Online Best Practice: Interaction Matters
*Lowell M. Glenn and **Gregory R. Berry
Utah Valley State College
This article addresses some of the issues that are critical to improving quality in the delivery of
learning opportunities in higher education. The authors assert that interaction, in all its varied
forms, is important to achieving that objective. Interaction may take different forms in the varied
face-to-face or online delivery systems – yet each can be equally effective when properly
understood and implemented. The authors identify changing roles that professors and students
may need to recognize and adopt in order to achieve quality interaction processes for each
delivery system. Appropriate interaction in online teaching and learning is the main focus of this
article. Pragmatic suggestions are also offered that can be implemented to attain the objective of
providing quality learning opportunities in a variety of learning environments.
Key Words: Computer-mediated communication, Asynchronous communication, Classroom
interaction, Online best practice
A growing literature examines quality in distance
education teaching and learning. Typically, this
literature attempts to compare the quality of online
with the quality found in face-to-face classrooms,
apparently assuming that generic online and face-to-
face classrooms exist and that these can be fairly
compared. The concern by educators and others
about online quality may be partly personal and
philosophical. Some traditional face-to-face
classroom professors are skeptical about whether the
ability of students to learn if they are not physically
present with the professor. Some claim that
professors need to sense the responsiveness of
students in the classroom environment for effective
teaching and learning to take place. Online
professors may respond that although online
classrooms are different from face-to-face classrooms
that they are not necessarily better or worse, and that
learning depends on the structure and system used in
the classroom. This article identifies student
participation as a classroom characteristic necessary
for quality teaching and learning in the online
Contemporary online classrooms are capable of
going far beyond putting the syllabus, reading list,
and other content on an ftp site available to student
access. Technology support for distance education is
now both more stable and accessible than even five
years ago. Computer systems are generally as reliable
now as toasters or televisions and are ubiquitously
available in most homes or business offices. The
development of broadband Internet connections and
wireless applications facilitates ability and
convenience in accessing course content, professors,
and peers in the interactive online classroom.
The skeptic traditionalist’s attitude toward distance
education is perhaps caused by misunderstanding,
experience with earlier forms of online education, or
even ignorance. Regardless of delivery system or
model many factors need to converge when creating
quality education, and understanding the different
types of convergence in various delivery models
should be the objective of educators concerned with
quality. The important question is not “what is
quality distance education”, or even “what is quality
lecture-based education?” Instead, we need to
understand “what is a quality teaching and learning
experience?” This article argues that a quality
experience is as possible online as in face-to-face
57 Journal of Business Inquiry 2006
A major determinant of quality is the extent of
interaction within the classroom. This interaction can
be between professors and students, between
members of the classroom student cohort, or students
and professors with the course material. This paper
explores interactivity in the online classroom. This
paper also explores the differences between face-to-
face synchronous communication and online
asynchronous communication. The paper closes with
some prescriptive suggestions for using asynchronous
communication to strengthen online classroom
interaction and improve outcomes.
The Interactive Classroom
Contemporary organizations must continually
upgrade organizational skills if they wish to stay
competitive in the dynamic and increasingly global
business environment. A force for change in
educational systems is the growing number of non-
traditional students attending higher education
classes. These students often have full-time work
and family responsibilities along with their need for
further education. This upsurge of non-traditional
students needing post-secondary education, coupled
with budget constraints in public funding, results in
educational institutions searching for innovative ways
to meet these challenges. Distance education,
especially online classes, and other technologically or
computer-mediated teaching models provides one
approach in meeting this growing need.
Recent studies both justify and criticize distance
education as contrasted with traditional delivery
systems (Glenn, Jones, and Hoyt, 2003). A problem
with many of these comparison studies is that they
are idiosyncratic to specific courses, professors, or
programs, or alternatively compare the straw man of
generic online with generic traditional classrooms.
What is often missed is that online quality varfies
from the truly pathetic to the truly remarkable – the
same variance as in traditional face-to-face
classrooms. The most common conclusion in these
studies is that there is no significant difference in
levels of student achievement online or face-to-face,
but comparing a superior course to a poor course,
regardless of delivery method, makes many
comparisons suspect if not pointless. Having a
variety of delivery systems that are beneficial to
students in different ways is perhaps the answer.
