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The Educational Relationship in Distance Education

Conventional education is characterised by a direct relationship or face-to-face interaction between the teacher and students. Teachers prepare lessons, discuss with students, manage the class, select the needed technology, suggest activities, assess students and provide reinforcement. In other words, the teacher can play an essential role in facilitating learning and supporting students. Although distance education is recognised by the separation between the tutor and learners, this does not mean, however that learners have complete control over learning. With the development in media and distance education theory, an important role can be played by distance tutors to enhance learning and support learners.
Sherry (1996) indicated that the distance tutor needs to suggest learning resources, deliver the instruction, determine the degree of interaction and select the appropriate form of assessment. Moreover, Trentin and Scimeca (1999) argued that the role of the distance tutor may be as important as that of the course designer. They suggested that although experts assume a leading role in course design, they have to be supported by distance tutors. For example, the tutor can decide the type of material and communication to be used, suggest the human resources to be involved and translate the course objectives into activities.
Ferguson (1996) emphasises the role of the distance tutor by distinguishing between two components of distance education environments: the subject matter and the dialogue. He argued that the dialogue during learning is the tutor’s responsibility. According to Ferguson, the importance of the dialogue between the tutor and students lies in its importance for activating the use of new knowledge and facilitating assessment of students’ progress. Sherry (1996) indicated to two main approaches to be used by distance tutors to interacting with students over a distance:
1.      The distance tutor may visit the distant site, or students may take a trip to a central site.
2.      The distance tutor may use technology (e.g., telephone, e-mail or discussion boards) to interact and support students.
To conduct a non-contiguous dialogue and effective relationship between the tutor and students and encourage them to exchange information and ideas ‘we must have a broader application of the communicative process and of the technology needed to support the interaction between the teacher and student appropriately’ (Garrison and Shale, 1990, p. 33). To recognise the relationship between the distance tutor and students, Shale and Garrison suggested a model of the educational relationship in distance education expressed in terms of communication.

In this model, the teacher generates the content to be delivered by the medium to the student. According to Garrison and Shale (1990), the ‘negotiation of meaning’ closes the communication loop and ‘is supported by a different medium from that used to deliver the content’ (p. 36). However, with the development in technologies that deliver the content and facilitate two-way communication at the same time (like the WWW), the same medium can be used to distribute the content and facilitate interaction, allowing the model above to be represented as follows.

In this model, the learner can interact with the teacher directly and transmit or receive information in both directions (e.g., read the content, answer questions, submit an assignment, receive feedback, etc.). For example, in the absence of two-way communication technology that transmits the content and the dialogue, at the Open University instructors use one-to-one telephone calls and audio conferences to monitor students’ progress and solve course-related problems. Wyld and Eklund (1997) advised that a paper-based study guide could be used together with a communication channel (like the telephone) if dialogue is to be conducted.

