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Editor’s Note: This study provides a basis for definitive exploration of communication, subject matter and logistics involved in faculty-student exchanges.


Faculty and Learner Interaction in Online Courses

Peter Kiriakidis and Angie Parker


Faculty/student interaction in the virtual classroom has been shown to be a key component in successful online instruction. This study examined the relationship between the quantity of instructor responses in an online forum and subsequent student responses. The findings illustrate that the two were positively correlated (r =.763, p<.01). This correlation is both practically and statistically significant as these findings may provide yet another component for assessing the quality of online education as well as student success, satisfaction and retention rates.

Keywords:  distance learning, distance education, interaction, virtual classroom, discourse, instructor responses, online learning, faculty, learners, satisfaction


Distance education has been utilized successfully as a teaching/learning methodology for over 30 years.  The electronic classroom provides instruction for hundreds of thousands of students worldwide who otherwise would have to travel to traditional classrooms. Today’s virtual learning centers allow students and professors to interact 24/7 and students to share ideas and questions through blogs, discussions and forums. These same instructors and students utilize technology to create virtual communities in which to share course notes, examples, assignments and projects, expertise, ideas, and opinions. Instructors and learners also utilize forums in order to post and respond to e-text-based messages.

Discussions forums are the foundation of communication in the virtual classroom but the question remains: is there a correlation between the number of instructor posting and subsequent student response or postings? 

The term interaction in this study is defined as the e-dialogue between instructors and learners. For interaction to be utilized in the analysis for this study, it had to be originated by either instructor or student and had to contain more than five words.


The purpose of this study is to generate new knowledge about faculty/learner interaction in online courses. Specifically, this study was conducted to answer the following research question:

Is there a direct relationship between the extent of faculty interaction and the extent of subsequent learner interaction in discussion forums in online courses?

The answer to this research question may shed further light on the importance of facilitating forums between faculty and learners in the online learning environment. Specifically, the findings of this study may have implications for policy and practice as well as an assessment tool for evaluating the effectiveness of online learning.  It is also important to note that the inclusion of forums in online courses and the integration of communication technologies to facilitate these forums may have an effect on student enrollment and retention.

The Research Problem

The institution of higher education is becoming increasingly competitive both globally and within the boundaries of the United States. With minimal, if any, limitations imposed by time and place, the online institution is gaining considerable popularity among those seeking a higher education (Arbaugh, 2000; Deal, 2002; Kearsley, 2002; King & Hildreth, 2001; Mayzer & Dejong, 2003; Picciano, 2001; Schott Karr, 2002; Taylor, 2002). Within this competitive marketplace of higher education, input from graduate learners in education regarding faculty/learner interaction is clearly a factor of great importance to the vitality of the online institution. Research has emphasized that teaching online calls for instructors to take on an intellectual and social role fostering a sense of community among groups of learners in online courses (Kiriakidis, as cited in Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Arbaugh, 2000; Overbaugh, 2002).

Creating a high degree of interactivity between faculty and learners is the most important role of the faculty in online classes (Brown & Kiriakidis, 2007; Kearsley, 2000). Online learners are usually self-motivated and independent adult learners skillful with computers, who demand the opportunity to interact with faculty and co-learners in order to create a community of learning. Enhanced understanding about faculty/learner interaction may assist stakeholders in: (a) hiring competent online faculty; (b) developing a policy on setting clear expectations on posting to forums; (c) designing interactive online courses; d) creating online communities for communication; (e) increasing enrollment; and (f) maintaining retention.

Review of the Literature

Increasing access to education through online instruction provides the opportunity for thousands of adults to achieve educational goals. Although access is key, it is also important to consider the pedagogical impact of the virtual classroom. Research by Kearsley (1998), Knowlton (2006) and others (Haraiseim et al.,1996; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Salmon, 2000) identified a change of role for the virtual instructor. Moving from classroom administrator to facilitator, necessitates a change in the focus for the faculty member. In the facilitation role, the initiation and advancement of interaction becomes the heart of the learning environment (Masterson, 2006).

