Educational Technology & Society 5 (1) 2002
ISSN 1436-4522

Establishing Connections: Interactivity Factors for a Distance Education Course

Diane Berger Ehrlich, Ph.D.
Associate Chair, Educational Leadership and Development
Professor, Human Resource Development Program, Northeastern Illinois University
5500 N. St. Louis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 USA
Tel: +1 773 794 5516
Fax: +1 847 831 5802



Both academic institutions and businesses are exploring a shift from face-to-face instruction to distance learning.  However, without the foundation of a systematic instructional design process to guide course development relevant factors might be overlooked. A study conducted with graduate students in the Human Development program at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago was designed to identify factors to consider when designing or re-purposing courses for distance learning. Four elements of leaner-centered interactivity were studied: (1) learner-to-interface; (2) learner-to-content;  (3) learner-to learner; and (4) learner to instructor (Moore, 1991).   Interviews, focus groups, online discussion, and surveys were the tools used to collect data. The results of this study provide a foundation for redesigning existing courses, for creating new courses and for additional research.

Keywords: Distance education, Instructional design, Interactivity, Online learning, Problem-based learning


One challenge for distance educators is to structure courses that promote the transfer of learning beyond the classroom. Using a systematic process of design helps ensure that computer-mediated instruction (CMI) meets identified learner needs, is engaging and motivating, and is appropriate for the specific learning system.

Once basic design elements are in place, interaction factors can be incorporated into course development.  Instructional designers determine the factors involved in planning, developing, evaluating, and managing learner experiences that build the requisite skills and knowledge (Ehrlich and Reynolds, 2000). Figure 1 is a graphic representation of a non-linear model used to make instructional design decisions. The visual representation of design elements fitting together within a dynamic frame of revision and evaluation is driven by the needs/goals appearing in the center of the diagram. It is this reciprocal interaction between the elements of the model that differentiates it from other more traditional instructional design models. Many other design models appear to be more linear and often do not reflect the iterative mental process of designing instruction. This decision model provided the foundation for the Northeastern study.


Figure 1. Decision model for multimedia(Ehrlich/Reynolds ©1999)


When considering distance education from a learner perspective, Moore (1991) suggests that the interchange within a distance education context is characterized by four different types of learner interactions: learner-to-interface (access to and competency with the specific technology employed), learner-to-content (appropriateness of the course material and delivery vehicle considering the objectives and learners), learner-to-instructor (types of communication and feedback, access and support, etc.), and learner-to-learner (types of communication and feedback, support systems, and procedures for dialogue, etc.).  These factors were considered under the learner characteristics element in the decision model. (See Figure 1).


Purpose of The Study

This study was conducted to identify how to help instructors design and deliver online courses without sacrificing academic quality or jeopardizing completion rates. Class assignments, the final project, and evaluation criteria for learner performance were consistent with programmatic goals and remained essentially the same in both instructor-led and web-enhanced course design so that student perceptions could be compared.



Twenty-five graduate Human Resource Development (HRD) students at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) enrolled in advanced instructional design courses voluntarily participated in this study. In Fall 2000, the class was instructor-led and web-enhanced; in Spring 2000, the class was transmitted to two sites via interactive video.

These two classes were selected for the study because of the similarity in content and assessment procedures. Instructional assignments were project-based and interactive; students were required to develop a training program to meet a client’s stated needs.

Outside evaluators collected data during each of the courses, so that learner information and feedback were anonymous. Interviews and e-mail exchanges were scheduled at the beginning of the course (week one), at the mid-point of the course (after several assignments were completed and work on the final project was underway), and after the final project was due but before grades were issued. The purpose of these interviews was to gain insight into individual leaner perspectives about the course. After grades were submitted, learners were individually interviewed to get more in-depth feedback.  Individual journals and online dialogue were part of the data collected throughout the course. Survey questions and interview questions are found in Figures 2 and 3.


