Each learning environment is unique and, as a result, provides a specific set of circumstances in which to learn. It is these circumstances that influence the learner’s ability to feel connected to the learning environment, according to Transactional Distance Theory. Specifically, there are three structural elements that influence the degree of transactional distance.
First is the dialogue between the learner and the learning environment. Dialogue is the purposeful, synergystic, and positive interaction between the learner and others (Moore, 1993). It is multi-directional with the learner sending and receiving messages for the purpose of clarifying, understanding, and improving the knowledge development of the student, and does not include predetermined content delivery (Giossos, Koutsouba, Lionarakis, & Skavantzos, 2009). Environments with high dialogue components are associated with low transactional distance, while low dialogue environments have been related to high transactional distance (Benson & Samarawickrema, 2009).
The second factor of transactional distance is the structure of the learning environment, which is the instructional design by which the content is delivered to the learner (Ustati & Hassan, 2013). Various constructs, such as the ability of the design to adjust to learners’ needs, educational objectives, learning content, assessment activities, delivery method, media, pace of content delivery, communication channels, and syllabus design, are structural factors (Horzum, 2015). Structure and dialogue tend to be inversely related, with highly structured environments associated with low dialogue opportunities, while less structured learning environments tend to encourage dialogue between the learner and others (Larkin & Jamieson-Proctor, 2015).
The third factor of transactional distance is learner autonomy, which describes the amount of flexibility the learner is provided within the learning environment to define learning objectives, create knowledge, and accomplish goals (Moore, 1993). An often-overlooked element of learner autonomy is the psychological view of a learner’s ability or willingness to be self-directed (Liu, 2015). In order to demonstrate autonomy, a learner must be appropriately organized, motivated, and willing to study independently. Both a facilitating structure and a psychologically prepared learner are essential for high learner autonomy and, subsequently, higher levels of connectedness (low transactional distance) between the learner and the learning environment.
Each of the three factors influence the outcome of transactional distance, and each learning environment expresses a unique combination of these factors. The result is that no two learning environments are exactly the same, suggesting that the transactional distance that is a result of the learning environment’s design will vary with each setting. For example, learning content that is subjective in nature, such as teacher education, is highly dependent upon successful multi-directional communication in order for learners to perceive connectedness with the learning environment (Falloon, 2009). On the other hand, learner performance within task-oriented courses that teach specific physical skills, such as block laying and concrete work, depend less upon multi-directional communication and more upon content delivery (structure) and the learner’s ability to navigate the content (learner autonomy) (Donkor, 2011).
It is also important to note that organizations should not necessarily strive for close transactional distance in all cases. Large online courses, for example, may be too unwieldy for the instructor to interact with each student, and hiring additional course moderators may be cost prohibitive. As a result, stakeholders must evaluate the benefits of smaller transactional distances as compared to the costs of creating greater connectedness with learners. However, transactional distance may be managed using a combination of dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy to achieve the desired learner results within organizational budgets.
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Horzum, M. B. (2015). Interaction, structure, social presence, and satisfaction in online learning. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 11(3), 505-512. doi:10.12973/eurasia.2014.1324a
Larkin, K., & Jamieson-Proctor, R. (2015). Using Transactional Distance Theory to redesign an online mathematics education course for pre-service primary teachers. Mathematics Teacher Education & Development, 14-31.
Liu, H. (2015). Learner autonomy: The role of motivation in foreign language learning. Journal of Language Teaching & Research, 6(6), 1165-1174. doi:10.17507/jltr.0606.02
Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. Retrieved from http://www.c3l.uni-oldenburg.de/cde/support/readings/moore93.pdf
Ustati, R., & Hassan, S. S. (2013). Distance learning students’ need: Evaluating interactions from Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), 292-304.