Meaningful Interaction in Online Courses

What the research says.


July 30, 2014

This post is the second in a series. The first, "Beyond Flipping Classrooms," can be read here.

Critics of online education, especially in the humanities, often stress the importance of face-to-face interaction. It is face-to-face interaction, the reasoning goes, that makes traditional in-person courses superior to their online counterparts. Without rejecting the premise, it nevertheless seems counterproductive to think of in-person courses and online courses in strictly competitive terms. If online courses are here to stay and we in the humanities are expected to teach them, these vigorous defenses of the in-person course will not make us better online instructors. In other words if we want to make online courses better, then it seems crucial to think about how we can promote “interaction” when “face-to-face” is not an option.

The scholarship on distance learning affirms the importance of engaged and approachable instructors in online education. Joseph McClary summarizes the research and notes that interaction with instructors has been linked to increased student learning and satisfaction. Most importantly, McClary notes that high-quality online education requires instructors to engage with students on an individual level rather than merely provide oversight as students proceed through the course.

In two online asynchronous courses for K-12 teachers (Hidden in Plain Sight and Virginia Studies), we emphasize the importance of interaction and feedback between instructors and participants as well as among participants. At the beginning of the course, we email an introduction to each student personally rather than sending a group email. It’s a small gesture, and a time-consuming one, but this kind of individualization is proving to be an important way to mitigate the isolation that online course participants often feel. In addition, each participant receives personalized feedback when they complete each of the eight course modules. Since the course is asynchronous (e.g., participants can proceed through the course on their own timeline within an overall structure) knowing when a participant completes a module has been crucial to providing timely feedback. After testing, we added a feature so the course system emails the instructor immediately when a participant completes a module, allowing for a quick response and timely feedback. This also underscored the value of having a flexible and robust course site that can be modified as needed.

The written feedback provided to teachers participating in the course is detailed and individualized. It is targeted at pushing each participant to reflect on historical thinking in both structured and unstructured writing assignments. This kind of qualitative feedback on participants’ writing seems especially crucial in the humanities where multiple-choice quizzes and tests often fail to capture important nuances of student understanding. As composition instructor and digital media scholar Chris Friend notes, multiple-choice assessments elevate the importance of the “one right answer,” a notion that is not consistent with the inquiry-based approach we embrace or the courses’ emphasis on historical thinking as an iterative process.

In post-course surveys, participants are nearly unanimous in rating the feedback and interaction with instructors as excellent and as an important feature of their success. Ninety-nine percent of respondents agreed that feedback from instructors was timely and helpful and several added, in comments, that they especially appreciated the individualized feedback and additional resources suggested by instructors.

Experience in these courses over several years has demonstrated that by regularly reaching out to participants, we provide an opening for students to ask questions, seek clarification, and share their own experiences. Participants often respond to individual emails from instructors that these direct contacts have the effect of making instructors more approachable. In addition, we make it a priority to respond to questions quickly – emails typically receive a response within 24 hours. Since participants in an asynchronous course cannot raise their hands to receive an immediate answer, we have learned the importance of connecting quickly when someone seeks clarification or has a technical problem. This ensures that students do not feel lost in the online “classroom.”

Interaction between instructors and participants has been a constant positive each time these online courses are taught. Meaningful, ongoing interaction between participants has been more challenging to foster and the team has worked to improve this aspect of the course. For example, while over 90% of respondents report that they put significant effort into reading and writing for the course, under half say the same for responding to the answers of colleagues. Encouraging course interaction among participants remains an important goal, however. In the first iteration of the course, for example, participants were not able to comment on each others’ submissions. We added the ability to comment and subsequently have improved the interface to make commenting easier in an effort to foster discussions. Meaningful interaction among students remains a challenge for all courses, especially asynchronous courses where participants are not required to work on the same modules at the same time. For the upcoming year, we will be evaluating and providing direct feedback on comments to further support meaningful interaction among those participating in the course.

An online course is not an in-person course and it does not offer the same opportunities for interaction. Based on my experiences working with history teachers in online, asynchronous courses, however, online interactions are not necessarily worse — just different. Rather than attend to the ways in which interaction in online courses is deficient, I would like to suggest that we focus on the kinds of developing interactions that online learning environments can foster. Online courses, for example, seem to lower the barrier for students to ask questions of their instructors. If we in the humanities want our students to be questioners first, then online learning environments represent opportunities to teach students to ask thoughtful questions, a skill that may well transfer to in-person classrooms. Similarly, some students are more likely to engage in an online discussion with instructors or other students absent the pressure of speaking “in public.” For those students, online courses can offer opportunities for productive class discussions with higher participation.

Thinking proactively about online education can lead to improvements in learning environments of all kinds. Online teaching involves inherent limitations, but those limitations can force educators to re-examine fundamental issues of teaching and learning. Since interaction is such a clear area of concern for online courses, it has become a priority. By prioritizing and promoting meaningful interactions, we can develop practices that improve learning anywhere, not just online.

Nate Sleeter is a PhD candidate in history at George Mason University and graduate research assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. He works as a teaching assistant for the online courses Virginia Studies and Hidden in Plain Sight.

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