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Save Yourself from Drowning in Online Interaction

Rita-Marie Conrad
Instructional Designer
Florida State University


"My email is killing me! Do you know how often students send me email?"

"I can easily get 100 emails a day. Not only do they send me their original question but then they send me emails to confirm that I've received their original email!"

"And it's not just email. They want me to mediate their online discussions."

"Does anyone realize how much effort these online courses take???"

Such is a compilation of comments I hear from the faculty I assist in my role as an instructional designer of distance learning courses. This had led me on the quest to find alternatives which can alleviate the agony and the ecstasy of the new opportunities for interaction which are now available online.

As we all know, distance education in one form or another has existed for decades, but the level of interaction possible with distance education delivery modes such as print or one-way audio or video, has been limited in the past. Learners traditionally interacted on a restricted basis with the instructor and were generally precluded from becoming acquainted with or interacting with each other while studying from a distance.

The newest delivery mode of distance education utilizes the Internet and provides increased interaction opportunities through multimedia learning environments in which a learner can utilize on-line conferencing, electronic mail, bulletin board, and "chat room" facilities to interact and collaborate with the instructor as well as other learners.

As an instructor considers transforming face-to-face courses to online courses, one of the most daunting aspects he or she faces is the amount of interaction in an online environment. With the increase in student numbers inherent in a distance course, how can the exponential increase in student-instructor interaction be managed? How can email be managed? How can feedback be provided in a timely and effective manner? How should collaboration be utilized?

The purpose of this paper is to throw faculty a lifeline by providing practical suggestions which can be used to implement and manage interactivity in an online environment. Student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction techniques will be discussed.

The New Paradigm

Pedagogy traditionally incorporated one or more of three modes of interaction: between instructor and student, between student and instructional resources, and between students themselves.

Teaching strategies which include all three forms of interaction have not been the norm in the reality of higher education. In a traditional college classroom, it has not always been possible to structure or manage individualized learning experiences; nor has it always been possible to employ collaborative strategies in the limited time of a synchronous class session. The pedagogical model of the instructor as a predominant source of information has hindered the incorporation of interaction beyond that which occurs between the instructor and the student.

The opportunities for interaction in an online environment are greater simply because the time limitation does not exist and technology does exist which can facilitate all three forms of dialogue.

From an instructor's point of view, Moore (1995) summed up the new pedagogical model nicely in the phrase "Participation versus Presentation." He states that "interactive teaching is really a 'mental set' that requires us to think about inducing knowledge rather than instilling it, to asking questions rather than giving answers, to focusing on student participation rather than the teacher's presentation of information. (p. 133)" Today's ideal learning environment engages the learner and recognizes the learner as a having the potential to be the master of his or her own destiny. Under this model the instructor becomes mentor to the student, who serves as content consultant, motivator and contextual integrator, as well as a participatory manager of the learning experience.

Management of Online Interaction

Lifesaver #1: Throw Yourself a Lifeline by Harnessing the Technology

Email. Before email drives you below the surface for the third time, consider organizing it in the following manner:

  • Establish a course account to separate class mail from your regular email.
  • Use filters to sort email notes or file them according to topic and class.
  • Be honest with students about the volume of mail you receive and provide a window of expected response time.
  • Establish online office hours.
  • Require students use precise subject lines for their notes. This way content questions can be separated from administrative issues and be forwarded to the appropriate individuals.
  • Ask for Yes/No responses
Course webpage. Organize the course webpage to include a:

  • Technical assistance area for questions from students who are having problems using the technology. Provide "additional points" for students who will serve as technical gurus for the week. Use as an assignment.
  • Provide a bulletin board on which you can post the most frequently asked questions regarding assignments and grading so that students won't be compelled to send you email notes for clarification.

Lifesaver #2: Do the "Feed Back-Float"

  • Use your wordprocessing software to set up a database of responses regarding test and assignments. Standardized responses can be crafted in a manner which leaves students with the perception that you have sent them a personal note.

Lifesaver #3: Teach Your Students to Swim

One of the perception changes which is required as part of the instructional paradigm shift occurring is to increase student self-direction and confidence in peer abilities. This can be accomplished in a collaborative environment which includes elements such as:

  • Set up student to student interaction through introductory activities.
  • Assign students to groups and assign roles for discussions.
  • Assess based upon group projects.
  • Use peer- and self-grading, particularly for group projects.
  • Require each student or group to be a tutor or "guru" for a particular concept area.
  • Encourage online self-study groups.


To maintain one's sanity as an instructor in today's online environment, don't let interaction be an albatross dragging you to the bottom of the pool. Capitalize upon the potential benefits of technology to streamline instructor to student interaction and create student synergy through collaborative activities and support systems to maximize student to student interaction. Take some of the steps mentioned above to keep your head above water!


Daniel, J. S. and Marquis, C. (1983). Interaction and independence: getting the mixture right. In Sewart, Keegan and Holmberg (ed.), Distance Education: International Perspectives (pp. 339-359). St. Martin's Press: New York, NY.

Kearsley, G. (1995a). The effectiveness and impact of online learning in graduate education. Educational Technology, 35, 37-42.

Kearsley, G. (1995b). The nature and value of interaction in distance learning. Paper presented at the Third Distance Education Research Symposium, College Park, PA.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking university teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology. New York, NY: Routledge.

Moore, M. G. and Kearsley, G. (1995). Distance Education: A Systems View. Wadsworth Publishing Company: Belmont, CA.

Wagner, E. (1990). Interaction in distance education: relating practice to theory to improve practice. A paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National University Continuing Education Association, April, New Orleans, LA.

Autobiographical Sketch

Rita-Marie Conrad is an instructional designer with the Office of Interactive Distance Learning at Florida State University. In this role she assists faculty members in the design and implementation of distance learning courses. Ms. Conrad is currently completing her doctoral studies in instructional design with a specialization in distance learning at FSU and also teaches courses in computer literacy, multimedia programming and "Technology for Teachers."

Address: 3212 Horseshoe Trail, Tallahassee, FL 32312
Email: rconrad@garnet.acns.fsu.edu
Phone: 904/644-3614 or 904/893-0895
Fax: 904/644-4952


Revised January 15, 2006
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2010