Categories Of Interactions

Four categories of interactions will be discussed as they relate to the design and development of the HRD courses.



Interface design begins with an analysis of user requirements.  For these courses, the interface enabled learners to create projects with hypertext links, to collaborate on projects, and to interact with experts.

Learner use of the technology should generally be effortless. Inexperienced students can easily become overwhelmed with technical issues and lose focus as content. The initial survey (Figure 2) asked students to identify their level of expertise with computers, their access to equipment, and the type of equipment used.

Current research suggests that the successful completion of a distance education course is often dependent upon the ease of use of the interface and learner familiarity with technology (Ehrlich, 2001; Palloff and Pratt, 2001; Susman, 1998). Data collected also identified that there was a wide range of at-home hardware and software possessed by learners (less than 10% used equipment at work) and that although most students had used e-mail (98%), comparatively few had much real experience participating in threaded discussions, synchronous chat rooms, or other interactive instructional web sites (less than 2%).  Navigating through the course schedule, handling problems with technology, and dealing with system difficulties were also issues identified.  Over 90% of the participants recommended that additional orientation and hands-on experience should be part of any online course.



Experience with technology in a work environment:  Write a one-two paragraph description of your experience with technology in a working environment.  What is your comfort level working with technology?

  • In what ways do you use technology to perform your job? 
  • What programs do you use? 
  • How long have you worked with technology? 

Experience with technology in an academic environment:  Write a one-two paragraph description of your experience with technology in an academic setting.  What is your comfort level working with technology?

  • Have you had any past experiences taking courses that are web-based?  If so,  please elaborate.
  • In what ways do you use technology as a student? 
  • What programs do you use? 
  • How long have you used technology in a school setting?

Type of equipment:  What type of equipment do you have access to (and use)?
















Internet Access/E-mail



Video camera







What is your greatest level of frustration in working with technology?

In order to take a course that is web-enhanced, what support do you need or want?

Figure 2. Interaction survey administered week 1



Delivering instruction for Human Resource Development courses via CMI seems to meet the majority of the criteria posed in the Ehrlich/Reynolds model (Figure 1) because HRD courses are usually problem-based and a congruency of the elements is necessary to build a structure for some seemingly disconnected material. When determining course content to support course needs and goals, the rest of the design factors in the decision model come into play.  The content begins to include not only the topics and tasks for learners to master, but also the instructional strategies and the delivery systems to support content.

When adapting face-to-face courses for distance education, one question to be asked is if the content and objectives are suitable for distance environments. Students reported this to be almost a non-issue in this course. Instructional strategies used encouraged learners to work through complex and “ill-structured” problems (e.g. problems dealing with a diverse workforce). Recent research suggests that a more problem-based type of instruction may in fact increase learning achievement in some cases (Susman, 1998). Our HRD program uses problems with real-world complexity, but we have found that our students often do not have the initial expertise to appreciate all of the nuances.  Solutions used to help students deal with these problems have included designing a series of case studies that gradually increase in complexity as well as individual cases possessing layers of analytical complexity (see

The data suggests that students initially wanted to meet face-to-face and only use the website as a support mechanism. However, by the end of the study, students felt that approximately two-thirds of the course could be successfully delivered via the Internet.  They still wanted to meet at the beginning of the course to meet each other and the instructor, and again at the end to share their completed projects.



Moore’s concept of “transactional distance” is a function of both the design and structure of a course as well as the dialogue between teachers and learners (Moore & Kearsley, 1995). Learner-to-learner and learner-to-instructor relationships highlight the dialogue part of this equation. They are intertwined because the instructor takes on a facilitative role, often playing a behind-the-scenes role once a basic structure for discussion has been established.

