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Editor on Editor’s Note: Dr. Brent Muirhead is Senior Editor, Online Learning, for this Journal. Brent makes substantial contributions behind the scenes in addition to his personal commitment to research, publication and teaching. As Guest Editor for this issue for this issue, he brings additional authors and perspectives.

Interaction is a powerful facilitator for learning, and this is especially true for online learning. A wide variety of teaching models are available, ranging from Bruce Joyce’s Models of Teaching (Allyn & Bacon) for classroom learning, to Guy Bensusan’s peer learning and Curtis Bonk’s application of interactive multimedia.

Recognition of the ability of adult learners to assume responsibility for their own learning puts a new spin on the role of the teacher as facilitator of learning. Teacher colleges are recognizing this paradigm shift and making changes for the next generation of classroom teachers. Colleges and universities equipped for online teaching and learning are using new technologies to support their regular programs of instruction.

The majority of professors in higher education have little or no formal training as teachers and many continue to emulate the teaching models of previous generations. The good news is that increasing numbers of instructors attend workshops to learn about and use these new technology tools. In the process, they are exposed to opportunities for teaching and learning that did not exist a generation ago.

Donald G. Perrin, Executive Editor

Encouraging Interaction in Online Classes

Brent Muirhead


Promoting and maintaining interactivity within online classes continues to be a vital concern among distance educators. The current discussion will explore instructional strategies to foster online interaction.

Instructor Challenges

Research literature continues to affirm the central role that online instructors play in creating a dynamic and academically effective learning environment. Palloff and Pratt (2001) state “the key to success in our online classes rests not with the content that is being presented but with the method by which the course is being delivered” (p. 152). 

A major challenge for today’s online instructors involves creating a consistent level of interaction that fosters genuine learning and cultivates a community atmosphere. This will require developing strategies that provide guidance and instruction for individuals and student groups. For instance, the instructor must decide how often to provide specific feedback on student work and dialog comments.  Instructors can sometimes struggle in establishing an effective online presence because they are experimenting with their intervention strategies.

Online instructors strive to provide intellectually stimulating student dialogs and quality learning experiences which should involve productive individual and learning team activities. Instructors need to foster a secure online setting that affirms diversity of thought and critical inquiry into the subject matter. Student discussions should be monitored to insure that students avoid being excessively polite which will undermine genuine sharing. Teachers can model appropriate sharing of messages and establish an online tone that encourages genuine questioning and reflection. Veteran online instructors have learned how to effectively create an online tone that matches the needs of their students. The wise instructor will offer emotional support at times and there will be other moments when students will need an intellectual challenge. Garrison and Anderson (2003) recommend establishing the following online presence:


a feeling of trust and being welcomed;


a sense of belonging to a critical community;


a sense of control;


a sense of accomplishment;


a willingness to engage in discourse;


a conversational tone; and


a questioning attitude (p. 81).

Research studies have identified three basic student characteristics that are often found in successful online learners: internal locus of control, self-motivation and independence. Students who view their academic accomplishments due to their own work are more likely to be successful in online classes (Vrasidas and Glass, 2002). In contrast, even graduate students can struggle with a lack of confidence in their learning abilities. A vital factor to successful online learning is the student’s perspective on the teacher and the learning environment. Shearer (2003) observes “student self-perception has as great an impact on observable interactivity levels as the instructor’s teaching style or the instructional design” (p. 9). The psychological readiness of students can be diminished by a diversity of factors and life events:


lack of prerequisite subject matter knowledge


inadequate instructional feedback on assignments from teachers


absence of clear goals for pursuing their degree program


ineffective study habits


stress of multiple roles.

Distance education programs vary in the quality of their classes and some offer poor learning experiences characterized by poor course design, inappropriate content or sequencing of learning activities and inconsistent teacher feedback (Janicki and Liegle, 2001).  Examining research studies on student interaction with course content is often complicated by a multitude of variables. Thurmond (2003) highlights five factors that can influence student perspectives on their ability to learn course curriculum:


continuous contact with the content- enables students to gain mastery


clarity of course design – the structuring of the materials and the manner in which it is sequenced will help make it both accessible and easy to understand


time – adequate time is needed for students to engage with the materials and discourse and to reflect on their learning


participation in online discussions – this enables students to learn by constructing meaning and knowledge through dialogue and from other perspectives


mode of delivering course content – appropriate sequencing of content and learning activities will enhance interactivity and make learning more effective and meaningful.

Strategies to Enhance Interactivity

Distance education represents a unique context for the teaching and learning process. Traditional educators do not always understand the essential instructional changes that both teachers and students must undertake to make it a successful venture. Spitzer (1998) notes that “those involved in distance education grossly underestimate the difficulty involved in changing deeply entrenched teaching and learning habits, and consequently we grossly underestimate the difficulty of changing from a traditional classroom environment to a distance learning context” (p. 53). The author shall share instructional strategies and insights which can promote interaction and authentic educational experiences.

