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The purpose of this paper is to draw conclusions regarding the importance of learner-learner interaction when compared to learner-content and learner-instructor interaction in distance education. The paper examines current research concerning whether one type of interaction is more important than the other types. It briefly reviews the types of interaction that have been proposed for use in distance education, the importance of designing interaction into dis-tance learning environments, and the frameworks suggested for effective facilitation of inter-action. While current research may not be able to ascertain which type of interaction is most important to students in distance education, it is the authors' contention that, until research can further clarify the issue, the quality of distance education should improve with renewed focus on incorporating learner-learner interaction.
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Volume 4, Number 46 http://isedj.org/4/46/ August 2, 2006
In this issue:
Importance of Learner-Learner Interaction in Distance Education
Jason H. Sharp Jason B. Huett
Tarleton State University University of West Georgia
Stephenville, TX 76401 USA Carrollton, GA 30118 USA
Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to draw conclusions regarding the importance of learner-
learner interaction when compared to learner-content and learner-instructor interaction in distance
education. The paper examines current research concerning whether one type of interaction is
more important than the other types. It briefly reviews the types of interaction that have been
proposed for use in distance education, the importance of designing interaction into dis-tance learning
environments, and the frameworks suggested for effective facilitation of inter-action. While current
research may not be able to ascertain which type of interaction is most important to students in
distance education, it is the authors’ contention that, until research can further clarify the issue, the
quality of distance education should improve with renewed focus on incorporating learner-learner
interaction.
Keywords: distance education, interaction types, learner-learner interaction, design of interaction
Recommended Citation: Sharp and Huett (2006). Importance of Learner-Learner Interaction
in Distance Education. Information Systems Education Journal, 4 (46). http://isedj.org/4/46/.
ISSN: 1545-679X. (Also appears in The Proceedings of ISECON 2005: §2323. ISSN: 1542-7382.)
This issue is on the Internet at http://isedj.org/4/46/
ISEDJ 4 (46) Information Systems Education Journal 2
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ISEDJ 4 (46) Sharp and Huett 3
Importance of Learner-Learner Interaction
in Distance Education
Jason H. Sharp
jsharp@tarleton.edu
Computer Information Systems, Tarleton State University
Stephenville, Texas 76401, USA
Jason B. Huett
jhuett@westga.edu
Media and Instructional Technology, University of West Georgia
Carrollton, Georgia 30118, USA
Abstract
The purpose of this paper is to draw conclusions regarding the importance of learner-learner
interaction when compared to learner-content and learner-instructor interaction in distance
education. The paper examines current research concerning whether one type of interaction is
more important than the other types. It briefly reviews the types of interaction that have
been proposed for use in distance education, the importance of designing interaction into dis-
tance learning environments, and the frameworks suggested for effective facilitation of inter-
action. While current research may not be able to ascertain which type of interaction is most
important to students in distance education, it is the authors’ contention that, until research
can further clarify the issue, the quality of distance education should improve with renewed
focus on incorporating learner-learner interaction.
Keywords: distance education, interaction types, learner-learner interaction, design of inter-
action
1. Introduction
Much has been written in regard to interac-
tion and a significant amount of research
indicates that it is a crucial component to the
success of distance learning (Berge, 1999;
Hillman, Willis, & Gunawardena, 1994;
Moore, 1996; Zheng & Smaldino, 2003).
Gunawardena (1999) sums up the impor-
tance of interaction stating it “is the essen-
tial process of putting together the pieces in
the co-creation of knowledge” (p. 6). De-
spite this belief, the degree to which interac-
tion actually affects learning is somewhat
unclear (Jung, Choi, Lim, & Leem, 2002;
Kearsley, 1995; Kelsey & D’souza, 2004;
Reisetter & Boris, 2004; Sabry & Baldwin,
2003). What seems clear, however, is that
interaction does contribute to student satis-
faction and to continued interest in distance
learning environments (Berge, 1999, 2002;
King & Doerfert, 1996; Northrup, 2002).
This begs the questions: What are the types
of interaction and is one type of interaction
more important than the other types for dis-
tance education? The authors will begin
with a brief discussion of the various types
of interaction, the design of interaction, and
proposed frameworks for facilitating effec-
tive interaction. Current research studies
are presented and conclusions are drawn
regarding which type of interaction may be
the most vital in regards to enhancing the
distance education learning experience.
