Kappa Omicron Nu
Computer Mediated Interaction in a Distance Education Course
Carolyn S. Wilken
Dr. Wilken is an Associate Professor in Family Relations and Child Development at Oklahoma State University, and was formerly the Director of the Galichia Institute for Gerontology and Family Studies in the College of Human Ecology, Kansas State University.
The author describes the process of developing and teaching a World Wide
Web course. This case study illustrates the nature of course development
(front-loaded rather than day-to-day), strategies for presenting the content of
course, techniques for fostering teacher-student and student-student
interaction, and recommendations for assuring that technology supports rather
than interferes with the learning process.
A variety of primary interactions must occur between teacher and learner
before teaching and learning evolve into the process known as education. This
basic premise holds true whether the educational process takes place in the
classroom, through the mail, or via telecommunication.
The pedagogical literature is replete with descriptions of student-content,
student-student, and student-teacher interactions as they occur in the
traditional classroom (Moore, 1989). Researchers who have explored these
interactions in non-traditional settings of distance education, such as
correspondence courses and independent learning, emphasize the importance of
nurturing these interactions and recognize the impact of distances of time and
space upon these interactions.
Traditional European pedagogy continues to dominate modern higher education
classrooms. In this paradigm, the professor, who defines and imparts knowledge,
orchestrates the educational process. The professor determines the course
content and designs student-content interactions. Likewise, the professor makes
an impact on student-student and student-teacher interactions. In a traditional
academic setting these interactions generally occur face-to-face as students
share time and physical space with their professor and with other students.
Traditional college students, having recently emerged from 12 years of
traditional education, depend upon and indeed expect their professors to
structure the quantity and quality of their classroom related interactions.
In contrast to the traditional teacher-centered paradigm, non-traditional
academic programs are primarily learner-centered. In historically popular
independent study or correspondence courses, the professor interacts with the
student vicariously through the educational materials chosen for the students
to study. In non-traditional distance settings, the actual process of learning
takes place independently of the instructor.
The typical non-traditional student is more than 25 years old, married, and
has family and community responsibilities. She is employed and attends school
on a part-time basis. For many years these students have turned to
non-traditional programs in order to meet their education objectives while
continuing to meet ongoing responsibilities. These students expectations
differ significantly from traditional college-age students. Adult students
enter the classroom with a certain level of experiential learning. They
typically know what they need or want to learn, and they require a great deal
of flexibility as to when and where they attend class. This independence comes
at a price. When distance education relies primarily on the mail and an
occasional phone call, students primary interaction is with the course
content. The student and faculty member may meet personally at the beginning
and end of the course, or not at all. Students have little or no
With the proliferation of distance education courses, indeed complete degree
programs, educators are asking if education is truly possible without
structured student/student and student/teacher interactions (Clark, 1993). In
this paper, the author uses her experience developing and teaching a Web-based,
computer mediated course titled Community Based Health Promotion Programs for
Older Adults to describe both the process and impact of using computer
conferencing to fill the interaction gaps inherent to distance education.
Community Based Health Promotion Programs for Older Adults is a 3
credit dual level graduate/undergraduate course taught exclusively on the World
Wide Web (WWW). The course syllabus, goals and objectives, reading assignments,
and lectures reside on the Web, giving students the opportunity to complete
their coursework in an asynchronous mannerat the time and location of
their convenience. The Web serves as the tool to connect students with the
content of the course. This course also uses computer mediated communication,
specifically electronic-mail, threaded message boards, and real-time discussion
sessions (chat rooms) to facilitate interaction among students and between
students and teacher.
Instructors of Web based courses need either technical support or technical
savvy. I chose to use all of the available technical support the university
could provide. Two years after beginning to develop this course, I still do not
know how to use the hypertext markup language known as HTML. I dont know
how to set up a bulletin board or a discussion room. I couldnt begin to
design a Web page. I decided early on that I am a gerontologist,
not a computer programmer. In retrospect, that decision has usually served me
well, but has also left me frustrated. Other instructors are quite adept at
HTML programming and the technical aspects of managing a discussion room and
bulletin board. I struggle with e-mail.