If an instructor wants some of the assignments to be group-based (which reflects the future work requirements for many of our HRD graduates), it is necessary to make decisions about the kinds of technologies that best promote collaboration.  Once again, this depends on a number of conditions such as the particular task at hand. Our experience, as well as that of others (Jonassen & Kwan, 2000), suggests that asynchronous communication has the benefit of allowing people to think about their responses and to consider those of others in a more organized fashion. However, using synchronous conversation is effective in terms of instant feedback, informal discussions and building a sense of community.

Adult learners bring prior knowledge and practical experience to the classroom, which can be tapped to enrich the learning experience.  In a face-to-face classroom, instructors need to engage students in discussion; however, it is more difficult to do so in a web-based environment. Some instructors may think that students will become automatically engaged if a conference board is made available. Creating and facilitating discussions has proven to be more challenging than many instructors anticipate. One difference between face-to-face instruction and classes where students never meet is a need to know who is out there. A well-designed environment for discussion helps establish tele-presence.

Problem-based instruction is highly dependent upon the analytical ability of students as well upon a relationship-building structure where students feel free to share ideas. The degree of student participation was measured by the quality and quantity of online student discussion. Weekly discussions were printed out and studied to determine how to generate more student involvement and greater depth of dialogue. 

Two-thirds of the students responding to questions (Figure 3) dealing with expectations and guidelines for student participation in discussion groups felt that these expectactions need to be clearly stated to alleviate student anxiety about grades. From an interface perspective, the speed of access and ease-of-use are also critical. When conference boards were designed as threaded discussions with specific topics, students found them more useful than bulletin boards, in part due to notification of new comments. Once students gained access, the challenge was then to engage them in discussion. 

To create a community of learners designers need  to:

  • build in procedures for learners to get to know each other;
  • motivate students to participate in discussions (Duchastel, 1997); and,
  • raise student confidence levels.

Creating a sense of community is a process that in our classes began with online introductions with optional photographs, followed by students sharing “safe” opinions in mini-cases, and then moving onto more complex and controversial cases.  We found that unless students were required to interact, many students initially chose not to do so because they didn’t see the online discussions as an actual part of class even though they were evaluated on their participation. Students felt if they participated in class they not not need to engage in online discussion; however, this will be changed for future classes.

Problem-based learning activities are often dependent upon the analytical ability of learners.  In our research, many students preferred working independently. Although they contributed to class discussions, many were more interested in framing their own responses than building upon the ideas of others. Strategies such as scaffolding -- slowly withdrawing the instructors’ support over time -- have been effective (Collison et al., 2000). At first, students chose not to discuss ideas in a systematic manner, each one just offering comments and not responding to each other. but eventually developed strategies to share ideas and capitalize on each other’s strengths.




Briefly describe your experiences with the HRD 408 WebBoard to this point:

Do you feel that you have a comfortable understanding of the way that the WebBoard works, and what the expectations for use are?

How frequently do you participate in the Web Board?  Do you check it right before class, 2-3 times per week, or use it on a regular basis for developing ideas?  Please explain your answer:

What do you think would make you refer to the WebBoard more often?  How do you think it can be made more usable?

What changes or improvements would you suggest at this point for the WebBoard?

Is the technology that you are using to access and use the WebBoard efficient?   Is this technology based at home or work? 

Do you feel at this point and time that it is a viable option to offer HRD 408 as an online course?  Why or Why Not?

Figure 3. Student survey questions on WebBoard



A 1998-1999 report from the University of Illinois Faculty Seminar concluded that the ongoing physical and emotional interactions between teachers and students and among students were an integral part of a university education. Much of the burden seems to be on the instructor to engage and motivate students; the instructor assumes the role of a facilitator and moderator of interactions.   The role of the instructor is changing to explicitly include guiding and mentoring (Harasim et al., 1995).  Much of the monitoring and contextualizing functions for which instructors become responsible are tied to social interactions and include recognition, greeting students, soliciting comments, prompting, opening discussions, and setting norms and agendas.