Promote Critical Thinking

Today’s distance education classes rely heavily upon text-based communication.

The emphasis is upon self-directed learning and represents a definite commitment by educators to affirm the autonomy and independence of adult students. Students use written comments to share conceptual knowledge with their classmates and teachers. The reading and writing process does promote cognitive and metacognitive skills due to the opportunity to reflect before responding to comments (Hannafin, Hill and Land, 1997). Online dialog over written messages can offer more in-depth intellectual inquiry than face-to-face conversations which usually encourage immediate responses (Blanchette, 2001). Instructors must strive to develop questions that are interesting and reflect a diversity of ideas to stimulate online dialogs. Bender (2003) notes “…your aim should be to make the class an incredible experience, one that the student would not want to miss” (p. 69).

Online educators are faced with various barriers to quality dialogs such as having a discussion that is not focused or ones which are intellectually shallow.  Instructors must use conversational techniques to sharpen dialog focus by providing direction, offering commentary that sorts ideas according to their relevance and highlighting primary student contributions. The dialogue can be enriched by instructors who offer a diverse range of questions that cause individuals to examine their assumptions, beliefs, ideas and rationale. Instructors should post comments that indicate that they honor a multiple of perspectives (Collision et al, 2000).

Relevant and Engaging Lectures

Traditional instructors are sometimes placed into difficult circumstances when they are required to teach an online class with little or no formal training. Often, they must post their lecture notes for their students to read while striving to facilitate a discussion based on the lecture notes. Also, it places pressure on the teacher to produce an excellent lecture because students will have plenty of time to examine the lecture and discuss its contents. Lectures can be used to personalize the learning environment when instructors develop a conversational style that reflects their personality. Students can acquire a stronger emotional connection to their instructor when they offer personal illustrations and professional experiences. Additionally, it is wise to include diverse discussion questions with lectures that explore vital content issues and enable students to refer to their work and life experiences. Shearer, (2003) stresses “without the proper use of sequence, pace, and feedback, the learner perceives little control over the learning environment, and without other means of timely interaction with the instructor (e.g. by phone or fax) the psychological distance may feel immense” (p.19).

The University of Phoenix (UOP) devotes attention to the lecture preparation to help faculty candidates during their training and mentoring process. UOP operates from a Practitioner-Faculty Model that encourages faculty members to share their expertise from their education and work experiences. Instructors learn to translate their knowledge and wisdom into a lecture that effectively communicates the latest research and theories with their professional experiences. It takes time to create quality lectures which reflect creativity and capture the imagination and attention of students.  The lecture should be written in manner that is easy to read but instructors should avoid being simplistic in knowledge content.

Biographical Posts

Research studies support the practice of having instructors and their students share biographical posts during the first few days of class. An informative biography will highlight both professional and personal data that offers insights into the individual’s life. It is simple procedure that can humanize the online class by helping students learn more about their teacher and colleagues. Students will use the biographical posts to serve as a reference point to communicate during the course.

Positive Affirmation of Student Work

Instructors can promote greater online participation by affirming their students’ abilities and knowledge. The teacher can make positive comments about an individuals’ expertise in a public forum such as a newsgroup and through private email messages. The key is to be sincere and share positive comments with every student in the class. Adult learners appreciate being recognized for their accomplishments and online classes offer numerous opportunities for instructors to affirm quality work.

Integrate Stories into the Class Discussions

Online students want classes that stress the human side of learning. The online environment can be lonely at times and students want to get to know their teachers and classmates. The author has found that students really enjoy stories from the teacher’s life because it makes the class more personal and assists them with their academic work. In a doctoral research class, it would be a good opportunity for the instructor to share stories that provides insights on how he or she arrived at their dissertation topic. The wise instructor will use short stories to generate lively discussion within the class on a variety of social issues.

Provide Student’s with Flexibility

Instructors must be careful not to provide excessive structure to their classes that eliminates the potential for students making critical decisions about their assignments. The term flexibility refers to making the learning more relevant to the student’s needs or circumstances. The instructional emphasis is to make the learning experiences more individualized. Collis (1998) relates, “these relate to time flexibility, content flexibility, entry and completion flexibility, instructional-approach flexibility, learning-resource flexibility, technology-use flexibility, interactivity and communication flexibility, course-logistics flexibility, as well as location flexibility (p. 376).”

