If you’ve taught online, you’ve probably encountered some challenges getting through to students. Maybe you created a module where some difficult concept was explained but students weren’t as successful as you had hoped. Or maybe you assigned a project for students and then realized that students didn’t understand what you were asking them to do. For me, I find that sometimes when I think my expectations for an assignment are completely clear, my students will completely misunderstand it and get frustrated. Despite our best intentions and planning, our online instruction can sometimes go awry.
These types of challenges in online learning are common and they represent one of the fundamental pedagogical theories in online education: transactional distance theory. Developed by Dr. Michael Moore in the 1970s, transactional distance theory captures some of the challenges that online teachers face by examining the roles that dialogue, structure and learner autonomy play in an online learning environment. These variables create “a psychological and communication space to be crossed, a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner” (Moore, 1993). In developing our online classes, we have to consider the dialogue we provide and foster to support student learning. We also have to structure our assignments so students have a clear understanding of our expectations. But we also have to provide enough autonomy for our online learners so they can navigate the courses independently. While it can be difficult at times, balancing the variables of dialogue, structure and learner autonomy is critical for effective online instruction. Considering these variables in concert can close the “transactional distance” and help students be more successful in our online classes.
I’ve thought about transactional distance a lot over the last two weeks. Students in one of my online classes were completing a large research assignment. The project is actually one of the capstone assignments in their entire program and I had structured the course to slowly build to these two weeks. While students were working individually to collect and analyze data, I didn’t assign any new course material or modules and allowed them to work independently during this time. At first glance, however, it may seem like I was taking the easy way out as an instructor. I shut down the online course for a few weeks under the guise that I was supporting “learner autonomy.” Someone might argue that I had secretly planned myself a two-week vacation.
That wasn’t the case. Considering transactional distance theory, having the students work in isolation probably wouldn’t have been a successful venture. While I certainly provided structure to support this independent student work, I also had to provide some dialogue to close the “transactional distance” gap. To do this, I scheduled individual meetings with every online student to discuss their research projects and to support their data collection and analysis. Since my online students come from a variety of places and work different schedules, I had to be as flexible as possible. I created an online sign-up sheet (with SignUpGenius) and asked them to schedule times that they were available. I also offered a variety of technologies that we could use to get together. Some students chose to Skype while others chose to use Zoom. Some just chose to use old-fashioned telephones to make calls. Regardless of the actual technology we used, I was able to meet with every student twice over the last two weeks. It was a huge effort and time commitment, but from a transactional distance perspective, it was necessary. The students asked specific questions about the assignment and I was able to clarify different aspects for them. Students react differently when working independently and I had to counsel one or two students through some anxious moments. While it was an exhausting two weeks, I was able to support my students and their learning.
Ultimately, that’s the real benefit of transactional distance theory. By examining the variables of dialogue, structure and learner autonomy, we can begin to identify solutions when challenges emerge. While online learning happens at a distance, thoughtful planning can help to close that gap.