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Social Aspects of Online Learning

Social Aspects of Online Learning

Dr. Kathryn Kennedy has over 15 years of experience in online, blended, and digital learning in PreK-12, higher education, and beyond. Her work is focused at the intersection of research, practice, and policy. She owns and operates her own consulting firm that is currently helping inform PLTW’s current and future teaching and learning experiences.

Intentional design in online learning incorporates many different aspects, including but not limited to cultivating community, building in support structures, and teacher presence. PLTW Instructional Developers engaged in intentional design to create PLTW Core Training this summer. In addition to community building, support structures, and teacher presence, they also incorporated social aspects into the learning experience. In online learning research, there are different theories for incorporating social aspects, one of which is called Interaction Theory that was introduced by Moore (2013). Interaction Theory is made up of five interactions:

  1. Learner-to-Instructor – Interaction between the learner and instructor can include feedback but also one-on-one meetings and interactions within small-group and whole-class settings. In PLTW Core Training, the Instructional Developers incorporate web conferencing via office hours and training time, as well as real-time chat features to bring this interaction to life.
  2. Learner-to-Content – Interaction between the learner and the content depends on the design of the learning environment. For PLTW, the content includes text, simulations, content-based software, and more. The design of the learning as well as the instructor guidance for encouraging this engagement is key to ensuring interaction between learner and content.
  3. Learner-to-Other Learners – Interaction between learners is an important part of the learning experience. Similar to interaction with the instructor, this interaction takes place through web conferencing and live chat for real-time conversations, as well as via discussion boards and peer reviews that are done on the learner’s own time. This is also something that PLTW has included in their design of PLTW Core Training.
  4. Learner-to-System(s) – Interaction that happens between the learner and system(s) includes not only the content management system or learning management system that the learning experience is housed in but also the other software and hardware that the learners use throughout their journey. For PLTW Core Training, beyond the content management system, learner-to-system(s) interaction also includes software, hardware, durables, and consumables, which PLTW uses as part of their curriculum.
  5. Learner-to-Other Experts – Interaction between learners and other experts can provide authentic understanding of how professionals in a field apply the content from the course in the real-world. In PLTW Core Training, real-world connections are critical to a transformative learning experience for not only the teachers who are earning their PLTW certification but also for their students.

In addition to Interaction Theory, Community of Inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999) helps us to understand the importance of presence in online learning experiences on three levels, including Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, and Teaching Presence. Social Presence encompasses engagement between learners, the ability to express oneself without fear of judgement, and collaborative activities. Cognitive Presence is about reflecting on previous knowledge, sharing information, connecting ideas, and transferring knowledge to apply it in new situations. Teaching Presence is about facilitating, sharing curriculum in a personal way, and helping to focus discussions to gain more global understanding. In PLTW Core Training, Community of Inquiry also played a major role in the design and development process.

Transactional Distance is another one of Moore’s theories (2013). The basis for the theory is a continuum of perceived feelings of psychological distance or isolation that can occur in online learning based on the design of the environment and experience. Transactional Distance is made up of three components:

  1. Dialog – interaction
  2. Structure – design of the course
  3. Autonomy – learner’s control of their own learning

Dialog builds off of interaction theory, and on the continuum, when there’s more dialog, there’s less feelings of isolation. Structure is the design of the course. When there’s less structure, allowing for more interaction, there’s less feelings of isolation. When learner autonomy is high and they feel like they have control of their learning, there’s less feelings of isolation. Diminishing transactional distance is key for instructors as well so that they do not feel isolated.

There are so many factors involved in creating meaningful learning experiences online for all stakeholders, and the design and development process used these theories as the foundation for their work in shifting PLTW Core Training online.

Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105.

Moore, M. G. (2013). Handbook of Distance Education (3rd ed.). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

PLTW’s blog intends to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of each guest author.