Web course development requires comprehensive, holistic, front-loaded
development, rather than day-to-day planning. Fellow faculty and administrators
who have not undertaken this effort, seriously underestimate the time required
for course development and maintenance. In a study of how faculty prepare
distance education courses, Wolcott (1993) offers the following statement from
one faculty member in her sample: I dont know of anybody who sits
down and thinks through a class the way this (distance delivery) system makes
you think through it to crank out a sixty or seventy page syllabus. Its a
very time-consuming process to prepare and teach one of these courses. It takes
planning much further in advance to do this kind of course than to do it on
The appearance of information on the computer screen is critical to
student-content interaction in a Web class. In traditional didactic settings,
the presence of the instructor can mediate the interaction between the student
and content and can compensate for hastily written overhead transparencies or
drawings on a chalkboard. In distance education, the content must stand on its
own. As a Cooperative Extension Specialist, I rarely have an opportunity to
interact on a personal level with my students and so I present information in a
fact sheet format. I followed that same style in designing this
course paying particular attention to appearance and readability. As with my
Extension printed materials I drew on design techniques such as headings,
underlining, italics, bolding, and bullets to help students identify critical
pieces of information.
The basic content of this course is presented in what Ive called a
netlecture. A netlecture, is simply a traditional lecture redesigned for
an electronic format. The style is conversational. I could take the netlecture
and read it to a traditional class and it would sound like a typical lecture. I
specifically chose conversational language to encourage a sense of personal
interaction between teacher and student as opposed to reading more pages in a
textbook. Following is an excerpt from a netlecture about health promotion and
If you had just turned 65, what would be your biggest concern?
The number of years you may have to live, or the quality of life you have in
the next 17 or so years? Most people will say that quality of life is more
important than quantity of life. Their focus is not on life expectancy, but
rather on healthy expectancy, or the number of healthy years they can expect to
have left. The quality of those remaining years depend on ones physical
activity, nutritional intake, social support network access to good medical
care, health education, and health services.
Active links to other Web sites related to the content are embedded in the
netlecture. For example, links to demographic data provided by the US Census,
American Association of Retired Persons, and National Institute for Aging Web
sites serve to facilitate both the students cognitive and physical
interaction with the materials. Students express appreciation for the
break in reading, and the opportunity to use the Web as a resource
to supplement their learning.
The content for a Web course is in no way limited by the materials posted by
the instructor. The Web itself is a connection to information on every subject
imaginable. Introducing students to the Web through course links or specific
class assignments exposes students to both trustworthy and questionable
information. It is therefore imperative that students learn how to scrutinize
information located on the World Wide Web. To address this issue, one course
unit involves identifying and evaluating health promotion sites on the Web. The
netlecture for this unit includes specific information about how to evaluate a
site and in the discussion students evaluate sites they have posted on the
Students participating in this course were typical non-traditional
studentsprimarily women, more than 25 years old, employed and attending
school on a part time basis. The majority of students who have completed the
course were graduate level10 masters, 2 PhDs, and 3 post-doctoral
students employed in health related fields. Seven students were nurses working
in academic settings, 6 students worked in the health-care industry, 4 were
academic faculty/non-nursing. Three undergraduate students completed the
Computer mediated communication tools facilitate student and professor
interaction on several levels. I frequently use electronic-mail (e-mail) to
interact with individual students and I use list-serves to contact the class.
E-mail is routinely used to provide feedback to individual students regarding
assignments and answers to specific questions. Each students final
evaluation and grade summary was transmitted electronically to the student.
Electronic mail and the threaded message board are particularly useful as ways
to exchange information at any time of the day or night. The students and I can
send or respond to messages at our convenience.
List-serves (group e-mail) are an efficient and effective way to get a
message to the entire class. Students learn to check their e-mail daily for
up-to-the minute information regarding the course. Although electronic mail is
an effective and efficient method for sending brief messages to students,
sending and receiving longer messages is more complex. Students are required to
complete several writing assignments for the course. Originally, these were to
be sent as attachments via e-mail. Compatibility problems with attachments
occasionally prevented my opening them. Although I can open attachments from
some students without difficulty, others prove impossible. A great deal of time
and effort is expended trying to send and retrieve assignments. The students
agree that written assignments should be sent by fax or mail to reduce the
frustration created by incompatible software.