Little research is available that directly addresses the correlation between faculty and subsequent learner interaction. One study (Masterson, 2006), conducted with freshmen community college students, clearly linked the frequency of instructor interaction with that of the students. Masterson states that the active presence of an instructor in the discussions heightened the quantity and quality of student responses. Furthermore, this study not only illustrated a positive correlation between faculty and student response rates but also a clear linkage to student perceptions of higher quality learning.

The majority of the literature focused on the correlation between learner persistence in the virtual classroom and interaction.  Smith (1997) points out that effective curriculum is hindered by the faculty’s lack of understanding of the importance of interaction in the online classroom. This researcher goes on to state that instructors must develop and hone skills to assist student to adjust to the unique characteristics of distance education. The lack of adequate professional development may hinder some professors from fully engaging their students in online interaction (Lowell, 2005). Williams (2006) states that with all the challenges facing distance education, studies show that distance learning students desire content and motivational support beyond course materials and their success is limited when interaction is lacking. According to White (2005), adult learners may be disappointed when they are unable to accomplish the academic tasks required due to lack of faculty response and this frustration could lead to disinterest and eventually withdrawal from courses.

Since the early days of distance learning, researchers have illustrated the need for higher levels of interaction in the teaching and learning process (Vygotsky, 1978). This same researcher stated “collaborative learning is necessary in building one’s own cognitive process”(p.5). Soller (2004) supports this belief by saying that if students do not share their newly acquired knowledge to verify its accuracy, the interactive void results in poor student outcomes. Additionally, Mickelson (2007) reports that distance education possesses more potential and more promise in promoting student/professor interaction and enhancing learning outcomes due to its utilization of technology. For instance Bruce et. Al. (2005), suggest that the World Wide Web has the capacity to promote student/instructor interactions and multiple paths for instruction because students and professors share enhanced control over information access, course pace, and the inquiry process.

Forums and electronic communication technologies offer opportunities for learning and teaching. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (2004), “While we may not realize it, we have entered the perfect electric storm, where technology, the art of teaching, and the needs of learners are converging” (p. 2). “We are still at the beginning of harnessing their potential”
p. 17).

Research conducted with university-level distance students illustrated three top concerns involving the faculty: (a) competency of instruction, (b) communications, and (c) availability (Noel-Levitz, 2006). Yang and Cornelius (2005) and Paloff and Pratt (2007) concur and indicate that learner success in the online classroom may depend most on the competency of faculty to create a sense of community as well as emotional and scholarly connection with learners. Further evidence to support the need to extensive interaction between instructor and student comes from Conole (2004) who states that online communities allow for social and collegial interaction between faculty and learners. Telecommunications learners benefit from a heightened sense of academic community resulting from being able to connect with peers (Overbaugh, 2002).    

In summary, the literature has shown that instructor/learner interaction is essential in the virtual classroom as it offers rich and diverse information and gives learners a sense of belonging and connectedness to their online courses. Expanding interaction may provide opportunities for online learners to communicate and refine knowledge through (a) a deeper analysis of the course; (c) fostering a sense of community; (c) facilitating forums for in-depth dialogue; and (d) assisting learners in mastering the curriculum. The success of online courses may depend on the amount of interaction that supports the social and academic needs of online learners and improvement in online learning and critical thinking skills.

Conceptual Framework

This study extended the research of others (e.g., Chou, 2001; Deal, 2002, Overbaugh, 2002; Worley & Chesebro, 2002; Masterson, 2006) and was founded on the assumption that there is a positive correlation between the extent of faculty interaction and the extent of subsequent learner interaction in forums of online courses. Masterson (2006) states that the active presence of an instructor in the discussions heightens the quantity and quality of student responses.

Research Methodology

This study’s path analysis model was grounded on the theoretical and empirical research literature reviewed. A specific quantitative path analysis model was developed in order to test and analyze the direct hypothesized relationship between the extent of faculty interaction and the extent of subsequent learner interaction. Everitt & Dunn (1991) describe the analysis as a:

… broadening of the regression model, used to test the robustness of the correlation matrix against two or more causal models which are being compared in the study.  A regression is done for each variable in the model as a dependent on others which the model indicates are causes. The regression weights predicted by the model are compared with the observed correlation matrix for the variables, and a goodness-of-fit statistic is calculated. The best-fitting of two or more models is selected by the researcher as the best model for advancement of theory (p57).