Interaction at a Distance
Researchers always emphasise the importance of interaction in the learning process (Ritchie and Newby 1989; Harris 1999). Interaction is defined as a process that happens between the learner and the learning environment, in which the learner takes a more positive role (Berge, 1997). This environment includes the tutor, students and the learning content. Interactivity has been described as a key to success in traditional classroom to enhance learning and motivate learners (Fulford and Zhang, 1993; Wagner, 1994; Flottemesch, 2000).
Considering the definitions of distance education above, McIsaac and Gunawardena (1996) argued that that the isolation of distance students is determined not only by distance and time but also by the dialogue between the learner and the teacher, interaction with peers and the design of instruction. Fulford and Zhang (1993) stated that ‘since teachers and learners are not in the same room, subtle interactions through body language are lost and learner perceptions of amount of interaction may be altered’ (p. 8).
In distance education context, studies found that students who enrolled in programmes that support and encourage interaction have highly positive attitudes toward learning and higher levels of achievement than others in one-way systems (Ritchie and Newby, 1989; Comeaux, 1999). In this regard, Garrison and Shale(1990) highlighted the relationship between the dropout rates in a distance education system and its interactive capabilities . They argued that:
‘[…] improving the quality of the educational process through increased two-way communication is likely to have the most significant impact upon the effectiveness of learning and in turn is likely to raise completion rates in distance education’ (p. 128).
Holmberg (1990) believes that the ability of the medium to conduct interaction between the tutor and students is the essential criterion in selection among distance education technologies. He pointed out that any distance education medium should be able to provide the tutor and students with means of bringing about their experience, create rapport between them and offer opportunities for discussion.
McIsaac and Gunawardena (1996) indicated three constructs that affect students’ attitudes and achievement at a distance: transactional distance, learner control and social context. These constructs are mainly affected by the concept of interaction. Moore (1989) provided a framework for studying interaction in distance education by defining three types of interaction:
1.      Learner-content interaction, which occurs between the learner and the learning content to bring about changes in the learner’s understanding, perspective or cognitive structures. Trentin (2000) believes that the quality of learning materials has an enormous effect on achieving this type of interaction.
2.      Learner-instructor interaction, which occurs between the learner and the instructor to motivate and support the learner and allows for clarification of any misunderstanding.
3.      Learner-learner interaction, which occurs between one learner and another learner, with or without the presence of an instructor.
Eaton (1997) agrees with Moore in defining these types of interaction. However, he described them as two general types: individual interaction and social interaction. Individual interaction happens between the learner and the learning material. However, social interaction happens between two or more learners concerning the learning material and may involve the instructor.
Stating another point of view, Hillman et al. (1994) noted that the earlier typologies of interaction failed to take into account the interaction that occurs when a learner uses ‘intervening’ technologies to communicate with the content. Therefore, he suggested a new type of interaction called ‘learner-interface interaction’, for example, sending and receiving messages using a specific e-mail program or dealing with the graphical user interface of operating system. According to Hillman et al., this new type is responsible for facilitating students’ acquisition of skills needed to participate effectively.
Holmberg (1990) defined learner-content interaction (individual interaction) as a ‘one-way traffic’ in distance education systems. This one-way traffic is common in the earlier types of technology (e.g., printed materials and broadcast). However, using two-way technology (e.g., video-conferencing and the WWW), ‘two-way traffic’ can take place between the tutor and students. In this regard, Berge (1996) believes that while in earlier distance education programmes it was possible to conduct interaction only between the instructor and students, it is possible now for distance education students to interact with one another.
Garrison (1990) emphasised the role of interactive media and technology in conducting both types of interaction. He argued that without using these technologies, distance learning ‘degenerates’ into the correspondence generation of independent study in which the student is isolated. To achieve social interaction in education programmes, usually a real-time (synchronous) communication technology (e.g., telephone and video conferencing) were being used. However, with the development in communication technology (like the Internet), these kinds of interaction do not necessarily require real-time communication. Interaction can be independent of time (asynchronous), using communication tools (e.g., e-mail and discussion boards). 
The type of interaction used in any distance education system depends on the nature of the communication system (synchronous or asynchronous), the kind of interaction (individual or social) that is needed, the number of learners (small groups or large groups) and costs. For example, Trentin (2000) highlighted the importance of group size in the success of the learner-learner interaction in distance education programmes. He argued that:
‘the more the communication is directed toward socialization and sharing of ideas and experiences, the larger the discussion group may be, Conversely, the more the communication is directed toward collaborative study, the more limited group numbers need to be (Trentin, 2000, p. 20).
However, implementing interactive technology, like the WWW, and its components is not enough. Since distance education is characterised by the isolation of the learner, it means less involvement and less possibility to ask questions. To solve these problems, Trentin (2000) suggested that:
‘One of the key ingredients for raising the quality of an online course is strong interaction between the players in the process; organized in full-fledged virtual classes, the participants must obviously respect schedules and deadlines if a collaborative working strategy is to be successful’ (p. 20).
Many suggestions have been offered in the literature showing how to conduct successful interaction between the learner and the content, the tutor, peers and the user interface. For example, learner-interface interaction can be stimulated by instructional activities (e.g., computer games and informal chatting sessions) that help the learner become comfortable with the technology (Hillman et al., 1994). In addition, student-to-tutor and student-to-student interaction can be constructed and fostered using various strategies such as group-based collaborative projects, presentation boards and tutor questioning using interactive communication tools such as e-mail and discussion boards (Anderson, 1987; Moore, 1989).