The discussion sessions (often known as chat rooms) were the most successful
and most satisfying method of communicating between students and instructor and
among students. With one exception, students overwhelmingly identify the
discussion sessions as the highlight of the course. One student reported,
The discussions in class are very lively. The instructor keeps the
discussion going and gets everyone involved, capitalizing on the knowledge and
expertise of the class members
This is truly an adult learning
The weekly real-time discussion sessions provide the greatest opportunity
for student-faculty interaction. Real-time discussions allow for
teacher-student interaction and provide the richness and texture of
interpersonal interactions so often missing in distance education classes. It
is during these discussions that I begin to understand how each student is
assimilating the course content. Similarly, real-time discussions can be used
to manage routine class housekeeping activities. The real-time discussions also
give students an opportunity to interact with one another on a more personal
level. Although they are unacquainted with each other, students share job
opportunities and personal concerns.
As an instructor, I find the 90-minute discussion sessions exhilarating and
exhausting. Because each students computer receives my messages and
responds to the students commands at a different speed, I felt it was
necessary to maintain several concurrent lines of discussion. Students who
access the Internet through a university system can respond much more quickly
than those who get to the Internet through a modem and a commercial server.
The real-time discussion sessions require coordinating times that work for
everyone, across 4 different time zones. The class met from 7:30 until 9:00
p.m. Central Standard Time as a compromise for students on each coast. Students
on the east coast could get home from work and eat a quick dinner before class
and still be finished by 10:00which most (as busy, hardworking adults)
considered a good bedtime. Students on the west coast could get off work at 5
Pacific time, and begin class at 5:30 and be finished by 7 for a late dinner.
Ive often been asked about the difficulties communicating with several
students simultaneously in the discussion sessions. I believe that ten students
is probably the upper limit for a single discussion session. In a larger group
some students would go unnoticed and would certainly not actively participate.
I suppose that could be likened to a large lecture, and that parallel could be
used to justify larger enrollments in a Web course. Multiple discussion times
would also resolve that issue with students signing up for a weekly time. The
limitations of faculty time and energy constrain this option.
Hilman et. al, (1994) add student-technology interaction to the list of
traditional educational interactions saying a student cannot begin to
deal with the content of the instruction if he or she is unable to first
interact with the interface (p. 36). The following discussion of
interaction with the technology highlights the importance of teaching students
how to use the technology and of providing access to technical support,
especially when technical upgrades are introduced.
In an informal course evaluation conducted via e-mail, students describe
technical problems as the most difficult part of the course: Getting past
the technical difficulties, connecting, surviving the shutdowns, etc. and
The problems I experienced were due to the difficulty of compatibility
with KSUs system and the system I use at my institution.
When the interaction with the technology works smoothly, all is right with
the world, but when technical difficulties impact one aspect of the class,
frustration with the technology seems to stop progress in other areas of the
course. It seems that students become paralyzed until the technical issue is
Because this was one of the first Web courses offered by Kansas State
University the technology changed and emerged along with the course. The
technical specialists were choosing and developing new technology at the same
time students and I were learning to interact with the technology we had at the
beginning of the course. Mid-course changes (upgrades) in technology were
frustrating. At one point the entire original course was ported
into a new interactive framework. The new framework was a great
but making the change in mid-course disrupted the course for
several weeks as the bugs were worked out. In another instance, a
new threaded message board replaced the original static board. When students
discovered that they couldnt successfully complete an assignment because
they couldnt post it to the new message board, they became angry.
Students whose only connections to the course were electronic seemed to feel
abandoned or in some way locked out when they became disconnected from the
course due to technical difficulties. One student described it as feeling like
I was knocking on the door to the classroom but no one would let me
I knew the class was meeting without me! Before making any
changes, technical specialists must anticipate the practical, instructional,
and emotional impact that new/upgraded technology can have on students and
faculty of courses in progress.
The process of developing and teaching a World Wide Web course has been
exhilarating, fun, frustrating, mind-stretching, and very time consuming. I
trust that the reader who is contemplating Web course development can learn
from my experience. For the novice, I think my best advice is that the
technology should be in place and the course fully developed and piloted
locally prior to off-campus delivery. Technologies should be tested and
re-tested before they are released for student and faculty use. Additionally,
students must have an opportunity to access all aspects of the course with
their own systems prior to enrollment so they know if they can or cannot
successfully interact with the technology.
Clark, T. (1993). Attitudes of higher education
faculty towards distance education. The American Journal of Distance
Education, 7(2), 19-33.
Hillman, D., Willis, D., & Gunawardena, C. (1994).
Learner-interface interaction in distance education: An extension of
contemporary models and strategies for practitioners. The American Journal
of Distance Education, 8(2), 30-42.
Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. The
American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.
Wolcotte, L. (1993). Faculty planning for distance teaching.
The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(1), 26-36.