thurmond's primary area of focus is in Informatics and she is very interested in the area of distance education. She is also pursuing studies evaluating the impact of technology on patient outcomes.


Karen Wambach, RN  PhD teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Kansas School of Nursing. Dr. Wambach was a pioneer in online teaching in the school’s master’s core curriculum, teaching nursing theory. She also teaches in the Nurse Educator certificate program in the Teaching with Technologies course. Her clinical research is in the area of promoting and supporting breastfeeding in adolescent mothers. Her educational research focuses on interaction in the online learning environment.



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