–Dr. Timothy Kochery–
In an online learning environment there is a real and perceived “distance” that needs to be addressed. A commonly suggested best practice is the need to recognize that with online learning the separation of student and teacher is significant enough to actually require different teaching processes than those used in face-to-face or traditional expository teaching. In an online learning environment, there needs to be increased efforts to make remote students feel connected to the course community and involved with their own learning. Online learning is not the same as face-face course communications, where there are many occasions for inter-personal interactions with other students and instructors. Therefore, in designing an online course there needs to be more focus on purposefully structuring and encouraging a variety of interactions with peers, faculty and the content materials.
Interactions are considered one of the most important instructional elements of education. It is widely held that a high level of interaction is desirable and positively affects the effectiveness of any education course. No matter how one defines interaction, based on recent research it is clear that when the level of interaction is insufficient, learners often feel isolated, which causes a negative impact on the learning experience. Conversely, the learning experience is enriched as learners engage in interactions within the learning environment that serve to promote the synthesis, evaluation, and application of knowledge. Interaction has been identified as a central factor for creating engaging learning environments, and a critical instructional strategy for developing active learning opportunities, as well as establishing the sense of being part of a learning community. Increasing attention and strategies to promote various types of interactions has long been identified as a key element to successful online learning programs. There are many special concerns that influence the importance of providing more opportunities for interactions in distance learning situations:
Results of perceptions indicate that distance education students experience less involvement, less ability to ask questions and less overall enjoyment. In this situation, interaction may need to be more structured to compensate for the limitations of the particular communication system. Those in the traditional setting experienced more comfort, had greater opportunity to ask questions, and felt they were more involved in the instructional process than those in the distance education group.
(Ritchie and Newby, 1989)
While not the sole indicator of high-quality and effective online education programs, there is significant evidence to suggest that meaningful interaction with other students and the instructor is integral to the development of successful learning environments. Engaging personal interactions contribute to developing a sense of social connectedness and have been found to enhance both the learning experience and course completion rates. Michael Moore, a leading practitioner of distance education described the physical separation that exists for online learners as being the “transactional distance”. In order to overcome this disconnect that occurs, he emphasized the need to focus on incorporating three types of interactions: Student-Content; Student-Instructor; and Student- Student. By structuring, supporting and stimulating these three forms of interaction, we can substantially improve the educational experience and success of our online learners.