On the one hand, there are advantages that distance
education and/or computer-mediated learning creates
because of the dependence of these learning models
upon asynchronous written interaction compared to
face-to-face synchronous learning models. However,
many argue that fewer opportunities exist in the
computer-mediated online classroom for
interpersonal exchanges between instructors and
students, and that this limits learning processes and
outcomes. This argument claims that alternatives do
not exist in asynchronous interaction to compensate
for this missing interpersonal synchronous
connection. These educators essentially argue that
the virtual classroom cannot provide professor-
student experiences that are as meaningful as those
found face-to-face. However, an equally persuasive
argument can be made that the personalized
interaction in the traditional classroom is fleeting,
whereas technology mediated interaction in the
asynchronous discussion model is recorded and
archived for on-going review and reflection. The
archival ability compensates to some degree for the
lack of personalized face-to-face contact. Interaction
is different in the online classroom as compared to
the face-to-face classroom.
Importance of Interaction
Regardless of delivery system, teaching presence has
been consistently identified as critical to creating and
sustaining a quality learning experience (Anderson, et
al., 2001). Teaching presence does not necessarily
mean physical presence. The 24/7-asynchronous
interaction available in online courses lends itself to
this challenge. Dramatic shifts and improvements in
distance education have occurred over the last half
decade, partly because of experience with computer-
mediated asynchronous discussion and partly because
of technology improvements. Online teaching is
more effective and instant than the old-fashioned
correspondence school process, which many early
online classes tried to emulate. Today, many
participants including students, professors, and
program designers expect a constant and continuing
interactive exchange between all in the learning
cohort in the online classroom (Swan, 2004; Shea,
Pickett, and Pelz, 2004). Ironically, being an
effective face-to-face teacher does not automatically
translate into teaching effectiveness in the online
environment. Quality and success in the online
58 Journal of Business Inquiry 2006
classroom requires a change of student and professor
roles, and requires recognition of the need for
developing new skills, abilities, methods, and
philosophy for success (Picciano, 2001).
The Differences between Synchronous and
The differences between synchronous and
asynchronous interaction (AI) need to be clearly
understood before increased interaction can occur in
the online computer-mediated classroom. Computer-
mediated communication technologies increase the
ability to collect or distribute information faster, but
also allow the creation of larger or geographically
dispersed student groups, thereby adding the
opportunity for increased diversity in the classroom,
at relatively low cost. Virtual student cohorts depend
on each other in different ways, and so team norms,
roles, and procedures are often also changed relative
to face-to-face teams (Sproull and Kiesler 1991).
Group interaction online, while different in context
from a traditional classroom environment, offers the
opportunity to experience these activities in ways that
contribute to the real world challenges such as
corporate virtual teams that students are likely to face
in their professional careers.
Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) suggest that AI offers
learners advantages over face-to-face interactions
including expected and active participation of all
students, flexibility for both students and professors
of when to interact or participate over time and
distance, availability of time for students to reflect or
collect additional data before response, more
democratic or equal student participation, and instant
and evolving archived record of the discussion and
process. In addition, technology enhanced
experiences can broaden student opportunities
through simulations, more immediate access to
massive amounts of information through the web,
and other related factors. These benefits may be
increasingly crucial as students demand increased
flexibility and control over their learning experiences,
and create both opportunities and constraints for
changed professor and student roles in the online
AI is a specific type of computer-mediated
communication that allows parallel and simultaneous
response by many students. AI is interactive and
collaborative because it enables one-to-one, one-to-
many, many-to-one, and many-to-
manycommunication interactions (Berry 2004),
whereas many-to-one or many-to-many
communication is very difficult in face-to-face or
traditional synchronous communication. Best
practice in the AI classroom establishes a virtual site
devoted to student tasks or problems where they can
make their own contributions, and read and study
contributions made by others 24/7. Students
contribute where and when relevant without
communication blocking as is common in face-to-
face classrooms (McLeod 1996). Discussion evolves
over hours, days, or even weeks, depending on class
deadlines; instant responses in AI are rare although
not impossible. Students have an opportunity to be
more thoughtful than in face-to-face interaction
because of the availability of a time-pause before
response. Students can also dedicate sufficient time
to the issue at hand when personally convenient
instead of when scheduled by the professor.