The instructor’s role is an ambiguous one; in some cases an effective role is one in which the instructor has an almost invisible presence (Palloff  & Pratt, 2001; Shotsberger, 1997).  According to research on online facilitation (Collison et al., 2000), effective facilitation is based on establishing and negotiating learner and instructor expectations. In problem-based instruction, the role of the instructor is to develop a structure that supports moving from issues and facts to possible explanations and solutions.  Instructor feedback is often critical to move the dialogue to a deeper level and to guide learners through a problem-solving process. It is up to the instructor to establish guidelines for discussion, availability, and how feedback will be provided.

Research is not conclusive with regard to the amount or kind of instructional interventions.  Specific strategies have included providing links to consulting experts (where students can get another perspective after attempting to solve problems on their own), problem-solving resource links during the process, and organizing structures through threaded discussion boards and other means.

According to the data collected, similar to a classroom setting, students were most concerned with their relationship with the instructor; students stated that they could more easily develop a relationship with an instructor in a face-to-face setting. An outside evaluator reported comments that reflected evaluation procedures and instructor feedback were major concerns for students.  Students felt more connected to an instructor in a face-to-face class because they felt freer to approach the instructor and could use non-verbal cues to assess the relationship.  The informal discussion and mentoring relationship that exists with many students grows out of informal relationships, many of which are built during class time. Maintaining or building instructor-student rapport may require new procedures for interacting with instructors that meet both student and instructor expectations. One immediate concern is whether students will be penalized when there is a problem with technology that interferes with their work. This was handled by changes in assignment requirements (e.g., changing due dates, being more lenient with deadlines when the technology was not working properly).



Although there is significant research on distance education, there is less research that deals with course design.  The purpose of this study was to apply evaluation findings to the redesign of a master’s level course for Human Resource Development and to determine whether online courses were appropriate for this program.  Based on the results from the study there are several unresolved issues. One of these involves the range of experience that returning adult students have with technology.  Another is access to equipment that will help students download materials and interact with each other efficiently.  Access to the university server is not always easy.  Our students, as with many returning adult students, are overanxious about grades, require immediate feedback, and are uncomfortable when things don’t work.  These are factors that need to be addressed if Northeastern Illinois University wants to successfully take part in the online learning initiative.

Faculty professional development often deals with the “how to” and not the “why” in online professional development.  We were interested in the best use of the media, whether that be on-line, face-to-face, or mixed modalities.  Presently, blending three or four in-class meetings with online components appears to be the best option for our students based on their experience with technology, the course content, and the desired relationship between students and instructors.  All participants felt that the instructional content was appropriate for online delivery. 

Other specific suggestions suggested during the interview included:

  • adding formal orientation/tutorial sessions;
  • making sure students have access to equipment;
  • allowing an option for students to take a course either online or face-to-face;
  • working out technology/systems problems in advance;
  • rotating responsibilities for facilitating online discussions among students;
  • stating explicit expectations with regard to course participation.

This study is being expanded to other courses in the program to see if the issues identified are programmatic rather than course specific.  A number of student concerns centered around the interface. Far more relevant and more difficult to handle than interface issues are the dynamics of learner-to-learner and learner-to-instructor because of the shifting of responsibility from the instructor to the learner in problem-based courses.  Research on problem-based learning and group problem solving activities needs to examine group and team dynamics as well as responsibilities of team members in online classes.  Some questions to be answered are:

  • Can a deeper  understanding of difficult material occur in the absence of face-to-face interaction? If so, how?
  • Is distance education effective for all content and learners? If not, which ones?
  • Are faculty being trained to design and deliver distance education courses effectively? If not, why not?

Many classroom instructors are being encouraged to design online classes without either a strong background in the pedagogy or without a clear grasp of the strengths or limitations of the technology.  Because the skill and experience levels of instructors also differ widely, replicating research in individual classes will capture a series of snapshots that can then be compiled to provide a more composite picture of the basic elements of effective online course design.



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