Student Interaction in Online Distance Education

By Jason D. Baker
February 1999


A survey of headlines in The Chronicle of Higher Education over the past decade reveals increasing momentum in distance education. In 1989 The Chronicle declared, "?Distance Learning? Found To Be Effective" while in 1992 it advised, "University Systems Urged to Invest in Distance Learning ." By 1996 The Chronicle covered "The Virtues of Virtual Universities," in 1998 it informed readers that, "A Philanthropy Puts Millions Into Asynchronous Learning," and just last month an article heralded, "Top Business Schools Seek to Ride a Bull Market in On-Line M.B.A.?s." Such enthusiasm is not unfounded considering that current estimates project that over three million people will be attending distance education classes by the turn of the century, up from approximately one million in 1997. By 2002 eighty four percent of four-year colleges are expected to offer courses at-a-distance, with online programs showing the most growth.

Such rapid growth raises numerous concerns, such as how students are responding to the move from the classroom to the computer. The shift to distance education would appear to portend greater student isolation, and therefore decreased interaction with peers, in the educational experience. However, some proponents of online distance education argue that computer mediated communication can actually increase student interaction. This raises the question: what types of student interaction have been employed by online distance education programs?

To understand interaction within virtual classes, it is helpful to place online education within the larger history of distance education. This paper will present a brief history of distance education, with a particular emphasis on the role of student interaction, followed by a discussion of the rise of online distance education. The focus will then turn to the methods that have been employed to facilitate student interaction. The paper will conclude with some commentary about the resources available for further research into online student interaction.

History of Distance Education

While some have declared the Apostle Paul to be the first distance educator, it is more appropriate to place the beginning of formal distance in the mid 1800s. Early distance education efforts, known alternatively as correspondence study or home study, were essentially specialty courses delivered by mail. Pioneers included Isaac Pitman who in 1840 taught shorthand by correspondence in Great Britain, and Charles Toussaint and Gustav Langenscheidt who taught correspondence language courses throughout Europe in 1856. In 1890 the Colliery Engineer School of Mines in Pennsylvania began a home study course in mine safety which became so popular that the school expanded into the International Correspondence Schools which today is "the largest commercial provider of home study programs in the United States." In 1892 the University of Chicago offered the world?s first college-level correspondence courses and by 1930 there were thirty nine American universities offering courses by correspondence. Such correspondence study lacked any real student interaction, as participants only interacted with their lessons and the instructor, but it set the stage for the development of more sophisticated types of distance education. Furthermore, despite its lack of student interaction (or perhaps because of it), independent correspondence study has remained a popular form of distance education.

As radio emerged as a mass medium, a number of universities were quick to develop distance education programs to be delivered over the air. Between 1911 and 1922 Pennsylvania State College, Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin began broadcasting courses over radio. However, the increasing commercial influence on radio and the development of television prevented this medium from gaining a significant foothold within the United States. In 1934 the State University of Iowa offered their first televised courses in oral hygiene and astronomy and by 1939 they had already broadcast over 400 programs. As television became a commodity, distance education over this new medium grew. Beginning in 1950 the Ford Foundation awarded millions of dollars in grant money to develop televised educational programs, by 1956 public schools and community colleges were teaching over television, and in 1967 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established to promote non-commercial television use. Radio and television use in distance education offered some student interaction, since multiple students could gather together to listen or watch a course broadcast, but it was geographically limited.

The 1960s were one of the most significant times in the history of distance education as multiple non-traditional higher education institutions were established. In 1964 The Union for Research and Experimentation in Higher Education (UREHE) was created by ten liberal arts colleges to explore new possibilities in education. Similarly, in 1967 the British government commenced development of a nationwide non-residential university system. "It would be large, well funded, and would employ the fullest range of communications technologies to teach a full university undergraduate curriculum to any adult who wanted such education." By 1969 both efforts reached fruition as the UREHE became the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in a "University Without Walls" while across the ocean the British Open University opened as a degree-granting institution. Both efforts served as models for non-traditional and distance education and their programs were copied by other institutions. Nova University (now Nova Southeastern University) and Walden University also opened during this same timeframe and offered graduate degrees through regional clusters, weekend sessions, and limited residency courses. While such programs maintained a significant independent study type of approach, the various group learning opportunities offered some possibility for student interaction.