2. Types of Interaction
Moore (1996) identifies three types of inter-
action: learner-content, learner-instructor,
and learner-learner. The assertion is that
distinguishing between these three types of
interaction will not only have conceptual
benefits, but also practical implications when
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2006 EDSIG http://isedj.org/4/46/ August 2, 2006
ISEDJ 4 (46) Sharp and Huett 4
determining which media to employ.
Learner-content interaction is essential to
the educational process. By interacting with
the subject matter the overall understanding
of the learner changes and personal con-
struction of knowledge is enabled.
The second type of interaction, learner-
instructor, is widely considered as essential
by educators and students alike. This inter-
action type includes three tasks to be per-
formed by the instructor: to stimulate inter-
est and motivation; to organize application
of student learning; and to counsel, support,
and encourage each learner.
The final interaction type, learner-learner,
finds its value in the areas of application and
evaluation. This occurs as learners share
information with their peers and receive
feedback. While acknowledging the impor-
tance of all three types of interaction in dis-
tance education, Moore finds that “the main
weakness of many distance education pro-
grams is their commitment to a particular
communications medium, and when there is
only one medium, it is probable that only
one kind of interaction is done well” (p.
132).
Due to the implementation of high-
technology devices for interaction in distance
education, Hillman, Willis, and Gunawardena
(1994) propose a fourth type of interaction,
learner-interface. Their argument is that the
interaction types identified by Moore (1996)
do not consider the “the interaction that oc-
curs when a learner must use these inter-
vening technologies to communicate with
the content, negotiate meaning, and validate
knowledge with the instructor and other
learners” (Hillman et al., p. 30-31). Ulti-
mately, if the learner has difficulty interact-
ing with the technological interface, the
learner may be unable to interact with the
content, the instructor and the other learn-
ers. The authors reiterate this point in their
conclusion by stating, “the learner must be
skilled in using the delivery system in order
to interact fully with the content, instructor
and other learners” (Hillman et al., p. 40).
In more recent research, Northrup and Ras-
mussen (2000) advocate the addition of
learner-feedback interaction. This involves
closing the communications loop. Basically,
the learner wants confirmation of receipt and
accuracy of what was sent (Northrup, 2001).
Sutton (2001) suggests a fifth type of inter-
action labeled vicarious interaction. This type
of interaction is based on the “principle that
enhanced achievement and satisfaction may
occur even when all students do not interact
directly” (p. 224). The basis for Sutton’s
argument is that learners can learn vicari-
ously through observing the interaction of
other students. The author specifically de-
fines vicarious interaction as taking place
“when a student actively observes and proc-
esses both sides of a direct interaction be-
tween two other students or between an-
other student and the instructor” (Sutton, p.
227).
3. Design of Interaction
Not only is it important to define and distin-
guish the types of interaction that occur in
distance learning, but also it is equally im-
portant to carefully design interaction into
the learning environment so that all relevant
types of interaction are represented (Berge,
2002; Dabbagh, 2004; Gunawardena, 1999;
Zheng & Smaldino, 2003). Interaction does
not just happen; it must be facilitated by
intentional efforts on the part of the de-
signer (Berge, 1999; King & Doerfert, 1996;
Northrup, 2001). Careful design can affect
both attitudes and performance (Hirumi,
2002). It appears that for several research-
ers, design, and not technology, is the key
issue (Berge, 2002; Cassarino, 2003; Chou,
2003; Dabbagh, 2004; Hirumi, 2002; King &
Doerfert, 1996; Northrup, 2001; Zheng &
Smaldino, 2003).
In order to properly select strategies and
tactics in the design of distance learning en-
vironments and to facilitate interaction,
Northrup (2001) suggests a framework of
“interaction attributes” that can be em-
ployed. This framework includes interaction
with content, collaboration, conversation,
intrapersonal interaction and performance
support.
Hirumi (2002), however, argues that al-
though the current types of interactions and
frameworks are valuable for gaining insight
into the use of interaction in distance learn-
ing, “they neither illustrate the relationship
between, nor provide practical guidelines for
sequencing eLearning interactions to facili-
tate achievement of specified objectives” (p.
