From the Socratic dialogue of the ancient Greeks to the academic debates characterizing the advent and modernization of universities, one of the defining features of quality educational experiences has been interaction. Interaction is so central to the learning process that it is difficult to imagine an educational experience that does not involve some sort of interaction. Even isolated individuals must interact with their environment in some way that initiates the process of cognitive restructuring or learning. Furthermore, the very process of cognitive restructuring implies that there is an interaction between new ideas and old to create an updated mental model (Dewey, 1916).

Anderson (2003b) highlights various different ways to understand the notion of interaction and settles on Wagner’s (1994) definition of interaction: “reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another” (p. 8). In the case of the study buddy activity, it is the idea of mutual influence, especially positive influence between students and their partners, which is the desired outcome of the activity.

Several theorists have identified different modes of interaction in educational contexts such as that between and among students, teachers, and the content that is to be learned (Anderson, 2003a, 2003b; Bernard et al., 2009; Kanuka, 2011; Moore, 1989). The three principal modes of interaction in education are student-student, student-teacher, and student-content. Anderson and Garrison (1998) introduced a model that includes the three primary forms of interaction and also expands to include other forms, such as teacher-content interaction, which are important, but beyond the scope of this thesis (Figure 1). The two diagonal arrows between their respective objects indicate student-teacher interactions and student-content interactions, and the recursive arrow at the top of the diagram indicates student-student interaction. These three primary forms of student interactions are described in the following sections.

Modes Interaction Anderson

Figure 1. Modes of Interaction (Anderson & Garrison, 1998)

Student-teacher interaction.

Systems dedicated to formal education have typically emphasized student-teacher interaction as being of critical importance (Anderson, 2003a; Moore & Kearsley, 2005).  Moore and Kearsley note that teachers often interact with students in order to stimulate interest and motivation to learn as well as help students apply their learning. Ally (2008) notes that while online distance learning is always mediated by some sort of technology, digital or otherwise, the learning that happens cannot be attributed to the technology itself, but rather to the activities and strategies designed into the learning materials as well as the instructor’s guidance and direction of the learning activities.

Examples of student-teacher interactions include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • lectures or tutorials (provided students can ask questions and offer comments);
  • question-and-answer sessions about content, class procedures, difficult topics, personal issues, and so on;
  • feedback on assignments;
  • postings and responses in discussion forums;
  • e-mail or instant messages;
  • one-to-one conversations via telephone or Skype;
  • synchronous web conferences.

Anderson (2003a) points out that student-teacher interaction is generally very expensive and the cost increases with increasing numbers of students, making it generally the least scalable mode of interaction.

Student-content interaction.

If student-teacher interaction is important, then it would seem also that student-content interaction is a primary reason why formal educational systems exist. Content in reference to learning environments is simply the subject matter that is to be learned (Moore & Kearsley, 2005). As such, content can be seen as being either external to the learner, in the case of a learner studying the process of plate tectonics; or it can be internal to the learner, in the case of a learner examining his or her own assumptions about a topic.

If there is no content to be learned, then it seems that learning cannot take place at all. Whether the learner is a kindergartener learning the alphabet or a doctoral student learning a new statistical analysis technique, every student in a formal educational environment has something to learn. Student-content interaction is the primary mode of interaction in historical text-based learning environments delivered as printed materials.

Examples of student-content interaction include:

  • students listening to a lecture (live or recorded),
  • reading topical commentary in a learning management system or in printed materials,
  • taking notes,
  • performing research,
  • memorizing facts,
  • metacognitive strategies such as journaling,
  • solving problems,
  • resolving apparent contradictions,
  • examining foundational assumptions.

In higher education, student-content interaction can be scaled up quite dramatically, as evidenced by the large enrolments in some required undergraduate, lecture-based courses at large universities. When hundreds of students are enrolled in a course, student-teacher interaction is difficult, if not impossible, so the emphasis must shift to student-content interaction in the form of lectures and assigned readings.

Student-student interaction.

Early distance education was impoverished with respect to student-student interaction. When content was delivered via mail or through slow one-way communications, there was often no possibility that students would even know about, much less interact with, each other (Anderson, 2003b; Moore & Kearsley, 2005). Fortunately, advances in communication technologies have opened up significant opportunities for students to interact with each other synchronously through web-conferencing or text chat, and asynchronously through discussion forums, email, and text messages on mobile devices, as well as through social networking software such as Facebook™ or The Landing, a semi-private social networking site hosted by Athabasca University for their students, staff, and faculty. Like student-content interaction, student-student interaction is extremely scalable, and should be encouraged provided the activities have educative value and are not simply social in nature.

The student-student mode of interactions in online distance learning is the focus of this thesis research, particularly the nature of student-student interactions in the study buddy activity and how the activity should be structured to support and facilitate critical thinking and discourse and meaningful engagement.

