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Interactive media such as email and online conferencing are increasingly used to provide distance learners with opportunities for interaction. These media are not always integrated within courses to meet the needs and objectives of students, staff and institution. In some circumstances they impede learning. This study investigates how students on distance-education courses are affected by the use of interactive media and by the levels of interaction and integration built into the course design.
Data were collected from students on two distance-learning courses at the Open University, using asynchronous email communication over several days or weeks to carry out epistolary interviews. Other sources of data were the open-ended responses from a survey of Open University students which was administered by a related study of the integration of interaction, informally known as the Mellon Project.
My study provides an evidence-based analysis of some effects of the integration of interaction on distance-education courses. It contains grounded accounts of different types of interaction on such courses. These reveal the importance of face-to-face interaction for distance students, showing how they use their daily contacts to supply face-to-face course-related interaction, and how course designers can support these strategies. The accounts also reveal students’ problems with self-presentation when using conferencing software and their exaggerated sense of the negative characteristics of themselves and others online. These accounts challenge previous assumptions that computer-mediated communication commonly results in an idealisation of the other.
The data supports seven strategies for the effective integration of interaction in distance education. Course designers are recommended to incorporate students’ reasons for communication, recognise the role of interaction in motivating students, give students control over their learning, allow time for interaction, encourage students to find mentors, utilise the affordances of the media and create positive social presence.
This material, together with appendices, made up my dissertation for the Open University's U800 course.