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.
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.
One technique for promoting engaging clientele activities is to provide opportunities for clientele to interact with one another and with Extension educators purposefully. Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) give support that the quality of interaction, not the quantity, is important to fostering meaningful learning, stating that high levels of interaction do not necessarily facilitate meaningful learning. According to Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005), “There must be a qualitative dimension characterized by interaction that takes the form of purposeful and systematic discourse” (p. 135) and “simple interaction, absent of structure and leadership, is not enough. We need to have a qualitatively richer view of interaction” (p. 145).
There is little research specifically referring to purposeful interaction in online environments (Mehall, 2020). In one instance, Abrami et al. (2011) mention purposeful interaction: “Guided, focused, and purposeful interaction goes beyond whether opportunities exist to consider especially why and how interaction occurs” (p. 88). This statement again speaks to the qualitative component of interaction over simply measuring the volume of interaction. Unfortunately, not all instances of interpersonal interaction in any learning environment directly impact or facilitate intellectual growth (Mehall, 2020). In a face-to-face setting, interactions can be off topic, redundant, or even distracting for clientele (Mehall, 2020). In a similar way, interactions in the online environment may not always be purposeful, valuable, or contributory to clientele learning (Mehall, 2020). On the other hand, not all interactions that do not directly relate to course content or learning objectives are without purpose and/or clientele benefit (Mehall, 2020). For example, a case where clientele form social bonds with Extension educators or their peers can be a purposeful interaction. Research has shown that social presence can be an important characteristic in learning (Gilbert & Moore, 1998; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Tu & McIsaac, 2002; Paquette, 2016). Abrami et al. (2011) believe the next generation of online education should be designed to facilitate more purposeful interaction by promoting targeted, intentional, and engaging interactions. In order for online interaction to fulfill its objectives and advance the learning process, interaction opportunities should be designed in a way that allow clientele to interact with content, Extension educators, and other clientele in a manner that is not genuine or forced but meaningful and purposeful.
Purposeful interpersonal interaction is any high quality and valid communication exchange between two or more participants of the learning process that directly relates to the achievement of established learning outcomes or to the building of social relationships (Mehall, 2020). A seemingly endless number of studies have attempted to look at interpersonal interaction from a quantity perspective (Mehall, 2020). Fewer studies have examined the quality of interpersonal interaction in online education and even fewer studies have examined interaction through the lens of measuring the amount of quality interpersonal interaction, defined here as Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction (Mehall, 2020).
An important aspect of Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction is quality (Mehall,2020). Berge (1999) reports that just because interaction opportunities may increase in quantity, this does not automatically lead to increased quality of interaction in the educational experience for clientele. Clearly, not all interactions in online learning are created equal; interactions may have differing levels of value to Extension clientele. Although interactions in the online environment can be easily structured by utilizing the robust features of many of today’s widely used learning management systems (LMS), it is vital that many of these interactions are purposeful to engage Extension clientele. According to Woo & Reeves (2007), an interaction is viewed as meaningful when it has a direct influence on intellectual growth for the clientele.
Social and instructional interactions among students and between student and faculty are common elements of a face-to-face classroom (Picciano, 2002). According to Picciano (2002), “The ability to ask a question, to share an opinion with a fellow student, or to disagree with the point of view in a reading assignment are all fundamental learning activities” (p. 1). In the face to-face classroom, many interactions among students and between students and faculty occur spontaneously and organically (Hirumi, 2002), and the interactions help advance the learning process. Face-to-face learning provides many opportunities for informal learning where an interaction is not planned, but class discussions, reflections, debates, or group projects lead to the stimulation of learning. This process is allowed to happen organically, as faculty member may notice verbal and nonverbal cues from students and feel the need to elaborate on a topic, for example (Hirumi, 2002). In the online environment, this informal learning and the ability to adapt in real-time to fill the gap in understanding may be decreased if students are not given the opportunity and appropriate tools to interact with their peers and faculty. For that reason, quality instructional and social interaction opportunities in online environments need to be deliberately designed into the course (Berge 1999; Bernard et al., 2009; Hirumi, 2002; Northrup, Lee, & Burgess, 2002).
Robyler and Wiencke (2003) highlight the importance of structuring these opportunities, stating, “Highly interactive learning environments are rarely serendipitous; activities must be designed to encourage, support, and even require interaction” (p. 87). The success of online courses often directly relates to the quantity and quality of these interactions (Picciano, 2002). These types of interactions in the online environment must occur in a purposeful way if learning is to effectively occur. According to Martin, Parker, and Deale (2012), “Effectively designed courses should impact students in such a way that there is an increased and spontaneous use of opportunities for interaction within the course” (p. 231).
Purposeful interpersonal interaction can be broken into three main categories: instructional interaction, social interaction, and support interaction, as displayed in Figure 1. The first two types of interaction that results in purposeful personal interaction directly relate to two types of interaction theorized by Gilbert and Moore (1998) to categorize interaction. The two categories identified are content interaction and social interaction (Gilbert & Moore, 1998). Gilbert and Moore (1998) state that many skeptics of online learning are concerned mostly with a lack of ability to foster two categories of interaction that are routinely found in face-to-face instruction: social activity and instructional activity (Mehall, 2020) . Courses with high levels of quality interaction will have components of content and social interaction designed in them (Northrup, 2002). When referring to content interaction in this context, it is not meant to be confused with Moore’s (1989) student content interaction, but rather it refers to interpersonal interaction that focuses on the content (relevant topics) of the course (Mehall, 2020). These two categories seem to reflect two important categories of interaction that Berge (1999) identifies as task/content interaction and social interaction, and two categories of interaction Gilbert and Moore (1998) describe as social instructional interactivity and social interactivity. As a component of purposeful interpersonal interaction, the term instructional interaction is used in place of content interaction or task interaction to avoid confusion (Mehall, 2020). The third and final category of purposeful interpersonal interaction deals with providing online learners with appropriate support (Mehall, 2020). Therefore, the three types of purposeful interpersonal interaction are instructional interaction (PIII), purposeful social interaction (PSI), and supportive interaction (SI) (Mehall, 2020).
