In his editorial entitled “Three Types of Interaction,” Michael G. Moore suggests that distance educators need to agree on the distinctions between three types of interaction, which he labeled 1) learner-content interaction, 2) learner-instructor interaction, and 3) learner-learner interaction. He also notes, “The main weakness of many distance education programs is their commitment to only one type of medium. When there is only one medium it is probable that only one kind of interaction is permitted or done well.”
The most common form of interaction in many classrooms—whether online or face-to-face—is learner-instructor. The instructor presents information (or causes them to be made); organizes the students’ application of information and ideas—either through practice of skills or manipulation of information and ideas; organize assessment procedures to determine students’ progress and to inform changes in teaching strategies. For the most part, the instructor is the students’ primary audience. In addition, the instructor may also provide counsel, support and encouragement—though the amount may vary according to the learners’ abilities and teacher’s personality and philosophy.
This is the primary aim of education—where the learner intellectually interacts with the content, resulting in changes in the learner’s understanding, perspective, or cognitive structure of his/her brain. Texts were initially designed to impart knowledge—not to entertain—generally a one-way form of communication. However, with today’s technology, learners are able to interact not only with written text, but also with content broadcast on radio and television, with electronic recordings on CDs, video/DVD, and computer software. Moore notes “The frequency and intensity of the teacher's influence on learners when there is learner-teacher interaction is much greater than when there is only learner-content interaction.” Blogs and wikis, however, provide learners with new avenues to create their own content and publish to a wider audience—beyond just the instructor.
Moore suggests that the third form of interaction will challenge our thinking and teaching practices—especially related to online learning. Inter-learner interactions—between one learner and other learners, alone or in a group, with our without a synchronous instructor presence—has been deemed extremely valuable, if not essential, to the learning process in our modern globalized society. Online tools provide an alternative for large classes to interact in smaller groups and to extend the conversations beyond the classroom. In totally online courses, learner-learner interactions become even more important means for building community and avoiding learner isolation. Learner-learner interactions such as discussion boards and group work allow learners the chance to reflect on their learning and to share those ideas with their fellow learners. Through groupwork, learners have the opportunity to create thoughts, share those thoughts with others, and hear others’ reactions. The resulting group analysis, debate, and shared perspectives help them develop conceptual learning and higher order thinking skills. Furthermore, groups provide support and mutual feedback that promote self-understanding and generate an experiential foundation for learning (MacDonald, 2002).
New information technology and media have added new dimensions and possibilities to the conduct of teaching and learning, creating the potential for more interactive, interpersonal, group environments. Therefore, Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena (1994) propose a fourth type of interaction, learner-interface. They argue that the types of interaction identified by Moore (1996) do not consider the “the interaction that occurs when a learner must use these intervening technologies to communicate with the content, negotiate meaning, and validate knowledge with the instructor and other learners” (Hillman et al., p. 30-31). Therefore, the learner must be skilled in using the delivery system or he/she may not be able to participate in any of the other types of interactions.
In more recent research, Northrup and Rasmussen (2000, cited in Sharp & Huett, 2005) advocate the addition of learner-feedback interaction, which involves closing the communications loop--providing the learner confirmation of receipt and accuracy of what was sent. Sutton (2001, cited in Sharp & Huett, 2005) proposes another type of interaction—vicarious interaction, which is based on the “principle that enhanced achievement and satisfaction may occur even when all students do not interact directly” (p. 224). In other words, learners can learn vicariously by observing the interaction of other students such as “when a student actively observes and processes both sides of a direct interaction between two other students or between another student and the instructor” (Sutton, p. 227).
Not only is it important to define and distinguish the types of interaction that occur in distance learning, but it is also equally important to carefully design interactions into the learning environment so that all relevant types of interaction are represented. Northrup (2001, cited in Sharp & Huett, 2005) suggests a framework of “interaction attributes” that can be employed—interaction with content, collaboration, conversation, intrapersonal interaction and performance support. Collaborative interactions are an essential element of any pedagogy which assumes that learning is a social endeavor and that understanding comes through modeling, reflection, participation in, and reaction to the behaviors and thoughts of others. Distance education, more than ever, allows learners the opportunity to interact not only with the content and the instructor but also to gain new insights through their interactions with their fellow classmates. As MacDonald notes, “While current research may not be able to ascertain which type of interaction is most valuable or necessary to students in distance education, it seems plausible that, given all the documented benefits of learning communities, the quality of distance education should improve with renewed focus on incorporating learner-learner interaction.”