Most of the literature examining interaction uses
face-to-face communication as the norm or standard.
Student communication through AI works in a
different physical and social milieu than face-to-face
communication. The challenge in using AI is to
capture the content and process quality benefits of
face-to-face interaction. The challenge is also to
reduce or remove detrimental factors common to
synchronous communication such as time pressures,
group size, scheduling problems, and inaccurate
The Role of the Professor in Best-practice Online
The professor is critical in creating quality in any
classroom, online or face-to-face. The professor
must be aware of teaching activities that most easily
enable student understanding, and retains the role of
academic expert regarding content concepts and
principles (Biggs, 1999). The foundation of effective
online classrooms is student centeredness. The
online professor’s contributions to the student-
centered online classroom are both academic and
non-academic, and so the professor is both content
expert and classroom facilitator. Academic
contributions might be corrective, informational, or
Socratic, including the sharing of relevant course-
related personal experience (Cronje, 2001). Non-
59 Journal of Business Inquiry 2006
academic contributions might be administrative,
purely social, or motivational.
The online professor’s role is not necessarily
different from the role assumed by the creative small-
class-size face-to-face professor, but is significantly
different from the role of the large-class-size lecture-
based professor. The online professor’s role has
changed from being the font of all valid knowledge
who is responsible in some manner for student
learning, as in the lecture-based class. The new
online role is that of facilitator and coach who
provides resources, opportunities, and encouragement
for students to be responsible for their own learning
and knowledge. The best-practice online professor is
no longer the sage-on-the-stage but has become the
facilitator of learning, more like a guide-on-the-side
(Collison, et al., 2000), as students work to
understand the meaning of the course content in part
through conversation and interaction with each other
and the professor.
The professor’s role needs to be re-conceptualized to
allow maximum independence in the student cohort,
although the professor is still responsible for grading
and grade giving. Yet, expectations and experiences
from the lecture-based classroom carry over into the
online classroom for both student and professor, and
so a stepping-back on the professor’s part to allow
student confusion and discovery can be initially
difficult for both students and professor. Essentially,
the professor moves away from the lecture and
toward the use of interactive learning approaches
such as the use of discussion threads to explore
multiple topics simultaneously (Palloff and Pratt,
2001). The professor is not unilaterally in control of
the discussion or the learning, but effectively shares
control of the class with the student cohort by no
longer being the sole voice of expertise or
A challenge in online classrooms is in encouraging
student discussion to progress beyond the sharing of
basic information, experience, and opinion, to more
analytical and critical thinking levels (Garrison,
Anderson, and Archer, 2001). This challenge is
partly met by the online professor actively
participating in the discussion threads, refering
students to information sources such as book or
article references and relevant web-links, or
otherwise critically commenting on student
contributions (Anderson, et al., 2001; Vrasidas and
McIsaac, 2000). A fundamental task in the effective
online classroom is for the professor to facilitate
interaction to enable peer-to-peer learning
A core responsibility of online professors remains
direct involvement in the presentation of subject
matter (Anderson, et al., 2001; Garrison, Anderson,
and Archer, 2000). Effective set-up of the initial
discussion threads through the discussion questions is
a key responsibility. The professor is responsible for
keeping the multiple discussion threads on track, and
weaving together the various discussion threads and
course components to create a unified course (Parry
and Dunn, 2000). Given the ability of students to
establish their own subsidiary discussion threads, this
usually requires much more synthesis than typically
required in the professor-controlled classroom.
The best-practice online professor’s role includes
building a learning community among learners,
consciously incorporating cohort collaboration into
the learning process, and, critically, enabling and
empowering students to be responsible and active
learners. The major purpose of teaching in the online
environment may be in assisting students to move
from a position of dependency on the instructor to
one of self-reliance in learning (Berge, 1999).
