1998 Project Report

Distance Education

© Yannis Karaliotas
MA in Open & Distance Education at OU, UK
September 1998

This report discusses interactivity in Distance Education Learning Environments in an attempt to describe and analyse the function of interactions between the learner and the elements which constitute such an environment. Interactivity is examined in this context as an activity performed by the learner/s in response and in relation to their learning environment, and does not refer to "the delivery system interactions, which are the property of media". [Wagner, 1994]

The work in this project has been based on the learning transactions that took place within the OU-H802 [Appx.1] postgraduate distance course in its first year of delivery, as well as on personal experiential observations and literature readings accumulated in the three years of learning at a distance at postgraduate level and from praxis in the fields of Special Education and Educational Technology.

The Internet acts as a type of Rorschach test for educational philosophy. When some people look at the Internet, they see it as a new way to deliver instruction. When other people look at it, they see a huge database for learners to explore. When I look at the Internet, I see a new medium for construction, a new opportunity for learners to discuss, share, and collaborate on constructions.
[Resnick, 1996]

Definitions of learning and the learning environment

Learning is a process of active engagement with experience. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world. It may involve an increase in skills, knowledge, understanding, values and the capacity to reflect. Effective learning leads to change, development and a desire to learn more. [The Campaign for Learning, UK]

Learning occurs in the interplay between expectation and experience as Kolb (1984) suggests, and is an intellectual process of constructing knowledge, i.e. acquiring, processing, assimilating, and integrating information and ideas through constructive sociocultural interaction. It is sustained by mental stimulation, and encouraged by the proper environment.

A working definition of such an environment in distance learning settings can be outlined as being an intellectual, social, cultural, psychological milieu which facilitates and supports learning by fostering interaction, collaboration and communality.

Central to this model of a distance learning environment stands the function of interactivity. Interactivity which, through making use of the appropriate media and technologies effectuates learning transactions with material and co-participants.

Fundamentals of Interactivity for Learning

Notions/concepts get generated in people's minds in response/reaction to certain stimulus. If the concept generated is to be schematised, we may need to revisit or seek new relevant stimuli, reflect and re-examine in order to adjust and readjust ideas.

Thus, interaction takes place with the stimulus, and interactivity occurs, in the person's mind, between themselves and the contents of the medium/media through and within which the stimulus is presented. In this sense, thoughts are triggered, meaning is made and schemata are created and recreated through interacting with certain piece/s of information received and revisited. [Piaget, 1967] [Schallert, 1982] [Anderson & Pearson, 1984]

Those schemata are the elements of knowledge the individual constructed in the process and, in healthy minds, are constantly challenged and subject to change, re-construction and development when new stimuli are perceived and new thoughts generated. The variety and suitability of mediating mechanisms scaffolding the process and the quality of dialectic transactions with content facilitate the process through which information is turned into knowledge. [Arbib, 1989][Resnick(2), 1996]

Following this trail of thought one would sustain that in educational settings, interaction occurs not with the originator of knowledge but with knowledge itself, represented in media (tutors, peers, technologies, real or virtual objects and entities) as information. [Bates, 1995]

It is, therefore, argued that in trying to make meaning we actually interact with the 'textual' information rather than with its 'creator'.

In accepting this process as the fundamental function of interactivity, one observes that a second function may occur as part of the same process, at a second level, when the receiver responds to the generator/s of the initial stimulus. There, again, if the content of that response acts as a stimulus, a new phase of the process occurs, thus establishing dialogue / sociocultural interaction. The two functions, which may be distinguished as static and dynamic forms of interaction, are part of the same process, and they are both generative - i.e. have the capacity to generate schemata.

As such, they are both essential to the construction and assimilation of knowledge and they are most effective when they are combined in generating a transaction between social knowledge and personal knowledge. [Kolb[2], 1984]

Lev S. Vygotsky, prominent cognitivist, addresses the need for such combined interaction in his idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in which the learner, tutor, and content interact with a problem which needs resolution. The ZPD represents the difference between what a learner can do individually and what can be done with the help of more experienced people such as other learners, experts in the field, or the instructor. [Vygotsky, 1962]

It might also be said that it was Dewey, (1910-1950) who formed the vision of the current active and collaborative student experience and that almost a hundred years later, we finally have the tools to implement and realise his educational ideas.

