Institutions are attempting to implement comprehensive distance education programs.  One of the key areas under discussion is how to translate the interactive environment that exists in face-to-face classrooms to the online or virtual environment.  As institutions are deploying their distance education programs they are beginning to assess how their programs are effective and specifically how can effective student interaction can occur and be assessed in online environments.

Research has determined that a studentŐs perception of the degree of interaction in a course has a significant impact on determining course quality.  Evidence from studies indicates that there is a direct correlation between increased student learning and increased students involvement.  

Although many students are apprehensive about participating based on the lack of face-to-face interaction available in an online course, there are some studies and findings that have been completed that there can be more interaction between student and student and student and instructor in the online environment than in a traditional setting. Research has shown that interaction in distance education courses can be more significant but relies on proper instructional design. Findings have determined that both students and faculty have added responsibilities in distance education courses. In addition, an institution should assist the faculty with providing criteria for determining effectiveness of interaction and the overall educational experience of the distance-learning course through formal and informal assessments.

There is research in distance education that is emerging that indicates that one of the key indicators of a quality distance education course was the learnersŐ perception of the level of interaction that occurs.  These findings can be substantiated by amount of research literature that verifies the successful implementation of collaborative learning models as the most effective method instruction in distance education courses.  A distance-learning course must be designed with the intent of using the technology to stimulate and encourage interaction or interactivity amongst faculty and students and amongst the students.  With this in mind it is critical to design effective distance interaction into a course.

Many skeptical faculty and students that believe distance-learning environment would not emulate the same level of interaction as the traditional face-to-face environment.  Research has proven that there are no significant differences in the level of interaction that occurs in face-to-face courses when compared to distance learning courses.  In fact there is some research finding that indicate that using proper instructional design that distance learning courses can provide more personal and timely feedback to students that is not available to students in large face-to-face courses, and hence can be more interactive. 

In the distance-learning environment the role of faculty and students grow to include more responsibilities.  To ensure full advantage of the technology available for interaction and maximize interaction, the method in which faculty design their courses and teach must be adjusted.  Students in a distance-learning course must take more ownership in their learning by asking for more feedback and clarification for ideas or questions.  Typically in a face-to-face class an instructor can gage body language and blank looks from students to assist them and determining if students are understanding material or concepts. 

The teacher education program at the State University of West GeorgiaŐs One institution has developed a rubric that they are providing to their faculty to assess the level of interaction.  The rubric is based on a point scale and applied to four elements that are identified to determine the level of an individual courses interactivity and interaction. 

Element 1 entitled Social Goals of Interaction was used to gage interaction in the sense of supporting both the social and instructional goal.  The faculty would observe interactions of the course that are used to establish rapport and collaboration amongst the class members and between the class members and the faculty member.  Within element 2 entitled Instructional Goals of Interaction, the observations of the faculty members would be to determine the level of reflection and discussion related to course topics and content that occurred. 

Element 3, Types and Uses of Technology, focuses on the how the faculty member would use technology to encourage and facilitate interaction. Specifically what techniques, designs, and methods are used by the faculty member maximize the use of technology.  The final element entitled, Impact of Interactivity-Changes in Learner Behavior, is often the most neglected, and is used to assess the impact of the interaction on the learner.  In more detailed terms the faculty member should attempt to look for positive or negative students behaviors is distance education courses.  Some of the students activities would be based on whether there is a level of willingness to use various technology resources to collaborate with other students, initiate requests to the faculty member for information and their participation in class activities has increase or decreased. 

Using this scale the faculty member would then rate four elements on a scale of 1 through five.  Each of the elements had examples or descriptions of activities or occurrences that a faculty member would rate.  The total score would be compiled and a level of interactive quality would be assigned as follows: Low interactive qualities are rated on a scale of 1-7 points, moderate interactive qualities are rate on a scale of 8-14 points, and high interactive qualities are rated on a scale of 15-20 points.

Interaction in the online environment is typically asynchronous discussion boards or synchronous chats.  Past review of reference materials states that learning occurs in students but especially in distant students because they are motivated to learn.  The authors of this article acknowledged that many source of research indicate that students engage in learning and participate in learning for the sake of knowledge, but that the students are genuinely interested in achieving the highest possible academic marks. Based on this the authors pointed out that students will be inclined to complete work and assignments based on the pending assessment of the coursework.  In most cases students view assignments from the courses as a grade and will complete the assignments that are graded and that will count the most towards final grades of students.

The viewpoint of the paper presented a study that examined interaction as a component of the course and the significance of that interaction. There was an attempt to assess the quality of the interaction that occurs in chat or discussion boards sessions.  The authors of the research developed a survey to gage the level of interaction and the studentŐs response to that interaction.  The intent of the survey was to determine if it is actually necessary to assess the quality of the interactive mediums.  Data was collected over two semesters from online students to judge whether the students viewed interactive chats and discussion boards as a valuable asset to their learning process. 

The survey indicated students appreciated the students-lecturer interaction, but that the students valued the use of the chat and discussion board and felt that the use of interactive mediums for collaborative student-student work advanced their level of knowledge of course content. Based on these findings the authors determined that there was not need to assess the interaction of the students in chat and discussion boards.  Rather chat and discussion boards were seen as tools for learning that would positively influence the studentŐs grades, hence the interaction tools would not need to be individually assessed as it would be assessed through course projects and final course grades. 

Sources:

Roblyer, M.D., Ekhaml, L. (2000). How Interactive are YOUR Distance Courses? A Rubric for Assessing Interaction in Distance Learning. Retrieved December 3, 2002 from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/roblyer32.html

 

O'Reilly, M. and Newton, D. (2002). Interaction online: Above and beyond requirements of assessment. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 18(1), 57-70. Retrieved December 3, 2002 from http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet18/oreilly.html