143). Hirumi, therefore, proposes yet an-
other framework for interaction based on
three levels.
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2006 EDSIG http://isedj.org/4/46/ August 2, 2006
ISEDJ 4 (46) Sharp and Huett 5
Interactions at Level I take place within the
learner. These include cognitive as well as
metacognitive processes. Level II interac-
tions happen between the learner and hu-
man and non-human resources. This level
encompasses learner-instructor, learner-
learner, learner-other human, learner-
content, learner-interface, and learner-
environment interactions.
Finally, at Level III interactions occur be-
tween learner-instruction. Hirumi calls this
type of interaction an eLearning strategy,
whereby the interactions include events de-
signed to assist learners in achieving clearly
defined objectives. Level III interactions,
therefore, constitute a “meta-level that tran-
scend[s] and serve[s] to organize Level II
interactions” (Hirumi, p. 148). See Table 1
for a summary of Hirumi and Northrup’s
frameworks for the design of interaction:
Table 1: Summary of Frameworks
Author Framework
Hirumi
(2002)
Level I – within the learner
Level II – between learner and
human/non-human resources
Level III between learner
and instruction
Northrup
(2001)
1) Interaction with content
2) Collaboration
3) Conversation
4) Intrapersonal interaction
5) Performance support
4. The Importance of Learner-Learner
Interaction
The current research overwhelmingly sup-
ports the efficacy of collaborative learning.
One would have a hard time arguing that
cognitive development does not occur in a
social context (Glaser, 1990). According to
Jonassen (1993), “. . . common understand-
ings regularly result from social negotiation
of meaning which is supported by collabora-
tive construction of knowledge” (section
2.2). Learners become active participants in
social communities and construct identities
that relate to those communities (Hannon &
Adkins, 2002). This leads to greater depth
of learning.
In terms of interaction, what seems to be
missing most from distance education is a
sense of community. This sense of commu-
nity is often taken for granted in face-to-face
classes where social interaction is all but a
given. The classroom models of instruc-
tional delivery and models of online delivery
systems are vastly different. Many of the
best computer-based, constructivist-style
tools for creating open-ended environments,
such as simulations and collaborative sce-
narios, are passed over in favor of more tra-
ditional behaviorist-style tutorials (such as
“drill-and-kill”) and software catering to
more objectivist or linear approaches. Dis-
tance classes have to foster a sense of
community if one is to exist.
Traditional distance education models have
the learner placed in relative isolation
(Downs & Moller, 1999; Moore, 1986).
Within this framework, the learner can still
interact with the content and the instructor,
but often, there is little-to-no interaction
among learners beyond surface email ex-
changes, discussion board postings, and the
occasional online chat. Traditional educa-
tion, as well as more traditional distance
education, is primarily concerned with the
relationship between the learner and the
material to be learned. Well-designed feed-
back and interaction in distance education
should concern itself with creating a dialogue
or conversation among a community of
learners (Huett, Moller, & Young, 2004).
Moller (1998) adds “. . . the potential of
asynchronous learning can only be realized
by designing experiences and environments
which facilitate learning beyond the content-
learner interaction” (p. 115). This outdated
concept of learner isolation is being sup-
planted by the emergence of learning com-
munities in distance education which Tinto
and Russo (1993) state “may be the only
viable path to greater student involvement”
(¶ 21).
There seems little doubt that collaboration
can enhance the learning experience:
“Online collaboration, in the form of peer
work groups and learning communities, in-
creases engagement in the learning process”
(Moller, et al., in press). Cifuentes and Mur-
phy (2000) find that distance education
communities can “foster powerful relation-
ships. . .” (p. 81). Online learning communi-
ties improve student outcomes, foster higher
order thinking and creativity, and enhance
student involvement (Schallert & Reed,
2004; Tinto & Russo, 1993; Yakimovicz &
Murphy, 1995). Palloff and Pratt (1999)
consider collaboration the basis of transfor-
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ISEDJ 4 (46) Sharp and Huett 6
mative learning. Distance learning commu-
nities have also been shown to increase stu-
dent motivation (Moller, et al., in press;
Schallert & Reed, 2004). Learning communi-
ties have been shown to have a positive ef-
fect on student retention, participation and
goal accomplishment (Cathcart, Samovar, &
Henman, 1996).