In Dewey's work, a key idea is that "interaction and continuity" are two core characteristics of effective teaching and learning experiences. The interaction characteristic highlights the importance of the dialogue and communication underlying learning; the continuity characteristic emphasises that the individual learner must be viewed as the key design element. In other words, we must design instruction so that each individual learner can effectively build on what they know, and have the resources and assistance to learn - in Vygotsky's words, to navigate the Zone of Proximal Development.

In Distributed Constructionism Resnik [3] (1996) suggests that people develop knowledge when they "are engaged in constructing personally-meaningful products," and interaction of people with others and their learning environment is crucial in the constructing process.

Knowledge is not a complete product of accumulated information but a constantly changing creation process in terms of social interactions. Learners learn through the activities not just the content matter and the target language community works. They have to be responsible for the tasks as a member of the community. They have to be flexible in their attitude toward the project as a whole, because many other learners collectively take part in it and each member is a unique human being with his or her point of view.

In traditional distance education settings, learners are often left to go through the process of learning in isolation with very little contact with tutors and peers, thus are confined to basic, 'static' interaction with material delivered through one-way media in the form of printed text, audio cassettes and/or video. With the advent of new media and technologies, the use of affordable and well integrated two-way communication is now possible in distance learning, which in turn enables dynamic interactions .


The millennium beckons us toward what Paul Delany calls the 'docuverse,' that 'large collection of electronically stored and linked documents, connected to a computer network.[] Linked multimedia elements (photographs, images, and graphics, animations, and video/sound clips as well as text) can endow hypermedia projects with immediacy and 'presence'.

Carefully orchestrated technology tools can bring the learner closer to the actual act of discovery. Moreover, when directly engaged in interactive 'discovery trails', links which have already been carefully preselected with the course's mission, learners can become purposeful, collaborative explorers.

Networked learning environments are characterised by the use of networked communication and information technologies in support of learning activities. Collis (1996) describes what she calls 'tele-learning' as "making connections | among persons and resources | through communication technologies | for learning-related purposes." Paulsen (1995) says "CMC includes information retrieval, electronic mail, bulletin boards, and computer conferencing" and views networked learning as the achievement of teaching objectives through the interaction between learners and resources, using "one-alone techniques, one-to-one techniques, one-to-many techniques, and many-to-many techniques."

Apart from the obvious ease of being able to distribute materials using email, conferencing etc. the range of networked media is rich and includes text, graphics, video and sound files. The examples below not only point to the range of resources in terms of types of information but also extend to include access to people either in real-time or asynchronously.

Networked learning interactions can also be classified according to whether they are performed in asynchronous or synchronous (real-time) communication settings.

Collis, ibid.(1996) identifies traditional course components in both face to face and distance settings, and points to the ways in which networked approaches alter and improve traditional approaches:

Attend lectureimproved presentation
Personal contact with tutorimproved communication
Discussion with peer-groupimproved discussion
Self Study /Reading Listsimproved range of resources available
Individual assignmentimproving activities
Group Assignmentimproving collaborative activities

Interaction in the learning environment takes place in three ways: with content, with other learners and with instructors. [Moore, 1989]

As Wagner (ibid. 1994) suggests, such a description of interaction that takes place in a learning environment "narrows the focus of discussion of learning events". There are other elements that generate interaction, perhaps not of secondary importance, such as the 'physical' - in our case virtual - design of the learning environment itself. Special education pedagogy, the art or science of making up for learning disabilities, has ample evidence to provide, and so do the ever emerging and evolving Object Oriented Environments.

Nevertheless, Moore's statement points to the three main functions of interactivity, as seeing from the instructor's point of view, which pose formal requirements in instructional design.

Interaction with Content

For now, imagine that it is breakfast time in 1994, and you have just settled down with a cup of coffee-substitute heated on your solar stove, to read your computer-generated equivalent of the daily newspaper, including all the news that is fit to display on your home terminal. (Hiltz 1978, xxxii)

The selection and use of appropriate media and technologies stand as an essential factor for establishing and maintaining effective interaction with course material and contextual information. The Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, with its capacity to present rich content through the convergence of interactive media and technologies can constitute a powerful platform for the dissemination of distance course material.

The delivery of the H802 course material can serve here as an indicator to an effective use of Internet properties and their integration with more conventional forms of distance education delivery. Two types of dissemination were used for the delivery of course content. It is claimed that it was their combination which provided learners with opportunities for rich and purposeful interaction with content, although their individual presence facilitated learner choices deriving from diverse learning styles.