Figure 1. Three components of purposeful interpersonal interaction in online learning (Mehall, 2020).
A major part of all educational endeavors are interactions directly associated with the instructional content of the course (Mehall, 2020). Northrup (2002) states that “Content interaction is always directed at attaining the specific learning outcomes or goal of the instruction” (p. 220). In this context, purposeful interpersonal instructional interaction is any interaction between clientele in the learning process that directly relate to completing learning objectives (Mehall, 2020). Although a very broad category on the surface, this interaction category omits any occurrences of extraneous (nonpurposeful) interaction (Mehall, 2020). In the academic arena Woo and Reeves (2008) explain that when students post to a discussion board simply to meet assignment requirements, it is not likely to lead to meaningful learning. This is an example of extraneous interaction that would not reflect a purposeful approach, especially in the event that the posting does not relate in any direct way to course objectives (Mehall, 2020). A student posting an “I agree” or “me too” type of response in a discussion board would not be considered a purposeful interpersonal instructional interaction. Berge (1999) lists some examples of interpersonal interaction that faculty might employ in the academic setting:
All of the items on Berge’s (1999) list are consistent with personal interpersonal instructional interaction. These faculty interactions can be utilized as a strategy to increase instructor presence in online courses. Dennen, Darabi, and Smith (2007) state:
Perceptions of instructor presence are based on learners’ psychological reactions to an online instructor’s actions in both public (whole class) and private correspondence. Further, presence is not only confined to the amount of instructor-learner interaction, but also to the content of those interactions. (p. 67).
Clearly, the items on Berge’s (1999) list would all be interpersonal interaction occurrences that could be classified as leading to enhanced Extension educator presence in the online environment.
Timely feedback. The last item on Berge’s list for instructional interactions, providing feedback and corrective guidance, has also been identified as an essential component of any learning environment (Berge, 1999; Hirumi, 2005; Lewis & Abdul-Hamid, 2006; Woo & Reeves, 2008). Students perceiving that they have access to faculty and receive timely, valuable feedback from faculty is essential to their educational experience (Croxton, 2014). According to Kranzow (2013), “When students receive feedback promptly, they can either have reassurance that they understand the content sufficiently, or conversely, students can request assistance to guide them in the right direction” (p. 132).
Northrup (2002) also demonstrated that student’s rate regular feedback from faculty as an important factor. Although feedback can occur in both nonverbal and verbal ways in the face-to-face environment, it is perhaps even more important in the online environment as it can be imperative to student satisfaction and performance (Dennen et al., 2007; Northrup, Lee, & Burgess, 2002; Thurmond, Wambach, Connors, & Frey, 2002; Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999). Two major types of feedback, corrective feedback and confirmatory feedback, are differentiated in the literature (Mehall, 2020). Corrective feedback allows students to make improvements to their work as faculty stress key areas for improvement and confirmatory feedback allows students to gain approval from faculty that their work is correct (Hirumi, 2005). Studies have demonstrated that feedback can improve course satisfaction as well as academic performance in the online environment (Espasa & Meneses, 2009).
Feedback is also not limited to faculty, as other students can be a source of feedback as well (Mehall, 2020). As stated previously, lack of feedback from faculty and from peers is a major perceived challenge for online students (Muuro et al., 2014). Tu and Corry (2003) state, “when students are allowed and encouraged to obtain support from peers, assignments become social exercises while maintaining original objectives. This may enhance assignment performance and will permit the addition of peer evaluation activities” (p. 55).
The timeliness of feedback is a vital characteristic of purposeful interpersonal interaction in the online environment (Mehall, 2020). Faculty must ensure that learners are receiving prompt corrective and positive feedback in order to allow them to progress through the learning process and achieve key course goals (Mehall, 2020). Without feedback, students cannot identify their errors or gain understanding of what they are doing well, and in that regard, feedback is important for students to identify their weaknesses and recognize their strengths (Mehall, 2020).
Collaborative learning. Today’s modern LMS features enable learners to collaborate in the online environment in better ways than ever before. Group assignments and projects are common in many online courses, as online instructors recognize that collaborative learning is important to cognitive development (Garrison et al., 2000). Graduate students and Extension clientele especially can benefit from collaborative learning through the completion of authentic learning tasks and projects that will prepare them for similar assignments they will encounter in their professional lives (Mehall, 2020).
In writing about the conceptual approach to collaboration, Krejins, Kirschner, and Jochems (2003) summarize the set of conditions that enhance collaboration:
Kreijns, Kirschner, and Jochems (2003) state that ensuring these conditions exist for collaborative learning promotes the positive benefits of this type of learning while also reducing negative aspects of collaborative learning (e.g., social loafing, free-riders, and the “sucker” effect). In this respect, creating these conditions in collaborative learning can be viewed as Purposeful Interpersonal Instructional Interaction (Mehall, 2020)
The key to unlocking quality collaborative learning that enables students to achieve specific learning objectives in online environments while interacting as a group is social interaction (Kreijns, Kirschner, & Jochems, 2003); this is the bridge to the next category of purposeful interpersonal interaction that we will investigate in the next installment in this series.
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