From the overwhelming support in the re-
search for learning communities, it seems
reasonable to assume that improving
learner-learner interaction helps to center
the individual in a learning process that is as
active and cognitively complex as possible.
Of the types of interaction explored in this
paper, the research would seem to suggest
that enhancing learner-learner interaction
should have the most sweeping effect in
terms of improving the overall learning ex-
perience in the distance education environ-
ment.
5. Recent Research on Interaction in
Distance Education
In a case study conducted by Kelsey and
D’souza (2004) of a distance education pro-
gram offered at a university agricultural col-
lege, two main research questions were ex-
amined: 1. Did the student-content and stu-
dent-interface interactions motivate learners
to favorable learning outcomes; and 2. Did
the learner-learner interactions motivate
learners to favorable learning outcomes?
The findings revealed that student-instructor
interactions were important to both instruc-
tors and students. In regard to student-
content interactions, students were found to
be successful in using the various technolo-
gies to meet their learning needs. It was
concluded that learner-learner interactions
were considered the least crucial for success
and the least important to the students. It
was also noted that the faculty similarly did
not emphasize or demand learner-learner
interaction.
A study conducted by Sabry and Baldwin
(2003) sought to evaluate the correlation
between learning styles and perceptions of
learners in relation to the use of interaction
types.
Results showed that learner-information
scored highest, learner-tutor scored lowest
and learner-learner fell somewhere between
the two. In conclusion, the authors asserted
that the participants did have different per-
ceptions of different types of interaction.
The study indicates that learner-information
has the highest score in terms of frequency
of use and perception of usefulness. The
authors point out that although all three in-
teraction types had relatively low scores in
frequency of use, the students’ perception
was that their usefulness and importance
remained high. This indicated a gap be-
tween “actual use” and perception.
In a third study, Jung, Choi, Lim, and Leem
(2002) contend that most research into in-
teraction has compared traditional face-to-
face classes with online classes. The argu-
ment presented is that little research has
been conducted to compare the conse-
quences of interaction types in distance
learning. The purpose of the study, then, is
to examine the consequences of the three
interaction types on learners in terms of
achievement, satisfaction, participation, and
attitude. The research questions focused on
learner satisfaction, achievement through
social collaborative interaction, student par-
ticipation within the collaborative or social
interaction environment, and student atti-
tudes toward online learning according to
the types of interaction in which they en-
gage. The authors utilized three interaction
groups identified as social, collaborative, and
academic which correspond with learner-
instructor, learner-learner, and learner-
content respectively.
The study implies that different types of in-
teraction may vary in terms of consequences
on achievement, satisfaction, and participa-
tion in distance learning. In summary, the
results show that the social interaction group
outperformed the other groups, and the col-
laborative group expressed the highest level
of satisfaction with their learning process.
In addition, the collaborative and social
groups participated more often in posting
their opinions to the discussion board than
did the academic group; and regardless of
the type of interaction, web-based learning
experiences brought about a positive atti-
tude change concerning the use of the web
for learning.
Finally in a recent study, Reisetter and Boris
(2004) studied a group of South Dakota stu-
dents. Among several research questions
concerning characteristics of online learners
and important components for online learn-
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2006 EDSIG http://isedj.org/4/46/ August 2, 2006
ISEDJ 4 (46) Sharp and Huett 7
ing, they concluded that students placed a
high value on learner-content and learner-
instructor interaction and note, with some
surprise, the low value placed by students
on learner-learner interaction.
6. Discussion
From the studies cited above, one can see
that little consensus can be drawn regarding
which type of interaction is most important
to students in distance learning environ-
ments. One study found that learner-
instructor interaction was perceived as most
important, whereas learner-learner was per-
ceived as least important (Kelsey & D’souza,
2004). Another study indicated that learner-
content was perceived as most important
(Sabry & Baldwin, 2003), followed by
learner-learner and, interestingly enough,
learner-instructor was perceived as least
important. These two studies completely
reversed the interaction that students per-
ceived as most important.
Still, another study judged learner-content
and learner-instructor as equally important
to students with learner-learner, similar to
Kelsey’s and D’Souza’s (2004) findings,
relegated to minimal importance (Reisetter
& Boris, 2004).