Many contributions of context related links were also offered by the learners, and many of them were followed with comments that often stimulated interaction. [Appx.2]

Interaction with Other Learners

What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers--they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand.

They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this, is effort spent in vain.

The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers [Appx.3]

CMC distance learning environments offer a plethora of opportunities for interaction with other learners, far more likely to be productive and complete than in traditional HE learning environments as they are independent of time and place due to their asynchronous nature, and more in line with the learning to learn process as they can be highly motivated and goal oriented.

Interaction with learners takes place within collaborative activities, in threads of sociable exchanges, or philosophical and self-searching discussions. They are generated as:

Asynchronous, BBS and email interactions seem to offer a more in depth discourse as responces are spread over time, to the convinience of the participants.

Real-time, moo and chat interactions offer a fuller experience and rich content for a later asynchronous follow-up. [Appx.4]

Online Learning Community and Interactions with Tutors

Mason (1991), in her follow-up article on an online computer conferencing course entitled Management of the Absurd, moderated by the co-founder of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute Dr. Richard Farson, offers an insight in teaching/learning techniques applied to computer conferencing.

[ ... ] After analyzing the message flows and distribution of 'Initiation, Reply and Evaluation' patterns in educational electronic networking, Levin et al. turn to the concept of apprenticeship to describe the kind of interaction they see as typical of the medium. The educational paradigm of apprenticeship is one of learning by doing in the presence of good models of the end goal.

Patterns that we've observed in instructional electronic network interactions resemble those described in face-to-face apprenticeships. Thus we may see emerging a new pattern, 'teleapprenticeships,' with some of the properties of face-to-face apprenticeships. (Levin et al, 1990)

They comment that the apprenticeship model is an example of the new ways of thinking about teaching which will be required in order to use the new interactive media effectively. [ ... ]

Considering that tutoring online involves organising and supporting a virtual learning community, is it wrong to think that the role of the online tutor changes in its socio-political context? Power differential in a f2f class/group is de facto different from the one in an online community of learners and tutors, because of remoteness and lack of f2f contact. Online tutors are expected to also be skilful community initiators/organisers as opposed to class/group/community leaders which is mostly, if not always, the case in f2f situations.

Individuals working together and mind weaving for learning in a community setting is what this medium can support best. But our western learned culture often weakens our ability to collaborate, and this applies to both students and tutors alike. The universal learner's need, in times of constraint, for "a good teacher / tutor / motivator / mentor ..." in order to resume learning could be met by accepting that peer collaborative contributions might, as well, constitute good sources of motivation or mentoring. On the part of the tutor this means accepting and implementing the student-in-the-centre principles.

Which brings us to an additional basic requirement in tele-tutoring which is the ability to make use of the medium for learning. I don't mean the technical skills required in order to handle the medium, but skills which are based on the acceptance of non-competitiveness. Tele-learning, i.e. distance online learning, brought us face to face with the necessity for a non-competitive environment within which learning could successfully occur. For most of us brought up in a competition oriented teaching/learning set up, this could even mean re-training. Non-competitive practices, when used in a f2f setting, have in fact been utilised to disguise competition rather than create a non-competitive environment for learning. Hence, non-competitive skills - such as the ability to collaborate - come to the fore in tele-learning/tutoring and emerge as the set of skills that need to be rediscovered, developed and refined.


In his recent work on New Paradigms For Thinking and Decentralised Mindsets and in defence of the theory of "constructional design", Mitchel Resnick (1995) observes that "New computational paradigms (such as object-oriented programming, constraints, logic, and parallelism) can significantly influence not only what people do with computers, but also how they think about and make sense of the world."

Offering evidence from recent research on systems which work with patterns determined not by some central authority but by local interactions among decentralised components [Heppner & Grenander, 1990), he argues that the centralised mindset affects the thinking of nearly everyone including scientists who remain committed to centralised explanations, even in the face of discrediting evidence.

People see the world in centralised ways, so they construct centralised tools and models, which further encourage a centralised view of the world. Until recently, there has been little pressure against this centralisation spiral. Even if someone wanted to experiment with decentralised approaches there were few tools or opportunities to do so.

With new technologies comes the challenge for creating new, interactive learning environments which facilitate learning and promote open and constructive dissemination of knowledge. It is perhaps the turning point for new paradigms to emerge.

