Darrell A. Dromgoole, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Scott Cummings, Associate Department Head and Program Leader; Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
As the Chovid 19 pandemic cases begin to decrease and Texans begin to realize a “new normal” it is imperative that Extension educators embrace new methods in order to meet our clientele changing needs. Our Director, Dr. Jeff Hyde has stated that our goal is to impact every Texan. In order to accomplish this goal it will imperative to incorporate digital program delivery routinely in our Extension educational portfolio.
Extension Education is interaction; interaction is essential to education (Dewey, 1916) as learning is basically a socially mediated activity (Vygotsky, 1978). ‘From the Socratic dialogue of the ancient Greeks to the academic debates characterizing the advent and modernization of universities, one of the defining features of quality educational experiences has been interaction’ (Madland & Richards, 2016, p. 158). Interaction is interpersonal in nature. This raises the question: does reading course materials or content count as interpersonal interaction? According to Daniel and Marquis (1988), no interaction is involved in studying written materials. Wagner (1994) holds the same view by defining interaction as ‘reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions’ and arguing that ‘interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another’ (p. 8). Interpersonal interaction is not necessarily equal in the sense that two or more parties involved influence each other. Written materials are human artifacts (Xiao, 2017). They are the products of human writers who communicate to unknown or known readers in writing (Xiao, 2017). Reading is a process whereby writers can influence readers but not the other way round. In this sense, Interaction with content is ‘asymmetrical’ as Holden and Westfall (2006, p. 1247) descried it and not mutual. But it is interpersonal in nature, as it comprises communication between writer and reader. Despite the fact that interaction with content is inseparably interwoven with learner– learner and learner–Extension educator interactions in conventional face-to-face educational settings, how to promote this type of interaction in distance education has always been paramount (Xiao, 2017). Figure 1 illustrates the types of interactions that are essential for effective execution of a distance education strategy (Moore, 1989):
Figure 1. Type of Interaction required for successful execution of Distance Education (Moore, 1989).
In order to effectively utilize distance education it is critical that the Extension educator have an understanding of two distinctly different orientations for the Extension educator-clientele relationship (Xiao, 2017). One orientation, largely derived from work by Rothkopf (1970), suggests that direct manipulation of the instructional features of text can improve the quality of the learning experience by affecting learners’ attention and cognitive processes. Rothkopf refers to such designer-implemented activities which direct the learner to specific instructional objectives as ‘mathemagenic activities’. One of the most widely researched and easily applied mathemagenic devices is questions inserted in text for the purposes of directing learners’ attention to specified content (Hamaker, 1986).
By contrast, the generative model of learning (Jonassen, 1985) asserts that, when presented with instructional materials, clientele can and do activate a variety of previous experiences and skills for the purpose of constructing a personal representation of the content. This view of the autonomous learner, however, does not preclude the introduction of strategies and devices which can enhance the selection and application of appropriate generative processes by learners. Training in concept mapping (Novak, 1990), as an example, aims to equip the learner with a graphical procedure for representing instructional content in a meaningful way.
Table 1 shows a variety of mathemagenic and generative processes that should be present in distance educational strategies:
While both models intend to promote involvement in the learning process, the generative model stresses learner control of the process, while the mathemagenic model stresses designer control (Xiao,2017). Both mathemagenic and generative processing activities can be classified in terms of the type and depth of processing that they produce (Xiao, 2017). The table characterizes some mathemagenic strategies as reproductive and some as constructive, suggesting a difference in the instructional objective being addressed by each (Xiao, 2017). Similarly, generative processing strategies are grouped under the categories of selective and constructive (Xiao, 2017). Selective generative strategies are attention focusing, while constructive generative strategies facilitate the process by which meaning is attached to course content (Xiao, 2017). While there is an obvious similarity across the dimensions of both the generative and mathemagenic categories (e.g. underlining/highlighting appears on both sides), the major distinction revolves around who supplies the enhancement, the learner or the designer (Xiao, 2017).
It has been generally established that interaction, and in particular mutual interpersonal interaction, is a defining feature of conventional face-to-face Extension education, which in the eyes of many Extension educators comprises the gold standard and against which other modes of education such as distance education are compared. In the early days of distance education, mutual interpersonal interaction was confined to asynchronous learner–Extension educator communication in the form of email and discussion treads due to the physical separation of learners from their peers as well as Extension educators (Keegan, 1980). In other words, interaction happened mostly between distance education learner and learning materials as the lack of mutual interaction was believed to be a major drawback of distance education (Xiao, 2017). Overcoming this drawback has always been among the top priorities of Extension educators in their search to implement distance educational strategies that are as effective of traditional face to face educational activities.
Garrison (1993, p 200) emphasized that distance education is not ‘a prescriptive and private learning process’ which will most probably lead to superficial learning. Instead, interaction with course materials is ‘compatible with a constructivist paradigm’ (Kember, 1994, p. 153) and can lead to profound learning experience. To achieve this outcome, both generative and mathemagenic devices must be extensively used to optimize the effectiveness of the course materials.
Moore’s (1989) groundbreaking editorial defined three types of interaction in distance education, that is, learner–content, learner–instructor and learner–learner interaction. Numerous attempts have been made to extend this framework. Despite these efforts, Moore’s classification remains the most widely accepted framework for implementing distance educational efforts. This article will also consider the interrelationships between Moore’s three types of interaction. Anderson’s (2003) equivalency theorem is of particular relevance, according to which:
Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student–teacher; student-student; student-content) is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience. High levels of more than one of these three modes will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience, though these experiences may not be as cost or time effective as less interactive learning sequences.
Core to this theory are two theses. One is that a high level of one type of interaction can ensure the effectiveness of the educational experience even if the other two types are reduced or even missing, therefore the name of equivalency, and the other is that use of more than one type of interaction and increase in interactivity may result in a better learning experience.
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Xiao, J. (2017) Learner-content interaction in distance education: The weakest link in interaction research, Distance Education, 38:1, 123-135, DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2017.1298982