1. TECH4101: Distance Education & the Internet [Document #2]
The Educational Relationship in Distance Education
Conventional education is characterised by a direct relationship or face-to-face
interaction between the teacher and students. Teachers prepare lessons, discuss with students,
manage the class, select the needed technology, suggest activities, assess students and provide
reinforcement. In other words, the teacher can play an essential role in facilitating learning
and supporting students. Although distance education is recognised by the separation between
the tutor and learners, this does not mean, however that learners have complete control over
learning. With the development in media and distance education theory, an important role can
be played by distance tutors to enhance learning and support learners.
Sherry (1996) indicated that the distance tutor needs to suggest learning resources,
deliver the instruction, determine the degree of interaction and select the appropriate form of
assessment. Moreover, Trentin and Scimeca (1999) argued that the role of the distance tutor
may be as important as that of the course designer. They suggested that although experts
assume a leading role in course design, they have to be supported by distance tutors. For
example, the tutor can decide the type of material and communication to be used, suggest the
human resources to be involved and translate the course objectives into activities.
Ferguson (1996) emphasises the role of the distance tutor by distinguishing between
two components of distance education environments: the subject matter and the dialogue. He
argued that the dialogue during learning is the tutor’s responsibility. According to Ferguson,
the importance of the dialogue between the tutor and students lies in its importance for
activating the use of new knowledge and facilitating assessment of students’ progress. Sherry
(1996) indicated to two main approaches to be used by distance tutors to interacting with
students over a distance:
1. The distance tutor may visit the distant site, or students may take a trip to a central
2. The distance tutor may use technology (e.g., telephone, e-mail or discussion boards) to
interact and support students.
To conduct a non-contiguous dialogue and effective relationship between the tutor and
students and encourage them to exchange information and ideas ‘we must have a broader
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application of the communicative process and of the technology needed to support the
interaction between the teacher and student appropriately’ (Garrison and Shale, 1990, p. 33).
To recognise the relationship between the distance tutor and students, Shale and Garrison
suggested a model of the educational relationship in distance education expressed in terms of
The educational relationship in distance education in the absence
of two-way communication technology (Shale and Garrison, 1990, p. 36)
In this model, the teacher generates the content to be delivered by the medium to the
student. According to Garrison and Shale (1990), the ‘negotiation of meaning’ closes the
communication loop and ‘is supported by a different medium from that used to deliver the
content’ (p. 36). However, with the development in technologies that deliver the content and
facilitate two-way communication at the same time (like the WWW), the same medium can
be used to distribute the content and facilitate interaction, allowing the model above to be
represented as follows.
Teacher Medium Student
The educational relationship in distance education using
two-way communication technology
In this model, the learner can interact with the teacher directly and transmit or receive
information in both directions (e.g., read the content, answer questions, submit an assignment,
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receive feedback, etc.). For example, in the absence of two-way communication technology
that transmits the content and the dialogue, at the Open University instructors use one-to-one
telephone calls and audio conferences to monitor students’ progress and solve course-related
problems. Wyld and Eklund (1997) advised that a paper-based study guide could be used
together with a communication channel (like the telephone) if dialogue is to be conducted.
Interaction at a Distance
Researchers always emphasise the importance of interaction in the learning process
(Ritchie and Newby 1989; Harris 1999). Interaction is defined as a process that happens
between the learner and the learning environment, in which the learner takes a more positive
role (Berge, 1997). This environment includes the tutor, students and the learning content.
Interactivity has been described as a key to success in traditional classroom to enhance
learning and motivate learners (Fulford and Zhang, 1993; Wagner, 1994; Flottemesch, 2000).
Considering the definitions of distance education above, McIsaac and Gunawardena
(1996) argued that that the isolation of distance students is determined not only by distance
and time but also by the dialogue between the learner and the teacher, interaction with peers
and the design of instruction. Fulford and Zhang (1993) stated that ‘since teachers and
learners are not in the same room, subtle interactions through body language are lost and
learner perceptions of amount of interaction may be altered’ (p. 8).
In distance education context, studies found that students who enrolled in programmes
that support and encourage interaction have highly positive attitudes toward learning and
higher levels of achievement than others in one-way systems (Ritchie and Newby, 1989;
Comeaux, 1999). In this regard, Garrison and Shale(1990) highlighted the relationship
between the dropout rates in a distance education system and its interactive capabilities . They
‘[…] improving the quality of the educational process through
increased two-way communication is likely to have the most
significant impact upon the effectiveness of learning and in turn is
likely to raise completion rates in distance education’ (p. 128).