Further Research Needed

Current interactivity research studies in online classes recognize that communication in cyberspace is a complex entity. Distance educators have tried to create educational models to accurately describe online interaction but they appear to be inadequate because the communication and learning patterns are far more dynamic and transcend neat categories (Solomon, 2000). Those who advocate constructivist theory and principles must admit that much more research needs to done to affirm the validity of these theories in an actual class. Farahani’s (2003) study highlights some of the apparent flaws in constructivist theory in regards to student learning when applied to today’s distance education settings. “…instructors’ comments dismissed the notion in constructivist theory that all learners would benefit from interaction for more in-depth learning and consequently higher-order critical thinking (p. 119).”

Interactivity has been a major focus for researchers but much more needs to be done. A vital research area that requires greater attention involves studying online learning communities (i.e. development, collaboration and interaction). The issue of learner support is connected to related topics such as student attrition. For instance, what are the most effective types of learner support? What kinds of successful strategies used with traditional learners can be applied to online students? Questions remain about the types of interaction that provide the best educational experiences for students. What are the most effective ways to facilitate student collaboration? What teacher practices encourage positive communication within the class? Meyer (2002) wonders whether there is optimal amount of interaction within online classes and asks “is the effect of interaction idiosyncratic to the person, or is there some type of interaction that engenders more learning from a student?” (p. 35).

A review of the literature identifies a major oversight in the educational studies. There is a strong focus on the individual learner differences but researchers have neglected to study individual differences in teachers’ facilitator skills that can influence the quality of interactivity. The transition from being a traditional teacher to an online facilitator is challenging one because instructors often need professional staff development to properly prepare them. Educators can create research projects that investigate what are the appropriate and most effective pedagogical and technological skills to enhance interaction and promote academic achievement. Additionally, there is a need to study online interaction from a communication theory perspective by investigating a diversity of variables such as length and number of messages, type of information shared and the amount of time between responses. The studies would provide deeper descriptions and insights into the nature of interactivity.

Garrison and Anderson (2003) have developed a promising new distance education model known as the community of inquiry which involves three main three elements: social presence, cognitive presence and teacher presence. The model reflects a greater emphasis on social factors and less attention to psychological which has characterized the current generation of research studies. Future researchers should seriously consider the need to focus greater attention to studying learning teams and the learning organization which have been neglected. Gibson (2003) observes “we have the tools and we have the demand. What we don’t have is research to inform our practice” (p. 157).



Today’s professional development programs for online teachers would benefit from interactivity research studies and tailor their curriculum to better prepare their instructors. Teachers need the expertise to develop a class structure that stimulates social interaction and affirms rigorous academic standards while fostering independent learning skills.


Bender, T. (2003). Discussion based online teaching to enhance student learning: Theory, practice and assessment. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Collis, B. (1998). New didactics for university instruction: Why and how? Computers and Education, 31 (4), 373-393.

Collison, G., Elbaum, Haavind, S., and Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning. Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Farahani, G. O. (2003). Existence and importance of online interaction. Doctoral dissertation. Virginia Polythechnic Institute and State University.

Garrison, D. R. and Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London, UK: RoutledgeFarmer.

Gibson, C. C. (2003). Learners and learning: The need for theory. In  M. G. Moore and W. G. Anderson ( Eds.). Handbook of distance education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hannafin, M. J., Hill, J. R. and Land, S. M., (1997). Student-centered learning and interactive multimedia: Status, issues, and implications. Contemporary Education, 68 (2), 94-99.

Janicki, T. and Liegle, J. O. (2001). Development and evaluation of a framework for creating web-based learning modules: a pedagogical and systems approach. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (1). Available: http://www.aln.org/publications/jaln/v5n1/v5n1_janicki.asp

Meyer, K. A. (2002). Quality in distance education: Focus on on-line learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mortera-Gutierrez, F. (2002). Instructor interactions in distance education environments. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 13 (3), 191-209.

Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cbyerspace classroom: The realities of online teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shearer, R. L. (2003). Interaction in distance education. Special Report 2 (1). Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Spitzer, D. R., (1998). Rediscovering the social context of distance learning. Educational Technology, 38 (2), 52-56.

Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22, 306-331.

Thurmond, V. A. (2003). Examination of interaction variables as predictors of students’ satisfaction and willingness to enroll in future Web-based courses. Doctoral dissertation. University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS.

Vrasidas, C. and Glass, G. V. (2002). A conceptual framework for studying distance education.  In  C. Vrasidas and G. V. Glass (Eds.). Distance education and distributed learning. Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

About the Author

Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious education, history, administration and e-learning and doctoral degrees in Education (D.Min. and Ph.D.).

Dr. Muirhead is the area chair for the MAED program in curriculum and technology for the University of Phoenix Online (UOP). He teaches a variety of undergraduate and graduate level courses in their online and local Atlanta, Georgia campuses and mentors faculty candidates. He is an Associate Editor for Educational Technology and Society and he has worked as a visiting research fellow to Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. He may be reached via email: bmuirhead@email.uophx.edu

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