The first time I heard about transactional distance was from ed tech guru, Kim Peacock at MacEwan University. Kim taught me the value of recognizing that the distance between teacher and student is much more than geographical when learning goes online.
What is Transactional Distance?
As Moore (1997) suggests, “with separation there is psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (p. 22). In the classroom, it is (somewhat) simple for instructors to monitor student withdrawal, confusion, and engagement. An expression is sometimes all it takes for an instructor to know when someone is on the right track or veering off of it. We don’t have this same luxury when we teach online.
If instructors aren’t aware of this transactional distance or take steps to close it, trouble can occur. When I took an online design course, the instructor was not actively present in the discussions. In fact, it was almost complete radio silence from her during the entire semester. Students didn’t feel like they could even send her questions. We felt largely unsupported during the course. In fact, I’ve never felt so lonely in my learning journey.
Taking small steps to bridge the psychological distance is a step in the right direction. But we can do better than that with intentional design and teaching strategies. To take this a step further, Moore (1997) argues there are actually three variables important for minimizing transactional distance: instructional dialogue, programme structure, and learner autonomy.
According to Moore (1997), “the term ‘dialogue’ is used to describe an interaction or series of interactions having positive qualities that other interactions might not have. A dialogue is purposeful, constructive, and valued by each party” (p. 23). Dialogue is beyond simple interaction, because dialogue advances student understanding and carries learning forward.
The first time we had to make a discussion post online, a course instructor responded to every person’s post by adding to the conversation or asking thoughtful questions. In this way, she added value and effectively modelled a strong reply. She then told us that she wouldn’t be responding like this every week, unless she needed to clarify something or add to the conversation in some way. This was excellent because then we had clear expectations of her involvement in the discussion posts.
Other instructors have turned to using communication media outside the LMS, such as Slack channels, which come with its own set of challenges. What’s most important when considering instructional dialogue is selecting the most appropriate way to interact with students with a purpose of dialogue that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. For example, another instructor of mine created a video to provide feedback on an assignment. In this way, she created a dialogue by providing legitimate feedback that advanced our understanding of some course concepts, and we got a better idea of what she was looking for. We also got the opportunity to respond and ask questions. Not many students taking in-person courses get this kind of opportunity!
Even media that provide only 1-way dialogue (worksheets, lectures, screen recordings) has some level of interaction. However, the relationship between instructor and teacher will be much stronger when appropriate media is chosen that encourages 2-way dialogue. If constraints such as class size and instructor time is a barrier, consider hosting web chats or cohort discussions to minimize transactional distance.
The second variable, course design/programme structure, is the way in which a course is designed to be supportive of individual students’ learning needs. Unfortunately, we tend to design courses similar to television programs. They are highly structured and polished, with no opportunity for students to disrupt regularly scheduled programming.
We want to avoid designing a course that doesn’t allow for legitimate student dialogue and input. While it can be difficult to design a course with a somewhat flexible structure, it’s possible to leave enough room for students to explore and discover, too. On the other hand, if there is too much distance between instructor and student, students will make their own learning decisions and use a level of autonomy that may not serve them. Of course, this level of autonomy is dependent on the course itself, the group of learners, and the instructor’s style. Finding the right “mix” will be important to consider during the course design process.
Some ideas to incorporate student input into the course, thereby limiting transactional distance:
- Schedule an online chat to discuss assignment expectations and specific questions with students.
- Ask students what they’d like you to “Start, Stop, and Keep” doing in the course. Make sure to respond to these submissions!
- Support learner motivation by asking challenging questions (or getting them to ask questions), asking them what they want to get out of the course, and giving them options (choose-your-own-adventure style).
- Have students challenge particular experts in the field after watching a video clip or listening to a podcast.
- Give students plenty of opportunity to practice what they are learning (low-stakes or ungraded quizzes, peer feedback).
“Learner autonomy is the extent to which in the teaching/learning relationship it is the learner rather than the teacher who determines the goals, the learning experiences, and the evaluation decisions of the learning programme” (Moore, 1997, pp. 26-27). To me, online learning can present the opportunity for a more democratic, collaborative learning experience between instructor and student.
However, online learning assumes a level of self-directed learning that students may or may not be prepared for. This is why it’s so important to incorporate dialogue and solid design principles into the course. Small design “nudges” can orient students in the right direction. A nudge can be as simple as breaking down a large assignment into smaller tasks. These tasks can appear on a “to-do list” that students see on the course homepage. This small design nudge helps learners understand the assignment requirements in a way that’s not overwhelming. Of course, some learners will require more direction and instruction than others, but this can be discovered as the course unfolds.
Thus, while it’s important to offer choice and autonomy, it’s just as important to teach students the skills to succeed in an online environment. For example, most students would appreciate learning about successful time management and study strategies to succeed in the course. By supporting students as they learn to self-regulate their own learning, we are equipping them with the skills they need to learn in environments that will continue to evolve.
What can you learn about what students need simply by asking or polling them?
What excites me about online learning is the opportunity for students to be involved in the process of constructing and sharing their knowledge. Students will have varying levels of comfort in sharing what they are learning, especially as they are learning it. I’ve found that encouraging students and being personally vulnerable in how I put myself out there to learn, can make all the difference.
Now that I’ve designed online courses and participated in them, I don’t feel as nervous as I did taking my first online course. But remember, while it may seem like a small leap for students to learn online, it’s not. They will experiences new challenges and be pushed in ways they haven’t before. For them, this change in learning is more than spatial or geographical. It’s a change in how they connect, learn, and share. Applying the three variables of transactional distance can help us prepare students for this new way of learning, growing, and ultimately experiencing the world.
Moore, M. (1997). “Theory of transactional distance.” Keegan, D., ed. Theoretical Principles of Distance Education, Routledge, pp. 22-38.
Image of girl on Mac taken from Unsplash.com: https://unsplash.com/photos/MAGAXAYq_NE