Research Design

The researcher used quantitative path analysis and content analysis to conduct this study. Quantitative path analysis procedures were used to examine the direct hypothesized relationship between the extent of faculty interaction and the extent of learner interaction. Content analysis procedures were used on the computer-mediated transcripts of forums between faculty and learners within several graduate courses in education offered entirely online by an accredited institution of higher education.

Content Analysis

The primary data source for this study was the computer-mediated transcripts generated by online faculty and learners as they participated in forums of their respective online courses. With the inherent capacity to archive interaction, computer-mediated transcripts provided an ideal means to identify and analyze the extent of interaction exchanged among the participants in each of the online courses involved in this study. Content analysis procedures were used to analyze postings entered by faculty and learners in order to quantify interaction (i.e., the extent of both faculty and learner interaction).

Participants and Setting

The setting consisted of an online institution of higher education offering graduate level education degree programs entirely online. The participating institution is: (a) regionally accredited; (b) there are no residency requirements; (c) all communications and interactions between learners and instructors take place online using email and forums using the institution’s computer server; (d) faculty are not required to participate in asynchronous discussion forums; and (e) learners are required to participate in asynchronous discussion forums in order to receive a grade for each forums. Asynchronous discussions are text-based, mandatory, and contribute between 5% and 25% of each learner’s final grade. A learner meets the course requirements on postings even with one complete posting to each question posted by the instructor in each lesson or module of online courses. Only interactions of five words or more, posted by either faculty or student, were considered in this research.

Data Collection

The researcher collected the aforementioned data from the online databases of the participating online institution of higher education. Specifically, the online databases contained copies of the discussions between faculty and learners. The collected data were saved into a text file which was edited to ensure learner and instructor anonymity. The edited data were saved into one database file in order to perform content analysis.

Data Analysis

In this study’s quantitative path analysis model, both faculty and instructor interaction were continuous variables. Descriptive statistics were performed in order to compute the learner n size and the extent of learner interaction (number of learner postings), and the faculty n size and the extent of faculty interaction (number of instructor postings). Descriptive statistics were also performed to compute the mean and standard deviation of the number of learner postings and the number of faculty postings.

A path coefficient may report the relative strengths or weaknesses of the extent of instructor interaction on the extent of learner interaction. Path coefficients for the relationship between learner postings and faculty postings with α = .05 and p < .05 for statistical significance were calculated. The extent of faculty interaction was the independent variable and the extent of learner interaction was the dependent variable.

Research Results

Based on the content analysis, there were 14 faculty and 249 learners. The content analysis revealed 169 instructor postings and 1,014 learner postings. With these numbers, this study’s sample size was n = 263 participants and the total number of postings posted by both faculty and learners was 1,183.

Table 1 presents the descriptive data for faculty and learner interaction. It includes the mean level and corresponding SD. The number of learner postings represents the extent of asynchronous learner interaction. The number of faculty e-postings represents the extent of asynchronous faculty interaction.

Table 1
Descriptive Data for Instructor and Learner Interaction


n Size

Number of





72.43 (32.517)




12.07 (9.042)




16.04788 (5.00)


The relationship between the number of faculty postings and the number of learner postings was found to be of statistical significance. The Pearson Correlation value for the relationship between the extent of learner interaction and the extent of faculty interaction was found to be r = .763(**) where * = p < .05; ** = p < .01 level (2-tailed). The correlation coefficient was positive and statistically significant. Correlation coefficients of determination indicated that this relationship was of practical significance (the variance in the extent of learner postings was associated with the extent of faculty postings). The R square change was .582 with F = 16.695 significant at p = .002. Thus, the data analysis indicated that this direct relationship was both of statistical and practical significance.

