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The Use of Transactional Distance Theory in Distance Education
Teaching and learning online is hard. I am a testament to that. In over 6 years of taking classes online or in a hybrid setting, I think I have had about equal parts success and failure. I love it, though, and I would not really change anything about what I am doing with my education online. For instance, this summer has been the most difficult term in my online career and it was a mistake for me to take two classes. Given the opportunity to do it all over again, however, I think I would have done the same thing.
My personal evolution of distance learning is interesting. In 2004 and 2005, I was taking structural engineering classes at a university in Oregon. The instructor (who still does not teach fully online) posted handouts on Blackboard. I thought it was cool that if we lost a handout or wanted to just review them online, we could do that. In the fall of 2006, I took my first fully online class through a community college – introduction to accounting. The instruction and homework was completed online, but tests were paper-based – the instructor would mail them to my designated proctoring site, I’d complete them, and the proctoring site would mail them back.
I continued to take distance courses through the same community college for several years, and I watched them evolve a little bit – started to find textbooks available on the Kindle, upload assignments via FTP, build my own websites, etc. When I took my first educational technology course online through San Diego State in the Fall of 2009, one instructor used the university’s LMS (I do not remember what it was) and the other instructor built his own web site for his class. At the time, I thought this was supremely cool, but if he had executed his site poorly or if all instructors built their own sites for each class, it might have been confusing. I like to think that he based the design of his course on sound theory like the Theory of Transactional Distance.
Additionally, having taught online for about a year, I have been on the other side of the screen, sotospeak. I actually really wish I had a better grasp of theory, going into that endeavor. Honestly, I do not think that I have actually designed one of the classes I have taught, thus far – I have adapted the material of other instructors. While this seems like a pretty common practice, it does not help me understand how a course is manifested initially. Having a basic understanding of any learning theory in distance education would have been helpful, and I think that transactional distance (TD) is a good place to start. It is a simple theory and if taken with a grain of salt (i.e., if the designer maintains an open mind and realizes that designing a course is a complex task), it can provide a basic framework for the course. I might find out that it does not work for me, but that is why distance faculty need to be flexible: to change something if it is not effective.
TD Theory could say several things. One way to state it is that transactional distance is the time at the start of a class (online in this case), where learners are getting oriented and trying to establish their identities as online learners. (Benson & Samarawickrema, 2009).
It can also be stated as being the amount of psychological distance the student feels from his or her course. TD can be decreased with dialogue: dialogue between students and teacher; students and other students; students and the learning material. (Benson & Samarawickrema, 2009).
In fact, that is exactly how Stein and Wanstreet and colleagues defined TD. They state that TD theory describes how the physical separation of the learner and instructor may lead to psychological and communication gaps that create misunderstandings and feelings of isolation (Moore, 1997, as cited in Stein and Wanstreet, 2009).
Stein and Wanstreet (2009) actually did an interesting study, where they surveyed 15 different distance students enrolled in Adult Education in American Society and gave in-depth interviews to five of them. The goal was to find out how adult learners experience being in an online class for the first time, and used that information to explore Moore’s theory of TD. They created a composite student named Pat that they used to synthesize the information gained from their surveys. One thing that Pat said stuck with me:
We would talk about something that I knew nothing about. And as I talked, it started to come to the surface, you know. You could almost see it.
Overall, students can see the value in talking with others. They recognize that through dialogue between learners or between learners and instructors, or between learners and the material, that they better understand what they are learning.
Some researchers think that TD isn’t deserving of being called a theory (Gorsky & Caspi, 2005). A theory is defined as being a way of looking at something that needs to be done, or how to do it (dictionary.com, 2012). Based on the dictionary definition, I would argue that Moore’s theory of TD is a theory. It does not need to be absolute law. Rather, I like the idea of having a guiding principle when I am designing an online course. TD says that you want to decrease the lack of understanding in your course, and that it is roughly related to several things: the amount of dialogue in the course, how much structure is built into the course, and how much control or autonomy students have over their learning.
Gary Falloon did a study where he used Adobe Connect Virtual Classroom in one of his graduate-level education courses in New Zealand. He wanted to test out Moore’s theory of transactional distance and find out if applying for synchronicity in distance learning that he and his cohorts could decrease the amount of transactional distance that learners experience. In EdTech 501 with Boise State, our instructor made liberal use of Adobe Connect and I know the department continues to use it. While it is a little weird to be a distance student because I can attend “any time I want” and then be asked to meet synchronously with my instructor and classmates, our instructor set aside several different blocks of time for us to choose from, and seemed to put a lot of thought into which blocks of time she set aside.
Falloon said that he concluded that Moore’s theory isn’t wrong and in fact is a good tool for distance teachers, but that it is dated and should be revisited.
Personally, I like the idea of having some guidelines when creating a distance education course, or when I am getting or looking at feedback from students, but maybe transactional distance is not the guideline I need. As a researcher that apparently distilled transactional distance down to its essence said, transactional distance is merely a tautology that states “as understanding increases, misunderstanding decreases.” (Gorki and Caspi, 2005, as cited in Kang and Gyorke, 2008).
Kang and Gyorke (2008) delve further into this, comparing Moore’s Transactional Distance Theory to CHAT or Cultural-Historical Activity Theory. They said that they are similar because there is some mediation that happens in both theories. CHAT is more general, stating that human development is based on social interactions with the people and environment in one’s life. TD applies only to distance education, while CHAT applies across landscapes.
Transactional Distance Theory seems to have a direct relationship with educational technology. Distance education is the use of some mode of transmission in order to exchange educational materials between students and their school, instructor, classmates, or even the learning environment in the cases of courses that are completely automated. Over the years, those modes of transmission have changed and I am sure that opinions differ on whether they have actually evolved, but I think they have.
Viogtsky (1978) once argued that human thought was mediated by things, rather than being an inherent response system to external stimuli. For example, a straw mediates our thoughts about a soft drink in a cup or a knife alters our thinking about a slab of steak. If we know what each of the implements is used for, then we know what we can do with the soft drink or the steak. He further stated that human thought achieves structure in young minds through the internalization of social stimuli; that thought is a social phenomenon.
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