Although the study by Jung, Choi, Lim, and
Leem (2003) does not directly ask the ques-
tion of perceived importance, it can be in-
ferred that learner-learner was perceived as
more important than the other types of in-
teraction due to the fact that the collabora-
tive group expressed the highest level of
satisfaction and along with the social group
had the highest number of postings to the
discussion board. Another inference is the
placement of learner-instructor as second in
perceived importance based on the number
of postings to the discussion board.
Learner-content can be inferred to be least
important based on the author’s conclusion
that academic interaction was not sufficient
to affect learner achievement, participation,
satisfaction or attitude.
Numerous other studies advocate the bene-
fits of collaboration and learning communi-
ties in online environments (Gay & Lentini,
1995; Kruger, 2000; Moller, 1998; Moller, et
al., in press; Moore & Kearsley, 1996). In
regard to the aforementioned studies con-
cerning student perceptions about favored
types of interaction, one hesitates to draw
any conclusion about the relative importance
of learner-learner interaction when com-
pared to other types. Given the extensive
research on the benefits of collaborative
learning, one can arrive at a working as-
sumption that a greater sense of community
will increase motivation, participation, un-
derstanding, and satisfaction. So it follows
that, if the aforementioned students sur-
veyed about interaction types were actually
involved in classes with strong learning
communities, they would most likely rate
this type of interaction as very important.
One is given no clear indication from the
studies that learning communities were ever
established.
However, the solution may not be that sim-
ple. Echoing many of the concerns ex-
pressed by Reisetter and Boris (2004), one
must ask if we are doing the right thing forc-
ing learning communities on an audience
that, quite possibly, neither desires nor
needs them. Does the extensive research
on the value of learning communities in tra-
ditional classroom settings mean that they
are a necessary component of online learn-
ing? There is simply not enough research to
answer what type of interaction distance
learners prefer or should be expected to en-
gage in. It seems plausible, given the lack
of collaborative learning in K-12 environ-
ments, that our educational system is pro-
ducing learners who prefer to interact with
the content and/or the instructor but not
each other. It seems equally plausible that
the type of learner who typically engages in
distance education courses (adult, inde-
pendent learners with higher internal loci of
control) have significantly different goals and
preferences when it comes to online learning
that may not lend themselves well to learn-
ing communities (Navarro & Shoemaker,
2000; Reisetter & Boris, 2004).
This places the distance educator in a phi-
losophical and pedagogical conundrum. Phi-
losophically, one wants to believe in the
value of dynamic learning communities;
pedagogically, most educators have been
trained to value collaboration and have often
experienced the educational power of learn-
ing communities firsthand. However, the
online learner is not the traditional student,
and perhaps it is time researchers did a bet-
ter job of acknowledging that and started
thinking differently.
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2006 EDSIG http://isedj.org/4/46/ August 2, 2006
ISEDJ 4 (46) Sharp and Huett 8
7. Conclusion
Validating the efficacy of learner-learner in-
teraction in distance education environments
is not as cut-and-dried a process as one
might think. There is extensive research
supporting learning communities, but there
are also many unanswered questions about
the value of learner-learner interaction as it
regards the online learner.
That said, until the research can answer
some of these questions, it may be best to
err on the side of caution and the volumes of
research promoting collaborative learning
communities and focus design efforts on im-
proving this aspect of distance education
delivery. 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 learn-
ing communities, the quality of distance
education should improve with renewed fo-
cus on incorporating learner-learner interac-
tion.
