Rethinking Distance

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

When I was studying in an academic programme on distance education through Deakin University in the early 1990s I came across the theory of Transactional distance which was developed in the 1970s by Dr. Michael G. Moore, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University.

At the time I was involved in establishing a completely distance education initial teacher education programme, with students from across New Zealand, while also carrying out my responsibilities as a lecturer in Ed Tech with face-to-face classes on site at the College of Education.

Moore’s theory caused me to completely re-think my understandings of ‘distance’, and apply what he was saying to both contexts I was in – distance and face-to-face. Transactional distance focuses not simply on the issues relating to the physical separation of teacher and learners, but on the factors that create a temporal separation – things that are inherent in the design of the learning experience itself, regardless of location. Moore’s theory has been critiqued by many over the years and found to be just as relevant in an era of digital and online learning as it was when originally proposed in an age of correspondence learning.

Moore initially defined Transactional Distance Theory as a psychological and communications gap that was a function of the interplay of structure, and dialogue, where structure refers to the design of what is to be learned and dialogue to the interaction taking place between teacher and learners during the process of instruction. Both are features of our present day approach to teaching and learning. The relationship between these and Moore’s view of transactional distance can be seen in the diagram below:

Fig.1 – Relationship of structure and dialogue to transactional distance

A quick interpretation of what this reveals may be described like this. Consider an online course where a significant amount of preparation has been put into the design and preparation of the online course materials with the intention of enabling learners to work through on their own and without much (if any) need to connect directly with their teacher – this represents more structure and less dialogue, resulting in high transactional distance. Compare that with a topic of study that is negotiated by the learner, and where each step in the learning process emerges as a result of this ongoing negotiation between the teacher and the learner – this represents less structure and more dialogue, resulting in low transactional distance.

Moore postulated that Transactional Distance is the cognitive space between teachers and students that must be crossed yet was a place of potential misunderstanding between the teacher and the learner. Thus, there is potential for a separation of this kind to exist between teacher and learner in traditional classrooms just as much as for those studying when geographically separated.

Fig.2 – a continuum of transactional distance

My thoughts returned to Moore’s theory this week as I participated in a number of forums where educators have been reflecting on their experiences in working with students at a distance during the COVID-19 lockdown. As mentioned in a previous blog, all too often I heard judgements being made about the efficacy of online learning (as a form of distance education) that were based on a single anecdote or a biased view – and not really reflecting the depth of experience that exists in this field. Further, these views often failed to recognise that the very issues that were being blamed on the use of online delivery and the physical separation of teacher and learner were not something unique to that context, but were actually revealing some fundamental issues with the design and implementation of learning in the face to face setting being carried over into the online one.

We’ve all heard stories of students who, when participating online, are quick to hit the mute button or simply turn off their screen and focus attention elsewhere. This isn’t because of a problem with online learning – the same may be happening under our noses in a face to face classroom. It’s just that the students are often too polite to simply get up and walk out, and so stay in the classroom where their presence is mistaken for engagement.

The real problem is boredom. Boredom because of inadequate or inappropriate forms of structure and low level or trivialised forms of dialogue. Michael Fullan, in his book Stratosphere, states that school is increasingly boring for students and alienating for teachers. This isn’t simply a personal view, but is based on the analysis of interviews with a very large number of students in a number of countries.

From his research, Fullan concludes that we need to create exciting, innovative learning experiences for all students that are:

  • irresistibly engaging for both students and teachers
  • elegantly efficient and easy to use
  • technologically ubiquitous 24/7
  • steeped in real life problem solving

It’s interesting to me to note the incredible consistency between what Fullan’s research reveals and what Moore’s research led him to propose over four decades earlier. Fullan’s list above describes absolutely the characteristics of an approach to teaching and learning where there would be low levels of transactional distance because there would most likely be very high levels of engagement, learner agency would be evident and the structure of the programmes more highly responsive to student need and the emerging opportunities in that context.

So as we continue to reflect on our ‘lessons from lockdown’, and find ourselves becoming critical of the ability of online learning to meet the needs of our learners, let’s not fall into the trap of blaming the medium, or even the geography that separates us. Let’s also be mindful of the design of our programmes, the structure we impose and the level of dialogue that is often absent, and consider that it may not be the geographic distance that separates us at all, but rather the transactional distance as defined by Moore all those years ago.

One thought on “Rethinking Distance

  1. Kia ora Derek
    This post resonates very strongly for me.. in a post I wrote earlier this year i also made reference to this often misguided view of teachers that the mere fact that students physically sit in front of us shouldn’t be confused with engagement. Physical presence should not be confused with intellectual or emotional presence. I made reference to Graham Nuthall’s work.

    This is not a simple puzzle, and (possibly like you) I have developed a weariness of the ‘what can we learn from lockdown’ rhetoric, and the assumption of some that you referred to in a previous post about the assumption the F2F is the ‘gold standard’.
    Nga mihi

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