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Understanding transactional distance in web-based learning environments: An empirical study - Huang - 2015 - British Journal of Educational Technology - Wiley Online Library

This is a very important paper examining and verifying Moore's theory of transactional distance. Sadly it is not open but those with AU accounts will be able to access it via AU Library.

The paper mostly confirms an inverse relationship between dialogue and transactional distance (more dialogue reduces the distance), and a direct relationship between structure and transactional distance (more structure increases the distance), that autonomy tends to slightly reduce the distance, and that a lack of both structure and dialogue is very bad indeed. But it also provides an interestingly nuanced view that appears to show high levels of both structure and dialogue are better still, as Moore himself predicts. I'm a bit sad that they used one of my earlier papers rather than my later book, Control & Constraint in E-Learning, because the findings strongly confirm my thesis in that book that modern forms of social media make it possible to have both high structure and high dialogue and that, consequently, transactional distance is lowest of all in such circumstances.  This paper appears to show that best of all worlds appears to occur when students use blogs, wikis, Twitter, etc, with notably lower transactional distance reported when compared with email/discussion forums.

There are also some interesting correlations between age and perceived transactional distance that the authors (I think rightly) put down to greater autonomy - older students tend to perceive lower transactional distance and tend to be more autonomous. There are also unexplained correlations with ethnicity that I am as puzzled about as the authors - this is intriguing and demands further investigation. I suspect cultural factors may explain this rather than ethnicity per se.

Though the studies are well conducted, I have some concerns with the measures and definitions used: I am particularly bothered by the split of interactions between people, content and interfaces. Structure here is defined by higher levels of learner-content and learner-interface interactions. I have always found 'interface' to be a very puzzling distinction as it is the interface that mediates both dialogue and learner-content interactions, so it is neutral to structure or dialogue - it ain't what it is, it is how it is done that matters. It is precisely that neutrality that makes the value of social media so high because, out of dialogue, structure in the interface can emerge and/or the structure of the interface can help to shape dialogue. It is also interesting that transactional distance is (quite rightly) not just seen as a distance between instructor and student but between students and students: this is correct because students are one another's teachers too. Again, this helps to explain the increased value of modern social media in reducing transactional distance because dialogue becomes content in the process, in ways that it does not in discussion forums and email.


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