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Holmberg (1990) believes that the ability of the medium to conduct interaction between
the tutor and students is the essential criterion in selection among distance education
technologies. He pointed out that any distance education medium should be able to
provide the tutor and students with means of bringing about their experience, create
rapport between them and offer opportunities for discussion.
McIsaac and Gunawardena (1996) indicated three constructs that affect students’
attitudes and achievement at a distance: transactional distance, learner control and social
context. These constructs are mainly affected by the concept of interaction. Moore (1989)
provided a framework for studying interaction in distance education by defining three types of
1. Learner-content interaction, which occurs between the learner and the learning content
to bring about changes in the learner’s understanding, perspective or cognitive
structures. Trentin (2000) believes that the quality of learning materials has an
enormous effect on achieving this type of interaction.
2. Learner-instructor interaction, which occurs between the learner and the instructor to
motivate and support the learner and allows for clarification of any misunderstanding.
3. Learner-learner interaction, which occurs between one learner and another learner,
with or without the presence of an instructor.
Eaton (1997) agrees with Moore in defining these types of interaction. However, he
described them as two general types: individual interaction and social interaction. Individual
interaction happens between the learner and the learning material. However, social interaction
happens between two or more learners concerning the learning material and may involve the
Stating another point of view, Hillman et al. (1994) noted that the earlier typologies of
interaction failed to take into account the interaction that occurs when a learner uses
‘intervening’ technologies to communicate with the content. Therefore, he suggested a new
type of interaction called ‘learner-interface interaction’, for example, sending and receiving
messages using a specific e-mail program or dealing with the graphical user interface of
operating system. According to Hillman et al., this new type is responsible for facilitating
students’ acquisition of skills needed to participate effectively.
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Holmberg (1990) defined learner-content interaction (individual interaction) as a ‘one-
way traffic’ in distance education systems. This one-way traffic is common in the earlier types
of technology (e.g., printed materials and broadcast). However, using two-way technology
(e.g., video-conferencing and the WWW), ‘two-way traffic’ can take place between the tutor
and students. In this regard, Berge (1996) believes that while in earlier distance education
programmes it was possible to conduct interaction only between the instructor and students, it
is possible now for distance education students to interact with one another.
Garrison (1990) emphasised the role of interactive media and technology in
conducting both types of interaction. He argued that without using these technologies,
distance learning ‘degenerates’ into the correspondence generation of independent study in
which the student is isolated. To achieve social interaction in education programmes, usually
a real-time (synchronous) communication technology (e.g., telephone and video
conferencing) were being used. However, with the development in communication
technology (like the Internet), these kinds of interaction do not necessarily require real-time
communication. Interaction can be independent of time (asynchronous), using communication
tools (e.g., e-mail and discussion boards).
The type of interaction used in any distance education system depends on the nature of
the communication system (synchronous or asynchronous), the kind of interaction (individual
or social) that is needed, the number of learners (small groups or large groups) and costs. For
example, Trentin (2000) highlighted the importance of group size in the success of the
learner-learner interaction in distance education programmes. He argued that:
‘the more the communication is directed toward socialization and
sharing of ideas and experiences, the larger the discussion group may
be, Conversely, the more the communication is directed toward
collaborative study, the more limited group numbers need to be
(Trentin, 2000, p. 20).
However, implementing interactive technology, like the WWW, and its components is
not enough. Since distance education is characterised by the isolation of the learner, it means
less involvement and less possibility to ask questions. To solve these problems, Trentin
(2000) suggested that:
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‘One of the key ingredients for raising the quality of an online course
is strong interaction between the players in the process; organized in
full-fledged virtual classes, the participants must obviously respect
schedules and deadlines if a collaborative working strategy is to be
successful’ (p. 20).
Many suggestions have been offered in the literature showing how to conduct
successful interaction between the learner and the content, the tutor, peers and the user
interface. For example, learner-interface interaction can be stimulated by instructional
activities (e.g., computer games and informal chatting sessions) that help the learner become
comfortable with the technology (Hillman et al., 1994). In addition, student-to-tutor and
student-to-student interaction can be constructed and fostered using various strategies such as
group-based collaborative projects, presentation boards and tutor questioning using interactive
communication tools such as e-mail and discussion boards (Anderson, 1987; Moore, 1989).