Audio and videoconferencing, made possible by advances in satellite communication, grew in popularity during the 1970s and 1980s. Such technology enabled geographically separated students to simultaneously participate in distance education classes. Often the classes consisted of a one-way video stream (broadcasting the instructor to all of the students) combined with two-way audio. Such technology was readily embraced for corporate instruction, such as the IBM Interactive Satellite Education Network created in 1993, and armed forces training because of the travel cost savings over traditional educational offerings. Within higher education, the National Technological University and National University Teleconference Network have harnessed audio and videoconferencing for college-level instruction. Mind Extension University (ME/U) developed a variant on this approach. ME/U was a cable network started by Glenn Jones in 1987 that broadcast courses developed by participating community colleges and universities. The first ME/U degree program, an MBA offered by Colorado State University, featured lectures delivered by television and student communication with instructors conducted using the telephone and voicemail.

Audio and videoconferencing offered a greater level of student interaction than other types of distance education because students can communicate with classmates independent of geography. While this technology demonstrated an interest in distance learning that went beyond mere independent study, and raised the possibility for a richer learning experience, the high costs associated with this technology largely limited its use to corporate and military environments.

The Rise of Online Distance Education

In order to gain the benefits of videoconferencing without the associated expenses, institutions needed a unique broadcast medium: one with the power and ubiquity of television combined with the costs of print. In the 1980s and 1990s such a medium entered the mainstream: the Internet and World Wide Web. More specifically, the advent of personal computers and subsequent development of electronic bulletin boards, commercial online services, and the Internet and Web made it possible for institutions to deliver courses with development and delivery costs comparable to print and the interaction level similar to videoconferencing.

Early computer-based distance education used proprietary learning software and electronic bulletin boards that students could dial into and leave messages for their instructor or classmates. The first major foray into computerized online education came in 1983 with the launch of the Electronic University Network (EUN). EUN enabled students to take online courses using proprietary software that ran on DOS and Commodore 64 computers. John Bear, author of numerous distance learning guides declared, "The grand opening of the Electronic University Network was one of the defining moments in online distance education." Two years later Paul Levinson started Connected Education, "a not-for-profit corporation that offer[ed] graduate and undergraduate and graduate level courses in conjunction with The New School for Social Research and Polytechnic University." In such programs, a typical student logged into the central computer system at a convenient time, read the latest materials online (or downloaded them for offline reading), then posted comments for others to respond to. Later, the instructor and other classmates followed the same sequence and posted their comments, with the result being an asynchronous discussion conducted through bulletin board postings. In 1987 the Electronic University Network was purchased and changed into a support organization assisting colleges and universities develop virtual campuses. By 1992 EUN hosted numerous virtual campuses and online degree programs, including a Ph.D. in Integral Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies, on America Online.

The advent of the World Wide Web and resulting Internet phenomenon profoundly affected online distance education. No longer did institutions have to maintain their own dial-in electronic bulletin board system or join a commercial online service; they could offer distance education classes from their own campuses. Furthermore, participating students didn?t require any proprietary connectivity software since a Web browser such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer served as a standard interface. The technology also enabled students to interact with one another, as well as the instructor, while offering a wide array of multimedia delivery options. Thanks to the Internet there has been an explosion of online distance education programs in the past five years. Recently developed online degree programs include a B.S. in Governmental Administration from Christopher Newport University, an M.S. in Adult Education from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Services from The Graduate School of America. The New Promise Online Education directory lists over 3700 open-enrollment online courses from 100 accredited schools. Furthermore, the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities recently formed the Christian University GlobalNet, with the goal of delivering online education to at least one million students in a single year by 2003.

Student Interaction Online

The online medium offers many possibilities for student interaction, defined as interpersonal and group communication among students within a particular class. Such interaction can broadly be divided into synchronous and asynchronous discussion. Synchronous communication occurs when multiple students are online simultaneously and communicating with one another. Internet Relay Chat and other chat room software permit students to engage in real-time text-based conversations with one another. Some programs, such as those offered by Strayer University, require all students to log into a special chat room for a weekly lecture and discussion. This approach has the benefit of simulating the traditional class session, though interaction occurs at a much slower rate than in face-to-face encounters.

