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.
There is no doubt that the disruption brought on by Covid 19 marks a tipping point for Extension education. Even if the pandemic magically went away, it is clear that many of our traditional program delivery methods have been altered forever due to group meeting restrictions and societal changes. One of the concerns many Extension educators have when utilizing online educational efforts is the lack of interpersonal interaction and how this lack of interaction impacts educational outcomes.
Interaction has long been a popular topic of research in online learning (Mehall, 2020). Since the beginning of online education in Extension, many have been uncertain of its potential to provide meaning learning experience for clientele, lacking sufficient interaction between Extension educators and clientele. Moore’s (1989) formative work on interaction in online learning identified how interpersonal interaction can decrease transactional distance and therefore provide a more robust educational experience for the learner.. When applying Moore’s (1989) work to Extension education these three types of interaction include clientele-content interaction, clientele-clientele interaction and clientele-Extension educator interaction. York and Richardson (2012) reported that interpersonal interaction of both clientele-clientele and clientele-Extension educator interaction is generally accepted as a critical element for all educational settings.
The use of social constructivist (Vygotsky, 1997) based online course designs has been leveraged in order to promote greater interpersonal interaction. Extension educators often seek to replicate the dialogue that is easily achievable in their face-to-face courses in the online setting by utilizing discussion boards and similar technologies (Mehall, 2020). Despite this quest for sufficient interpersonal interaction, Extension educators still lack consensus on which interpersonal interaction strategies best promote effective clientele learning and satisfaction (Mehall, 2020). Often, Extension educators are pressured to increase the quality of their online courses but are not aware of strategies to encourage clientele to interact (Paquette, 2016). In other cases, Extension educators have been so ingrained in the face-to-face environment for many years and are being asked to convert their courses into the online format without pedagogical and technical support (Lane, 2009).
Additionally, many of the studies on interaction in the online environment do not consider the qualitative aspects of interaction and instead only measure the number of interactions, which typically occurs through methods like counting discussion board posts or course updates (Mehall, 2020). This lack of clarity of what types of interpersonal interaction are most effective warrants exploration into the types of interpersonal interaction that have been demonstrated to lead to better clientele outcomes (Mehall, 2020). A comprehensive review of the pertinent literature related to interpersonal interaction in online learning as it relates to important clientele outcomes. This review allows for a qualitative view of interpersonal interaction, called Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction (Mehall, 2020). Lastly, recommendations for evaluating existing courses for Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction using an established rubric provided for consideration.
Since interaction in online learning has been extensively studied in the last few decades in academia, studies demonstrating the positive benefits of interpersonal interaction are abundant (Mehall, 2020). Interpersonal interaction in online environments has been associated with increased perceived learning (Richardson & Swan, 2003; Sher, 2009; Swan, 2002), higher levels of student satisfaction with the course (Cole, Shelley, & Swartz, 2014; Fedynich, Bradley, & Bradley, 2015; Khalid & Quick, 2016; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Sher, 2009; Swan, 2002), higher levels of faculty satisfaction with the course (Su et al., 2005), and improved student academic achievement (Long et al., 2011).
Open-ended responses in Sher’s (2009) study determined that students valued opportunities to interact meaningfully with their faculty and their peers. Berge (1999) elaborates on the reason behind the benefits of interpersonal interaction: “When students have the opportunity to interact with one another and their instructors about the content, they have the opportunity to build within themselves, and to communicate, a shared meaning to ‘make sense’ of what they are learning” (p. 8). In a study conducted by Northrup, Lee, and Burgess (2002) that investigated the interactions students perceived to be important in online environments using the online learning interaction inventory, students strongly expressed that prompt feedback from faculty and their peers was essential. Clearly, learners value interpersonal interaction opportunities and feel they are important to their successful outcomes in online courses (Mehall, 2020).
Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) widely cited Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education was designed to improve undergraduate education and endorse concepts that incorporate the different types of interaction. Four of Chickering and Gamson’s principles correspond to the critical student-faculty interpersonal interaction types in the online environment: (a) “Encourages contact between students and faculty,” (b) “Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students, (c) “Gives prompt feedback,” and (d) “Communicates high expectations” (p. 2).
Not only have studies shown the interpersonal interaction generally leads to better outcomes, but they have shown that a lack of interpersonal can be detrimental (Mehall, 2020). A three-year study by Cole, Shelley, and Swartz (2014) that examined graduate and undergraduate student satisfaction with online instruction at a university discovered lack of interaction with faculty and with classmates as the main source of student dissatisfaction. From students’ perspectives, interpersonal interaction can not only lead to a more satisfying online course, but a lack of appropriate levels of interpersonal interaction has a negative perceived impact on the learner (Mehall, 2020). Faculty and students also see value in interpersonal interaction, yet both continue to be frustrated with the barriers to achieving sufficient levels of this type of interaction in online environments (Mehall, 2020).
While most of the research available is focused on academia these frustrations are consistent with in formal Extension education in terms of achieving personal interaction that will strengthen online educational efforts.
Although interpersonal interaction has generally been demonstrated to lead to better student outcomes, more interaction may not always be better (Mehall, 2020). Castano-Munoz, Sancho-Vinuesa, and Duart (2013) found evidence of a point of diminishing returns on academic achievement as a result of interpersonal interaction that existed in the online environment but did not exist in the face-to-face environment. This may be due to students becoming overwhelmed with the interactions, whether written or otherwise, in the online environment. Picciano (2002) mentions an example where students must monitor comments in an online discussion, and states that the nature of these comments makes monitoring them more extensive than discussions in face-to-face settings, which may lead to information overload. Northrup, Lee, and Burgess (2002) support this idea by stating that there seems to be an ideal range of appropriate interaction with an upper and lower limit. In Northrup, Lee, and Burgess’ (2002) study, some participants reported being frustrated with an overwhelming amount of interactive assignments within a weekly module. Downing, Lam, Kwong, Downing, and Chan (2007) recommend that interaction in online environments be sustained only as long as there is an educational benefit in doing so. Based on the results of their study, the group theorized that students may disengage from interaction once they have the information they need to complete tasks. These studies give some evidence that increasing interpersonal interaction beyond a saturation point may not only not add any benefit to students but may actually be detrimental to their educational experience (Mehall, 2020).
In our next installment of Next Step to Success post we will continue to discuss Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction when utilizing online learning.
Berge, Z. L. (1999, January–February). Interaction in post-secondary web-based learning. Educational Technology, 39, 5–11. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Zane_Berge/publication/246496634_Interaction_in_ post-secondary_Web-based_learning/links/5614987e08ae983c1b40a111.pdf
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