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Chapter
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Thesis
Full-text available
هدف البحث الحالي إلى الكشف عن أثر اختلاف نمط التفاعل (فردي- إجتماعي ‏مصغر- إجتماعي موسع) في بيئة تعلم قائمة على نظم إدارة بيئات التعلم الإفتراضية ثلاثية ‏الأبعاد في إكساب مهارات تصميمها وإنتاجها وتنمية التفكير الإبتكاري لدى طلاب الفرقة الرابعة ‏تكنولوجيا التعليم ، استخدم منهج البحث الوصفي والمنهج التجريبي لإعداد أدوات البحث ‏وتطبيق تجربته، كما تضمنت إجراءات البحث اختيار عينة مكونة من عدد (90) طالبًا من ‏طلاب الفرقة الرابعة شعبة تكنولوجيا التعليم، تم تقسيم العينة إلى ثلاث مجموعات تجريبية: ‏‏(الأولى) "طلاب يدرسون بنمط التفاعل الفردي " وعددهم "30" طالبًا، (والثانية) "طلاب يدرسون ‏بنمط التفاعل الاجتماعي المصغر" وعددهم (30) طالبًا، (والثالثة) " طلاب يدرسون بنمط ‏التفاعل الاجتماعي الموسع " وعددهم (30) طالبًا، وتم تطبيق البيئة الافتراضية ثلاثية الأبعاد ‏على المجموعات التجريبية، وتمثلت أدوات البحث في الاختبار التحصيلي للجانب المعرفي، ‏ومقياس التفكير الابتكاري لتورانس الصورة أ، وبطاقة تقييم المنتج، وتم تطبيق أساليب المعالجة ‏الإحصائية المناسبة باستخدام البرامج الإحصائية للعلوم الاجتماعية "‏SPSS‏". ومن أهم ‏النتائج التي توصل إليها البحث الحالي التأثير الملحوظ للبيئة الافتراضية ثلاثية الأبعاد على ‏أفراد المجموعة التجريبية الثانية (طلاب يدرسون بنمط التفاعل الاجتماعي المصغر داخل بيئة ‏التعلم الافتراضية ثلاثية الأبعاد)، وأوصت الدراسة بسد الفجوة بين ما يتعلمه طلاب تكنولوجيا ‏التعليم بكليات التربية وبين التطور التكنولوجي واحتياجات المجتمع عن طريق مراعاة التطور ‏الهائل في متغيرات تكنولوجيا التعليم بحيث ينعكس تفوقهم الدراسي على نمو مجتمعهم. ‏
Chapter
This chapter describes a framework adapted from Michael Moore's three essential areas: student-content interaction, student-student interaction, and student-instructor interaction for engaging students in online courses. To be fully engaged in an online course, students need to be engaged with the course curriculum content, with their peers, and with their instructor. When students are engaged in all three areas, it is referred to as the Trifecta of Student Engagement. This chapter incorporates literature on each area of the Trifecta of Student Engagement: student-to-content engagement, student-to-student engagement, and student-to-instructor engagement as well as some suggested synchronous and asynchronous digital tools.
Chapter
In this book on designing constructivist learning environments, we offer a conception of why and how these environments should be used in higher education.
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We provide recommendations, grounded in research findings, for the use of computer-mediated discussion (CMD) in instruction. For years, we have studied undergraduate and graduate level courses that made use of synchronous and asynchronous electronically-mediated discussion as an important aspect of course design. Here, we discuss three questions and consider instructional recommendations grounded in our research: Can students successfully learn something of value as a result of participating in CMD? How can students’ attentional and motivational responses to CMD inform course design? What are ways to structure CMD more effectively when classes include international students?
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Most treatments of the concept of interaction in distance education have been based on Moore's (1989) discussion of three types of interaction: learner‐content, learner‐instructor, and learner‐learner. However, these previous discussions have failed to consider the interaction that occurs between the learner and the technologies used to deliver instruction. This article presents the concept of learner‐interface interaction and recommends instructional design strategies that will facilitate students' acquisition of the skills needed to participate effectively in the electronic classroom.
Article
Prior research has identified four kinds of interaction that affect the learning process in distance education (Hillman, Willis, & Gunawardena, 1994; Moore, 1989). This article defines, characterizes, and describes a fifth form of interaction of particular importance to certain learners, especially within the context of computer-mediated communication (CMC). This newly defined concept is referred to as "vicarious interaction." During a pilot study, the author identified students as "direct interactors," "vicarious interactors," "actors," or "non-actors" (Sutton, 1999). Within this framework, the learning psychology associated with the process of vicarious interaction is comparatively analyzed. It is generally accepted that participatory interaction by students directly affects educational success; however, social and psychological characteristics of individual students often combine to inhibit their direct interaction. This article presents the principle that direct interaction is not necessary for all students, and that those who observe and actively process interactions between others will benefit through the process of vicarious interaction.