The audience and authors must learn together to develop both the new textual objects and the new literacy skills. We need to experiment with writing and reading in the more open space provided by mixed company, seeing what happens, and who we become. [From Kolb's recent work presented at KMI. Kolb, September1998]



Anderson, R. C. & Pearson, P. D. (1984) "A Schema-Theoretic View of basic Processes in Reading Comprehension," in P. D. Pearson (Ed.), Handbook of Reading Research, New York, Longman, 1984. [cited]

Arbib, M. A. (1989). The Metaphorical Brain 2: Neural Networks and Beyond. New York: Wiley-Interscience. [cited]

Bates, A. W. - Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education - Routledge, London 1995. [cited]

Boyle, T. - Design For Multimedia Learning - (Prentice Hall, London 1997) ISBN 0-13-242215-8

Bruckman, A. (1995) - The MediaMOO Project: Constructionism and Professional Community http://asb.www.media.mit.edu/people/asb/convergence.html

Collis, B. (1996) - Tele-Learning in a Digital World - International Thomson Computer Press (H802 Reader). [cited-1] [cited-2]

Dewey, J. (1959) - Dewey on Education, Selections. From the Child and the Curriculum - New York: Teachers College Press [cited]

Heppner, F., & Grenander, U. (1990). A Stochastic Nonlinear Model for Coordinated Bird Flocks. In S. Krasner (Ed.), The Ubiquity of Chaos. Washington, D.C.: AAAS Publications.

Hiltz, S. R. and Murray Turoff - The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer - Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978. [cited]

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall, 1984) [cited] [2]

Kolb, D. A. (1998) Ruminations in Mixed Company: Literacy in Print and Hypertext Together - Outline notes of a talk for KMI at the Open University, July 1998 [cited]

Mason, R. (1991) - Moderating Educational Computer Conferencing - in DEOSNEWS Vol. 1 No. 19, 1991. [cited]

Paulsen, M.F. - The Online Report on Pedagogical Techniques for Computer-Mediated Communication", 1995 (In H802 Readings) - Online source: http://www.nki.no/~morten/ [cited]

Piaget, J. - Six Psychological Studies - New York, Random House, 1967. [cited]

Resnick, M. 1996 -Distributed Constructionism - Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Northwestern University, July 1996. Online source: https://llk.media.mit.edu/papers/Distrib-Construc.html [cited-1] [cited-2] [cited-3]

Schallert, D. L. 1982. " The significance of knowledge " A synthesis of research related to schema theory" . Otto and White 1982: 13-48. Otto, Wayne, and Sandra White (editors) . 1982 . Reading expository material. New York, Academic Press, Inc. [cited]

The Campaign for Learning, UK - online source: http://www.campaign-for-learning.org.uk/learndef.htm [cited]

Vygotsky, Lev S. - Thought and Language - Ed. and trans. Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar (Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press, 1962; Originally published in Russian in 1934). [cited]

Wagner, E. D. (1994). In Support of a Functional Definition of Interaction - The American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 8 No.2 1994 (In H802 Block 4 Readings). [cited]


  1. The 1998 H802 post-graduate course on Applications of Information Technology in Open and Distance Education, whose examinable component is this Project Report, was a 3rd generation distance course in its first year of delivery. H802 is part of a three year MA programme leading to the MA taught degree in Open and Distance Education, delivered by the British Open University (OU) and its Institute of Educational Technology (IET) in the form of 3rd generation open and distance courses-modules. As such, it is making extensive use of hypermedia and the Internet having as its core interface the EBBS, a Web Bulletin Board part of an in-house built Content Management System based on Frontier 5.0™, a cross-platform website management system. [Up]
  2. Apart from relevant messages posted on the various areas of the EBBS, the thread started by Simon R "Resources ... useful &/or interesting ..." in the Plenary area's Caf? is indicative of such practice. The thread counts 90 out of some 900 messages in the Caf? as on 21/9/98! [Up]
  3. "The Lost Tools of Learning" was first presented by Miss Sayers at Oxford in 1947. It is copyrighted by National Review, 150 East 35th Street, New York, NY 10016. The full article was contributed to the Futures Debate on Education by Dr Claudio Daniel Antonini and was sent to all participants by Prof. David Mercer on Mon, 21 Sep 1998 10:14:08 +0100. [Up]
  4. The "MAD MOO web tours..." thread in the Caf? offers an insight of the endeavours of learners in Object Oriented environments and the Web. [Up]

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