The relationship between the extent of faculty interaction and the extent of learner interaction in online courses was found to be of statistical significance (r = .763, p < .01). The direct effect of the extent of faculty interaction on the extent of learner interaction measured the same relationship as the correlation between these two variables (faculty interaction and learner interaction). The path coefficient for this path segment was identical to the correlation coefficient for these two variables (β = .763, p < .01).

Interpretations and Implications for Policy and Practice

The findings of this study suggest that there is a direct relationship between the extent of faculty involvement in online discussions and subsequent learner interaction. These findings suggest that learners participate in forums to a greater degree when instructors are actively involved. This supports the findings of Matheson (2006).

Faculty/learner interaction has been shown to be a key factor in the success of students in the virtual classroom as students improve their levels of knowledge, critical thinking, and understanding while communicating electronically with faculty and co-learners (Conole, 2004). This key factor can not be overlooked by online administrators who are tasked with assessment of quality online programs and retention of students.  Policy makers, administrators, and faculty may wish to use the findings of this study to develop  policy on interaction within forums in order to improve communication in online courses. 

Questions still remain unanswered concerning whether or not the findings of this study would vary as a function of a policy on the extent of instructor/learner interaction in forums of the online higher education institution regarding: (a) academic level of online courses; (b) the multiple roles of the faculty teaching undergraduate and/or graduate online courses; and (c) the academic specialization (e.g., business, education, psychology). Scholars may wish to examine the effect of the extent of faculty interaction on the extent of learner interaction should interaction be synchronous and/or multimedia-based. 

Limitations of the Study

In conjunction with this research study’s assumptions, there are some limitations to this study that may limit its generalization to other research settings. The findings of this study may not be generalized to the entire spectrum of online learners. The results may be indicative of only the responding sample and boundaries of this population of online learners. The constructs of this study were analyzed at a given point in time while dynamic technological changes can occur in the online learning environment. This research study did not develop an instrument for evaluating a policy on MLD in forums or for measuring learner satisfaction or success with the asynchronous online learning systems.


The findings of this study suggest that there is a direct relationship between faculty and learner interaction in online courses. This relationship was of practical and statistical significance. Faculty/learner interaction is a factor of great importance to administrators who recognize the need for creating effective learning online communities. Stakeholders of online institutions must also develop and deliver training to faculty to assure heightened levels of communication in the virtual classroom. These findings contribute to a better understanding of faculty/learner interaction that may lead to learner success, satisfaction, and retention.


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About the Authors

Dr. Peter Kiriakidis


Peter Kiriakidis, Ph.D. is Founder and CEO of 1387909 ONTARIO INC. He has expertise in: (a) chairing comprehensive examinations and dissertation committees; (b) developing curriculum and academic programs; and (c) teaching graduate courses in research, educational leadership in higher education, educational and information technology, online technology, e-commerce, software development, and information systems.

Peter is a reviewer of The Journal of College Learner Retention: Research, Theory & Practice (scholarly refereed quarterly journal). He is also a member of the Editorial Board of the Annual TCC Worldwide Online Conference reviewing research papers on online instruction and distance education exploring research and implementation of new educational technology strategies and emerging technologies as it impacts the learner in colleges and universities worldwide (peer-reviewed articles using a double-blind review process). He is also a member of the Quality Assurance Dissertations Review Panel of an established online institution reviewing final dissertations for quality assurance.

In the past 15 years, Peter's successful administrative, consulting, training, and teaching experience at the university, college, and high school levels has been an involved and intense one in a multicultural environment. He has expertise in monitoring, mentoring and coaching graduate faculty. He has presented numerous research studies nationally and internationally.

Dr. Angie Parker


Dr. Angie Parker is the Dean of the School of Education at Northcentral University, a regionally accredited institution in the Southwestern United States. The university offers numerous Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees in an online format. Dr. Parker’s research interests include factors that potentially predict student success in online learning. She has published articles that predict the retention rate of faculty and identify the motivators to retaining high quality distance education faculty.  She is a reviewer for the Distance Administrators Journal and serves on numerous distance education boards and committees.


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