Reducing Transactional Distance Online: Making Learners Comfortable

Learning online must be social.
Consider your personal experience. Would you rather learn knitting, a new video game, or complex photography techniques from a close friend or a dry textbook?
Personally, I would rather learn from my friends and colleagues. Research indicates that it’s likely you agree (Vygotsky, 1978).
Since people feel connected to their friends and colleagues, they acquire skills more easily when working collaboratively. Almost no one opts to skip a group discussion or team session in favor of a lone black-and-white manual.
Moore and Kearsly (2005) have identified this concept as “transactional distance.” Essentially, transactional distance is the physical or social space between two individuals interacting in an online learning environment. You can informally measure the amount of transactional distance by asking learners: How comfortable do you feel learning from me in this online community?
WELL… how comfortable do you think your learners feel?
It’s a question that instructors often ignore when creating and implementing online learning courses. It is easy to become so preoccupied with content, quizzes, and grade books that students’ experiences and feelings seem invisible.
However, there are strategies you can use to infuse comfort and familiarity into your online course, regardless of the learning management system you use.
Use strategies that allow learners to pick up on your nonverbal cues. When we communicate face-to-face, most of the information we share is nonverbal (Mehrabian, 1981). Include communication methods in your course that emphasize nonverbal cues. For example, explain a complicated project by using a YouTube video or audio podcast. If students can see your facial expressions or hear your intonations, they will feel more confident and comfortable with the task at hand.
Don’t release all of the course content at the beginning of the course. If students face dozens of assignments upon their first log in, they won’t feel welcome. They will feel overwhelmed! Set up your course so that students only see a few weeks at a time.
Use photographs often. Having students complete their profiles (with actual photos, not avatars) can create a level of comfort. You as the instructor should also have a robust profile with lots of pictures. The more the students feel they “know” you, the smaller the transactional distance will be.
Last semester, I started sending weekly YouTube recaps (You can check out my Course YouTube Channel here.)  to celebrate learning successes and communicate upcoming assignments.  My course evaluations improved this semester, and many students stated that they “felt like I was friendly and willing to help.”
Making online learning environments comfortable makes students more productive.

Sources Cited
  • Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages: Implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Moore, M., & Kearsley, G. (2005). Distance education: A systems view (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Creative Commons Photo Credit:[email protected]/1106538282


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