Asynchronous discussion, in the form of electronic mail or bulletin boards, is more commonly used in online distance learning courses. Asynchronous discussion offers the advantage that students can participate whenever is convenient. One student could submit an assignment at 3:00 in the afternoon while another might respond at 3:00 in the morning. Besides offering flexibility to the student, this makes it much easier to have distance classes with students in different time zones. Furthermore, some argue, such electronic interaction has the potential to improve upon traditional class discussion. Online discussion "changes the social dynamics of education ? putting everyone (students and teachers) on equal footing. Under usual circumstances, everyone can post messages, so each online participant has the same opportunity to contribute ideas or comments." Proponents of asynchronous discussion list numerous benefits: shy students may be less intimidated to participate, quick thinking students cannot dominate discussions, student writing skills are improved through online discussion, and the additional time for reflection and research has the potential to increase the quality of student discussions. The potential benefits of such online education are considered to be so great, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has committed $26 million in grants for the development of asynchronous learning networks.

The most frequent method for encouraging student interaction appears to be regular discussion questions posed by the instructor. While traditional classes can fit discussion in and around a lecture, online courses generally require more forced interaction. Instructors will often post the required reading materials at the beginning of the week and then pose a series of questions for students to respond to via e-mail or by posting to a discussion board. Instructors can force additional class interaction by requiring students to respond to each other?s messages, thereby ensuring at least a minimal level of discussion. Small group and collaborative assignments, similar to those conducted in offline classes, also help to facilitate interaction. Some consider such group activity to be a more powerful form of interaction than mere asynchronous discussion. Many online programs, including Duke University?s Global Executive M.B.A. and The George Washington University?s Educational Technology Leadership M.A., incorporate both types of interaction. As with traditional classes, grades for class participation often serve as a further incentive. Many programs also establish less formal online discussion areas, such as electronic student unions, to encourage students to interact with one another outside of graded assignments.

Clearly there is significant potential for high levels of student interaction, and presumably better learning experiences, available in online distance education. Therefore, one would expect that institutions engaged in online education would trumpet this benefit; however, this is not the case. A survey of promotional materials reveals that many institutions tout convenience, not learning, as the centerpiece of online distance programs. Duke University declares that "students can work and live anywhere in the world while participating in the [Global Executive M.B.A.] program" and similarly Regent University promises, "you can ?attend? Regent classes on your computer?and at your convenience?to earn a fully accredited graduate degree in Business, Communication, Divinity, Education, Government, Organizational Leadership, or Law." This doesn?t necessarily mean that student interaction is minimized, for this might be the best promotional strategy based on market research; however, it does suggest the possibility that student interaction may not be a high priority in online distance education programs. Therefore, it will be important when examining an actual "texts" to note whether such interaction is encouraged and facilitated or whether students are using rhetorical means to fight against isolationism.

Another obstacle to online student interaction appears to be the historical context of distance education. Although online education has the potential for high levels of interaction, the Internet is the latest delivery mode to be used with programs that have historically been designed as independent studies. John Bear commented, "So much [of what is called online education] is just not real computer use; instead schools are using the Internet as a high tech postal service." As long as course designers continue to draw from independent study models, simply substituting the Internet for the post office or television broadcast, they will inhibit the development of truly interactive distance education programs.


In the recent history of online distance education, asynchronous communication tools such as e-mail and discussion boards appear to be the most significant resources employed to promote student interaction. And while it appears that many efforts suffer from McLuhan?s rear-view mirror effect, at least in terms of course development, the potential for increased student interaction through online education is high. From a researcher?s perspective, asynchronous communication is ready-made for historical and rhetorical analysis. Since many online programs used Web-based discussion boards, there are semester-long archives of student interaction. (That is, as long as the institutions don?t erase all postings at the end of a semester.) One can read not only the assignment discussion threads but also any casual conversations that arise throughout the course of a semester. Furthermore, the archives serve as a historical record of the development of online student interaction. Finally, such texts offer rich insight into the strategies that the students themselves employ when interacting with one another.


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