The Role of the Student in Best-practice Online
Students in online classes have a role and
responsibilities that are considerably different from
their role and responsibilities in lecture-based
classrooms. The online student is commonly
expected to be in constant interaction and discussion
with others in the cohort (Harasim, 1990; Brown,
1997), a dynamic rarely found in lecture-based
classrooms. Online students move from being
passive recipients of knowledge chosen by others to
being active constructors of knowledge that is
personally relevant and valid (Greeno, Collins, and
Resnick, 1996). Course content is derived from the
textbook and the professor (as in the lecture-based
classroom), and from the ongoing discussion as
everyone in the cohort contributes experience,
examples, other resources from other (often)
electronic sources, and perceived meaning.
60 Journal of Business Inquiry 2006
Online students are challenged to justify what they
think and believe, and this is different from many
lecture-based classrooms where student perspectives
are rarely heard, defended, or discussed (Hacker and
Niederhauser, 2000; Simonson, et al., 2000;
Richardson and Swan, 2003). This is a direct result
of the computer-mediated asynchronous interaction
as every student has unlimited opportunity to
participate, and is not physically blocked from
interacting as in synchronous discussion. In best-
practice online classrooms every student contributes.
Likewise, the experience of creating personal
relevance and meaning is an expectation in the online
class for every student.
The online student is expected to be more responsible
for his or her own learning instead of being
dependent on the professor as the expert and provider
of instruction (Berge, 1997). The online classroom
flattens the traditional top-down hierarchy, at least in
part, and power and control is shifted in part to the
student (Schrum and Benson, 2000; Schrum and
Hong, 2002). This transfer of control is
accomplished partly through the pedagogical design
of the course, partly through the tools provided by
computer-mediated communication technology, and
partly through the professor’s conscious choice in
creating and enabling a student-centered classroom.
The professor’s initial posting of questions is only the
starting point for cohort discussion, and not a
constraint or limitation on student interest or choice
for ongoing discussion.
The process of ongoing discussion and reflection
through writing is fundamental to the online learning
process. In best-practice online classes this cohort
contribution often exceeds several hundred postings
per discussion, per week, in a fifteen to twenty
student class. This is possible only because students
can all talk at once and do not have to wait their turn
to talk as in a synchronous classroom. Many students
perceive peer-to-peer explanation or shared
experience as more valid or relevant than professor or
textbook explanation (Knowlton, 2000; Schrum and
Berge, 1998). This articulation of learning requires
intentional effort to relate new learning to past
learning and experience (Jonassen, et al., 1995), but
also creates challenges for online faculty as they
guide the student-centered discussion.
Online asynchronous discussion enables
collaboration and interaction because students do not
have to compete for voice time, and all students are
encouraged and expected to contribute and share as
much as they can in the 24/7 classroom (Thorpe,
1998; Berry, 2005). Students are able to reflect on
their own experience and abilities relative to the
perceived or stated abilities of their classmates, and
thus gain a better awareness and understanding of
their own strengths and weaknesses (Hacker and
Niederhauser, 2000). The pedagogical objectives of
articulating, analyzing and synthesizing are well
served by the high amounts of interaction in the
online classroom (Neal, 1998; Weiss, 2000), and not
surprisingly, higher levels of student interaction are
correlated with higher levels of student satisfaction
and learning (Meyer, 2003). The change from
synchronous to asynchronous communication, when
combined with the subsequently changed roles for
both students and professors, establishes the context
for improving interaction in the online classroom.
Suggestions for Increasing Interaction in the Best-
practice Online Classroom
To increase interaction online professors need to
consciously create student-centered classrooms.
Second, both professors and students need to
understand their changed role in the online
classroom, if a quality learning experience is going to
take place. The expanding use of course
management systems within higher education
delivery of distance education supports the ability to
expand varied interaction elements. When
appropriately employed course management systems
significantly contribute to the learning process.
Interaction between students in the peer cohort is the
foundation of student-centered online classrooms.
Interaction between professor and students, while still
important, is less important online than in the lecture-
based classroom. The use of the bulletin board or
dedicated discussion groups available in online
courses increases interaction both student to student
and student to professor. Best practice in
asynchronous learning models requires students to
carefully consider and present their thoughts to the
ongoing cohort interaction, necessitates responses
from all students and allows time for reflection.
These measurable interactive exchanges can be
61 Journal of Business Inquiry 2006
evaluated in terms of quality by the professor and can
assist in determining grades.
