Interactivity in Online Courses?

In my ongoing research about what makes for effective online teaching, I had wanted to share the following passage from the introduction “Interaction matters: Strategies to promote engaged learning in an online introductory nutrition course“, by Jinan Banna, Meng-Fen Grace Lin, Maria Stewart, and Marie K. Fialkowski (Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 11.2 [2015]).

Even though their research concerns an Introductory Nutrition course (which might be seen as primarily concerned with communicating information and principles, rather than developing skills), it’s worth contrasting the interactivity that these researchers describe here, to the current discourse of “content delivery”:

In online courses, in which learner isolation and dropout is more likely to be an issue, interaction is a key component of fostering learning (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Although content may have been the main focus of online courses in the past (Nipper, 1989), interaction is now recognized as playing a crucial role in stimulating learning (Bernard et al. 2009; Lou, Bernard, & Abrami, 2006; Norris, Mason, & Lefrere, 2003). Activities that involve collaboration and sharing of ideas among students promote a deeper level of thought and create meaning for the learner (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Previous studies have identified three types of interaction that have been shown to support learning in online courses: 1) interaction with content, including the ability of learners to access, manipulate, synthesize, and communicate content information; 2) interaction with instructors, or the ability of learners to communicate with and receive feedback from their instructors; and 3) interaction with classmates, such as the ability of learners to communicate with each other about content to create an active learning community (Bernard et al., 2009; Moore, 1989).

In creating the most effective learning environment in distance education courses, course features that encourage the three key types of interaction must be selected. Student-content interaction may take on a number of forms, including watching instructional videos, interacting with multimedia, as well as searching for information (Abrami et al., 2011). To create a vibrant online community, instructors must facilitate sustained engagement with course material and use specially tailored assignments (Hege, 2011). With regards to student-instructor interaction, the social presence of the instructor is an integral component of a successful online course; the instructor must perform activities that translate virtual interaction into an impression of a “real” person (Dixson, 2012; Kehrwald, 2008). To interact with students, instructors may incorporate both synchronous activities such as telephone correspondence, and asynchronous, such as e-mail messages (Abrami et al., 2011). Similarly, to foster student-student interaction, synchronous activities, as in videoconferencing or chatting, or asynchronous, as in discussion boards (Abrami et al., 2011), may be performed. Social media, which refers to technological systems promoting collaboration and community (Joosten, 2012), is another tool that may be used to encourage interaction among students. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now used widely among college students and have been employed as learning tools in the online classroom (Tess, 2013). A number of previous studies have indicated positive effects of online social networking on learning. In a study investigating the learning impacts of online social networking on university students, Yu and authors (2010) found that this type of interaction not only directly affected learning outcomes, but also helped the students attain social acceptance from others, and adapt to university culture, which play an important role in improving learning outcomes (Yu et al., 2010). Social media has become increasingly popular in enhancing communication among college students studying a variety of subjects; for example, a recent study reports on the use of social media in an introductory statistics course (Everson, Gundlach, & Miller, 2013). The authors point to the importance of meeting students where they are with regards to use of technology, and suggest that social media may be used as a way of encouraging students to participate in their learning experiences (Everson, Gundlach, & Miller, 2013). As previous studies have demonstrated that small group rather than individual learning has significantly more positive effects on student achievement (Lou, Abrami, & d’ Apollonia, 2001), student-student interaction is particularly important to promote in the online environment. Research on all three modes of interaction, however, has shown that each one favorably impacts student achievement (Bernard et al., 2009).


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