Examples of activities that promote student-student interaction include the following:

  • cooperative learning activities,
  • collaborative research and design;
  • problem- or project-based learning,
  • debates,
  • discussion forums,
  • social media, such as blogs or wikis,
  • study groups,
  • virtual communities.

Interaction Equivalency Theorem.

In 2003, Terry Anderson proposed what he called the Interaction Equivalency Theorem, in which he states:

Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student–teacher; student-student; student-content) is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience.

High levels of more than one of these three modes will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience, though these experiences may not be as cost or time effective as less interactive learning sequences. (Anderson, 2003a, p. 4)

A possible interpretation of the theorem is the idea that students can learn equally well regardless of whether they were interacting with a teacher, with other students, or only with the content, provided the interaction is of sufficient quality and quantity. Imagine that student A learns about Newtonian mechanics by asking questions of his or her instructor (student-teacher interaction), student B learns about Newtonian mechanics by joining a study group of fellow students (student-student interaction), and student C learns about Newtonian mechanics by reading about it in a book (student-content interaction). If, following their different learning activities, the students perform equally well on an assessment of their knowledge of Newtonian mechanics, we would be justified in stating that there is no significant difference between the three modes of interaction with respect to fostering learning.

Bernard et al. (2009) found empirical support for Anderson’s theorem in a meta-analysis of research articles related to different modes of interaction in distance education.  Bernard and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of research comparing different interaction treatments in online distance learning. They examined a total of 74 reports that fit their criteria and categorized them according to student-student, student-teacher, or student-content interaction treatments.

Bernard et al. (2009) found that there was an average effect size of +0.38, indicating that the interaction treatments had a moderate, positive effect on achievement and that the greatest effects were found to be associated with student-student (+0.49) and student-content (+0.46) interactions, which were considered to be not significantly different from each other. The smallest effect size was for student-teacher (+0.32) interactions. They also found that when the strength of a particular interaction treatment increased, the average effect size also increased, suggesting that higher quality interactions generally lead to better achievement, a finding that supports Anderson’s equivalency theorem.
Among the recommendations put forth by Bernard et al. (2009) was the suggestion that the use of cooperative learning techniques to promote positive interdependence and personal accountability in structured learning activities was one way for designers to ensure high-quality interactions and that there should be a strong emphasis on deep interaction with content to ensure that integrative learning is supported. While Bernard et al. found support for the inclusion of student-student and student-content interaction in particular, they could only speculate as to the underlying causes of increased learning in learning environments with higher quality interactions.

Refining Anderson’s model of interaction.

Following Anderson (2003a), Kanuka, (2011) points out that many distance educators tend to view the different modes of interaction as being independent of each other, when in reality, they are all very interconnected. She maintains that both student-teacher and student-student interactions, at least those that are of educational value, occur within the context of the content to be learned, and suggests that Anderson’s interaction model could be modified as depicted in Figure 2.

While Kanuka’s model may provide clarity on the role of content in educative interactions, it seems to present fewer options for students and their interactions. In Kanuka’s model, students interact with either other students or with their teacher.

Kanuka Modes of Interaction

Figure 2. Kanuka’s Depiction of Anderson’s Modes of Interaction

What neither of these models seems to capture, however, is that there could be two different types of student-student interactions. On one hand, student-student interaction could refer to the structured peer interactions that are designed to encourage critical discourse around the content, but on the other hand, it could also refer to the inner, reflective transformations of ideas as an individual student reorganizes his or her cognitive models. A synthesis of these two models, which incorporates both types of student-student interaction, might be depicted in the Structured Student Interactions model as shown in Figure 3.

Structured Student Interactions model.

The Structured Student Interactions model shows the three objects that may interact with each other as the student (top), other students (left), and teachers (right). The structure of each of the three objects in the model indicates that reflective interaction, or metacognition, is an important component of learning and may happen within the student, within other students, and within the teacher. The three arrows between the objects indicate that the interactions between the objects happen through structured learning activities such as the study buddy activity or a debate. At the top of the model is the student who is engaged in learning. The model shows that the student may interact with themselves, with other students, or with their teacher about the content to be learned and through structured learning activities.

Structured Student Interaction Model

Figure 3. Structured Student Interactions Model

In addition, the Structured Student Interactions model incorporates the idea that students can learn by observing the interactions between and among their peers and the teacher, a process known colloquially as lurking in online forums, and more officially as “vicarious” interaction (Sutton, 2001). While Anderson (2003b) specifically sets vicarious interaction aside as a byproduct of the other forms of interaction and as being dependent upon agents external to the student, the author’s personal experience has been that vicarious interaction can be a valuable educational experience, especially in an online course where those interactions happen in a discussion forum and are observable by other course participants. Furthermore, although they were not specifically measuring learning, Moisey, Neu, and Cleveland-Innes (2008) found that the number of forum postings that students read per week (lurking behaviour) was significantly correlated to students feeling connected to the classroom community, while posting and replying to messages was not. While feeling connected to a community does not guarantee that a student is meeting learning objectives, it is a construct valued by those who want to increase student engagement.