About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Improving online interaction

I was asked to give a presentation on improving interaction for online courses. This is a very complex question. The answer lies in research that has been done in online learning, social psychology, distance or online education, communication (including interpersonal, group, and CM communication), and even organizational development. This blog post will give a basic overview of the problems, barriers, factors, and concepts most researchers agree upon. Later next week, I will upload in-depth posts on choice of technology and its affect on interaction (including private, public, and personal interaction), instructional design to maximize online interaction, types of interaction and their purposes, and models of interaction for learning (including organizational learning).

In a previous paper, I identified 4 factors that affect online interaction: Technology, community, instructional constraints, and time.


Many times, instructors have limited choices of technology type. Because of privacy issues, many US universities and organizations require instructors to use learning management systems (LMS) that allow for privacy. However, these same technologies may limit interaction. For example, Blackboard discussion boards may be difficult for students to identify when a new thread has been started. This would result in discussion that favors one discussion over another because students (or even instructors) are unaware of new information. These more structured LMS tend to structure instruction as two way rather than multiple interaction. On the other hand, Adobe Connect, with audio presentation and chat functions that can be used simultaneously, allow for multiple conversations. However, for some students this can be chaotic.

LMS's also tend to promote "formal" interaction rather than informal. The devise that an individual accesses class interaction can also affect how "public", "personal", or "private" the interaction may be perceived. Even using the same software, an email may appear more private if received on a smartphone than when it is received on a public computer. This might change the way in which a person interacts, either becoming more formal (or informal), more open (or more private) depending on the technology used.

Finally, the level of support, comfort with technology, and reliable access can influence how successful students can interact with other students or their instructor. Students located internationally or in rural areas may not have access to high speed internet. There may also be compatibility problems that affect student participation.


Different programs create different types of learning communities and different communities of practice. The expectations of these communities, a student's ability to relate to the community or know of community norms, and the ability to participate within the discourse community all affect interaction. Students who lack confidence may tend to be "lurkers" who are afraid or, at least, reluctant to participate. They may feel that they will be rejected if they participate or they may not want to belong to community due the perception that they are have a different culture or style.

Instructors may need to develop (with the class) communication norms so that all students are working from the same set of rules. In addition, an instructor may need to help create a safe environment to work and learn through interaction at the individual, group, and class levels.


This is an aspect of interaction that is often overlooked. In face to face interaction, two people can interrupt, read visual cues, and straighten out misunderstandings within a short time span. Interaction online (even if it is through video) may take more time and may be more difficult to follow. On the other hand, there is more time for planned interaction and responses. Instructors can ask for a deeper level of reflection. Another barrier to online learning may be a difference in time zone. As a result, any interaction might take longer to develop. There is also a greater chance of losing motivation during the interaction.

Two ways in which instructors and instructional designers can help to overcome these barriers is to assign facilitators and due dates. It is important for all members of the class to remember the time differences and ensure that times are posted with time zones. Related to time zones are the outside pressures to an online student. There may be work, family, or other activity pressures that limit the time when students and instructors are available. Therefore, it becomes important that there are clear expectations for predictable times within which interaction will take place.

Instructional Constraints

I have taught in Language, Communication, Education, Research, Globalization, Marketing, and Business departments. Some are quantitative in content, some are skill based, some are qualitative, some have static content, some have content that is changing AS I was teaching. I have also taught short term intensive weekend courses, hybrid courses, online courses, workshops, full length year long courses, courses with standardized content, courses which are customized...really any type of configuration you can think of.

In each of these instances, there were some shared givens: well thought out goals and objectives, assessments that matched the course goals and objectives, a student, and a well thought out instructional design appropriate for the student and assessment/goals/objectives.

However, due to the variability of courses, there may need to be different types of interaction. The Community of Inquiry (developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer) is one model commonly used as a jumping off point. The model looks at the intersection of social presence, teacher presence, and cognitive presence. Factors such as student experience, previous knowledge, learning environment, external and internal resources, and even culture and language all can have an effect on course interaction.

Improving Interaction

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing some suggestions on how to deal with the factors I discussed here. I will look at research from various disciplines and give some concrete suggestions on how to improve the interaction in an online course at the individual, group, and course level.

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