Reduced transactional distance and online community

A square image of four quadrants illustrating the ed tech tools in each quadrant, ranging from low immediacy to high immediacy and high bandwidth vs low bandwidth. A full explanation is provided at this URL

At the start of COVID, I hastily wrote a post about teaching online using email and a phone. I wrote that post because I was concerned that faculty and institutional support staff would be overloaded with trying to move courses into a learning management system, which isn’t always an easy undertaking. In some institutions where there isn’t much capacity to support faculty it seemed like it would be an overwhelming task for faculty to have to learn how to use a learning management system if they’d never been in one before. My approach in this circumstance has always been to identify the the lowest common denominator tool from an access and digital literacy perspective. In other words, use what you know how to use and focus on the teaching.

Since that post, Zoom has exploded, and it pretty much became the de facto COVID response tool for HEI as well as workplaces. I’ve seen some really creative ways that synchronous conferencing is being used for teaching, I’ve watched technology hesitant (or in some cases resistant) leaders make it part of their daily workflow, and for a while it seemed like there was a Zoom happy hour everyday.

What hasn’t changed is the equity and access problem associated with synchronous video conferencing tools despite reminders from students whose Starbucks, libraries, and campuses have been closed, not to mention their access to computers at their institution, or within their homes where it may be shared with siblings and parents. At the same time, we also hear how video conferencing has made things easier and how students appreciate connecting this way.

In the early days of online, distance education, thinking about access was often a rural vs urban consideration – rural areas in Canada had (and still have) bandwidth and connectivity issues, and we designed with this in mind. We had low bandwidth and high bandwidth video options, and we only included video if it was absolutely necessary. And yes, we had transcripts in case both of those failed. In some cases we made arrangements to mail a DVD. Streaming media was a careful consideration of who the students were, where they were located, and what the alternatives could be.

As a result, early online distance education spent a lot of time looking at how to build and facilitate community in online (asynchronous) spaces, because it was shown that a sense of community was associated with student perceptions of more effective learning. The foundation for this was the work of Michael Moore and transactional distance theory, where the goal of distance education is to reduce the transactional distance between students, faculty, and content. In this journey there emerged a large body of research on online community building which saw the Community of Inquiry framework, the application of Lave and Wenger’s community of practice to online environments, and the application of third generation activity theory to understand the larger system of that environment. This was so pervasive that for a while it felt like this was the only kind of research we did in ODE (see Johnson, 2001 for a useful meta-analysis), apart from the ubiquitous comparisons of whether online was as effective as f2f.

As the tools got better, our focus turned away from community building and we now have tools that are so good at reducing transactional distance (e.g. Zoom) that we equate that with community. In other words, reduced transactional distance does not always result in a sense of community. For example, a one hour powerpoint and talk session is great for an efficient delivery of content, and is even good for teaching presence, but might not create opportunities for building a sense of online community. And if students have to struggle to access the synchronous session, it’s not going to help the transactional distance reduction part of the equation either.

I think what early ODE research showed us is that building online class communities can be done with really simple tools and low bandwidth options. I’ve personally researched graduate courses taught only using an asynchronous discussion forum with a high sense of community especially for non-native English speakers, but there are countless examples out there. And while we all got pretty tired of the discussion forum as 2000’s de facto communication tool part of the reason for the fatigue was that approach to using it had become so formulaic in a context where there were much shinier objects. There doesn’t seem to be anything shinier than Zoom at the moment, but there is an opportunity to keep some of the ODE lessons learned – especially as they pertain to access, equity and inclusion – front and centre.

*Daniel Stanford provides us with a nicely updated set of bandwidth considerations in his article Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All.


  • Vivian Forssman

    Thoughtful summary of where we have been (with online learning) as considerations for where we go next in the current Zoom of synchronous learning. After over 2 decades of practice and research, the elegant intersections of teaching presence, social presence and engagement, coupled with bandwidth and access issues, are still the alchemy of online learning. Great article Tannis!

  • Clint Lalonde

    “And while we all got pretty tired of the discussion forum as 2000’s de facto communication tool part of the reason for the fatigue was that approach to using it had become so formulaic in a context where there were much shinier objects”

    I also can’t help but think that discussion forums became formulaic because the tools to facilitate the discussion never really evolved within the LMS, while discussion forums outside of the LMS did. I mean, at the heart of most social media these days is, really, an asynchronous discussion tool. Facebook, Twitter, Slack, Reddit – all these tools are built around asynchronous discussions and often vibrant communities and discussions. But the most common discussion tool made available to educators – the discussion forum within an LMS – never really adapted, which led to some of the boredom.

  • Tannis Morgan

    That’s a great point, and I’ve wondered more than once why Reddit – which is the closest thing to a DF of all of those – hasn’t suffered the same backlash, but of course it’s about community and authentic participation again, isn’t it?

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