Postings are immediately available to all students and
the professor, and are permanently archived.
Everyone in the class is expected to contribute to
each and every discussion, an expectation completely
impossible in the traditional lecture-based class.
Content questions are asked and answered within a
peer and professor network of discussion and
interaction. The public forum allows professors to
answer questions only once instead of responding
several times to similar questions from individual
students. Professors encourage the evolving thread,
offer ongoing examples of acceptable participation
and etiquette, and can make appropriate changes if
discussions go awry. Students need to understand
that participation is a critical aspect of online courses,
and that success requires active and almost daily
contributions to all discussions.
The following suggestions may assist in increasing
Ice Breakers. Require students, early in the semester,
to participate on the discussion board. Make it clear
that they will be graded on the relevant contributions
they make to the discussion. Begin with basic
assignments that allow students to familiarize
themselves in how to use the system effectively and
then move to more sophisticated assignments. It is
useful to set up individual forums for the variety of
assignments that will be developed during the course
of the semester. An early assignment might ask the
student to create a biographical sketch or outline
what they believe they will learn from the course.
These introductory assignments can also be used to
allow students to identify two or three people that
they would be willing to work with in future group
Reflective Analysis. A more sophisticated
assignment asks students to prepare a written think
piece in response to an article from a professional
journal as assigned by the professor. Students post
responses on the discussion board and then critically
analyze each other’s views. The combination of
having to do the original writing on the topic,
reviewing peer ideas on that same issue, and then
responding in the form of continuing discussion is the
type of learning that meets the highest objectives
outlined in Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Expect Students to Create Their Own Discussion
Threads. Identify an expectation at the beginning of
the semester that students discuss questions that arise
in their learning on a specified area of the classroom
discussion boards. These self-initiated postings can
be evaluated to insure that they reinforce course
related discussions as contrasted to socially focused
Chat Rooms and White Boards. Chat rooms provide
an opportunity for synchronous discussion of issues
appropriate to the course. The further availability of
white boards enables students to draw equations and
graphs such as are necessary in some finance,
economics, and statistics courses. These white
boards are just as accessible as the white or chalk
board in the face-to-face classroom.
Collaborative Presentations. Most existing course
management systems have a tool that enables
students to develop audio/visual presentations as a
group. Groups can develop their work privately in
computer-mediated areas only available to that
specific group. Research, writing, and organization
can be done within the group and then posted
publicly for review by the rest of the student cohort.
Peer review of group projects offers opportunities for
further interaction and aids in learning complex
Final Reflections on Interaction
The fluidity and constant dynamism of the learning
process present a continuing challenge to those who
teach as well as those who are trying to learn.
Ongoing efforts to improve the quality of learning
experiences are an important element in coping with
this challenge. Answers to this challenge should
provide quality in learning regardless of the delivery
model chosen. Lessons can be learned in face-to-face
classrooms that are useful in the online environment,
but the reverse is also true.
The importance of interaction, in its myriad of
processes, includes the professor with students, and
students with each other. The key to achieving a
quality learning experience is interaction which
creates learning that is personal and relevant. This
62 Journal of Business Inquiry 2006
interaction can be achieved online as well as in the
traditional face-to-face classroom.
*Lowell M. Glenn is the Chair of the Finance and
Economics Department at UVSC. He has taught
using internet online/interactive television and a
variety of other related learning models since 1999.
Dr. Glenn is committed to the belief that online
education is as viable, as demanding, and as robust
as any teaching paradigm. He believes that learners
can be as satisfied and competent in their learning
using a variety of technology elements as they can in
any traditional setting.
** Gregory R. Berry received his Ph.D. in
Organizational Analysis at the University of Alberta
in Canada. He is currently Associate Professor of
Management at Utah Valley State College in Orem,
Utah. Greg’s most recent publications was a paper
on Service-learning published in Academy of
Management Learning and Education. Greg has
also presented and published several articles on
online teaching and learning, with two articles
currently In Press at the Journal of the Academy of
Business Education, and another In Press at the
Journal of Business Communication. Greg’s other
research interest is Environmental Management, and
he presents regularly at the Academy of Management
in this area.
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