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Interpersonal Interaction Is Crucial for Instructional Continuity. But What Does that Mean?

By Henry Kronk
March 19, 2020

As coronavirus-related school closures continue to effect education systems around the world, an increasing amount of educators are doing their best to keep their courses going online. In this effort, teachers have coalesced on Twitter around the hashtag #instructionalcontinuity. Many often hear and repeat that, when it comes to online learning, fostering interpersonal interaction is one of the biggest challenges.

But what, exactly, does that term mean? And what’s the best way of going about boosting interpersonal interaction in an online class? Bloomsburg University Professor Scott Mehall tackles this issue in a recent scholarly article. “Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction in Online Learning: What Is It and How Is It Measured?” was published in the latest version of Online Learning, the official journal of the Online Learning Consortium.

Maintaining Instructional Continuity Will Involve Boosting Interpersonal Interaction Online

Mehall’s article was published largely before mass school closures began affecting the U.S. But his words have taken on a heightened meaning in recent weeks. Mehall writes:

Educators often seek to replicate the dialogue that is easily achievable in their face-to-face courses in the online setting by utilizing discussion boards and similar technologies. Despite this quest for sufficient interpersonal interaction, educators still lack consensus on which interpersonal interaction strategies best promote effective student learning and satisfaction. Often, faculty are pressured to increase the quality of their online courses but are not aware of strategies to encourage students to interact. In other cases, faculty have been teaching in the face-to-face environment for years and are being asked to convert their courses into the online format without pedagogical and technical support.

We’ve summarized a few takeaways from Mehall’s article below. 

Interpersonal Interaction Is (Empirically) Good for Learners

While some often-repeated and accepted aspects of modern pedagogy are seen as inherently good and don’t necessarily have rock-solid empirical benefits (social-emotional learning, for example), that is not the case with interpersonal interaction in online learning. Besides improved student achievement, interpersonal interaction in online courses has been associated with increases in perceived student learning and both student and faculty satisfaction with a course.

The opposite has also been demonstrated. “A three-year study by Cole, Shelley, and Swartz (2014) that examined graduate and undergraduate student satisfaction with online instruction at a university discovered lack of interaction with faculty and with classmates as the main source of student dissatisfaction,” Mehall writes.

A Question of Quality and Quantity

As Mehall writes, beneficial interpersonal interaction needs to have both sufficient quality and quantity to make an impact on the learning process. Simply asking or requiring students to interact with each other and their instructor a given amount of times does not necessarily lead to the desired learning outcomes.

According to Mehall, “increasing interpersonal interaction beyond a saturation point may not only not add any benefit to students but may actually be detrimental to their educational experience.”

To ensure quality in an interpersonal interaction online, evidence suggests it should be structured and purposeful. In the words of other researchers quoted by Mehall, collaborative, interactive learning environments, either online or offline are “rarely serendipitous.”

Three Aspects of Purposeful Interpersonal Interaction

To explain this more fully, Mehall breaks online interaction into three different categories:

  1. Purposeful interpersonal instructional interaction: This involves any interaction between instructors, learners, and their peers that directly relates to the learning process. Typical examples involve posting thoughtful comments on discussion boards or providing peer feedback on an assignment.
  2. Purposeful social interaction: Though it may not relate directly to learning, online courses frequently involve interaction that helps develop a sense of online community. Learners and instructors may find points of common interest and interact accordingly, regardless of whether it relates to the course. Though these interactions might not align with learning goals at all, research has shown that more social interaction of this kind leads to higher course satisfaction, perceived learning, and even academic achievement.
  3. Supportive interaction: While students respond strongly to socializing with their online class, they will also require support from their instructor. This can range between help accessing and completing certain assignments online to receiving grades and feedback in a timely manner.

In addition to this breakdown, Mehall also discusses a rubric that researchers have developed to measure interpersonal interaction in an online course, and supports its use. Learn more about the rubric for assessing interactive qualities of distance courses (RAIQDC) or read the full article in the latest edition of Online Learning.

Featured Image: elenabs, iStock.