Reducing the Distance in Distance Learning

- Posted in Uncategorized by

Educators continue to ask both the right and wrong questions about distance learning during this online learning period. In a recent post, I argued that instead of squabbling over which technology we use, or whether a synchronous format has advantages over an asynchronous format, we should look at distance learning through a different lens. Specifically, we should look at how we can reduce the psychological distance, aka transactional distance, between teachers and learners through pedagogy.

What do I mean?

During this online period, we simply cannot change the fact that students are geographically separated from their peers and their teachers. What we can do is re-conceptualize distance by ignoring “constraints” like time and space and see distance more as a psychological construct that can be reduced by facilitating dialogue between teachers and learners, and attending to the structure of our courses so that navigation is not a barrier, but an asset, to social interaction. The following descriptions from the creator of transactional distance theory (TDT)  are useful for understanding these two cornerstones of “distance-reducing” instruction:

Dialogue. According to Moore (1993), dialogue should be “purposeful, constructive and valued by each party. Each party in a dialogue is a respectful and active listener; each is a contributor, and builds on the contributions of the other party or parties… The direction of a dialogue in an educational relationship is towards the improved understanding of the student” (p. 24).

Structure. Structure “expresses the rigidity or flexibility of the programme’s educational objectives, teaching strategies, and evaluation methods. It describes the extent to which an educational programme can accommodate or be responsive to each learner’s individual needs” (Moore, 1993, p. 26).

When we start to conceptualize distance as transactional rather than geographical, it becomes apparent that it is the pedagogy, not the tool nor the physical location of the students, that is the key to successful online learning. In order to demonstrate this concept, let’s take a look at the following formats: One-way lecture hall, one-way Zoom call, and the ideal versions of both face-to-face and online learning formats in the next section of this post. I think you will quickly see that even when learners are learning in a face-to-face format, poorly designed instruction can negate the advantages of physical proximity.

One-way lecture hall

Physically close, transactionally distant.

University, Lecture, Campus, Education, People, Seminar

Even when students are present in a brick-and-mortar classroom, we can subscribe to a pedagogy that is transactionally distant and ineffective. One-way lecturing, in which the teacher mechanically delivers a unidirectional monologue, prohibiting dialogue or interaction, is the quintessence of bad teaching, regardless of students’ physical location.

One-way Zoom call

Physically distant, transactionally distant.

Webinar, Computer, Cam, Training, Education, Learn

Talking at students from your computer while they play with their phones under the table is the digital equivalent of sitting in a one-way lecture hall while students play with their phones under the table. Of course, I am being extreme; Very few teachers use Zoom or MS Teams as I’ve just described, just as very few teachers spend all day one-way lecturing. I just watched my mom’s Deaf pre-school class during a Zoom call and she had them running about their houses to find objects that matched certain criteria… highly engaging and interactive!

Let’s take a look at the two ideal designs for each format, face-to-face and remote, in the two next sections.

Ideal design for face-to-face AND online learning

Reprinted with permission from

The ideal design for a learning environment, regardless of the format, has a teaching agent who asks questions and elicits student responses (Rosenshine, 2012), provides feedback through short-cycle formative assessment (Wiliam, 2011), and guides students through practice activities to the point of automaticity (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993; Ericsson, 2015). When done right, these teaching activities inherently reduce the psychological and communications space between learners and teachers. In addition to utilizing research-informed instructional procedures that reflect our understanding of the human cognitive architecture (e.g., Mayer, 2017; Sweller, van Merriënboer, & Paas, 2019), transactional distance theory suggests that we attend to dialogue and structure when designing courses.

I am going to end this post with a few practical applications from TDT that we might be wise to consider during this online learning period. Are these groundbreaking? Of course not, but the implications for communication, satisfaction, and probably student performance, are potentially great . How many of the following “distance-reducing strategies” have you used successfully in your online teaching?


I promote a variety of forms of interaction, including:

  • instructor-learner interactions
  • learner-learner interactions
  • Audio, video, written, meme/gif communications

I’ve integrated a variety of discussion and collaborative tools, including:

  • Forums
  • Chats
  • Wikis
  • Shared docs/walls/slides

I’ve designed a highly usable course:

  • Navigation is easy and automatic
  • Course structure enables dialogue

I’ve set it up so that I’m accessible and available:

  • Students know how to get help from me
  • I regularly update my profile pic
  • I send regular greetings so that students can see my face or hear my voice

I avoid rigid, dialogue-prohibiting structures:

  • I allow students to ask questions in unusual times and places
  • I’ve created backchannels simply for socializing
  • I modify the course structure in response to student feedback

I hope this post was useful to you. I’m excited to be sharing some of these and other ideas about how to “reduce the distance in distance learning” at the Vietnam Tech Conference, hosted by UNIS Hanoi and Saigon South International School. Check it out, it’s free!

– Zach Groshell, @mrzachg



Ericsson, A. K., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (Anders Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer, 1993). Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. Retrieved from

Ericsson, A. K. (2015). The Differential Influence of Experience, Practice, and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Individual Performance of Experts. Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

Mayer, R. E. (2017). Using multimedia for e-learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33(5), 403–423.

Moore, M. G. (1993). The Theory of Transactional Distance. In Handbook of Distance Education (pp. 32–46).

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive architecture and instructional design: 20 years later. Educational Psychology Review, 31(2), 261–292.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment.

TDT – here is my Mendeley folder with the articles that I drew from to inform this and The Unproductive Debate of Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning post:

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 6.13.59 AM


The Unproductive Debate of Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

- Posted in Uncategorized by

Like millions of people around the globe right now, I am practicing social distancing. One valid point that has been brought up online is that the term should really be physical distancing rather than social distancing; Of course self-isolation and quarantine separate us geographically, but the psychological space between us doesn’t have to be so vast. These days we have online tools that can connect us socially in ways that can mitigate the loneliness that comes with physical separation.

In the field of instructional design for online learning, this is not a new concept. Transactional distance theory (TDT, Moore, 1996) is a useful theory for online course design that proposes that the distance during instruction is transactional, not spatial or temporal (Gorsky & Caspi, 2005; Saba & Shearer, 2017). TDT suggests that if we work to reduce the psychological space between participants and instructors through pedagogy, it will likely lead to higher learning outcomes.

While traditional TDT includes additional components that can be used to reduce transactional distance between learners and their instructors, I think all teachers teaching online during the Coronavirus online learning period should pay particularly close attention to the TDT’s core constructs of dialogue and structure.


A good online teacher facilitates a variety of forms of interaction between participants and instructors, such as instructor-learner and learner-learner interactions (Huang, Chandra, DePaolo, & Simmons, 2016). Even though online students are not in the physical classroom to engage in discussions, teachers should use the discussion and collaborative tools in their learning management system to increase dialogue and interaction. Teachers should update their profile pictures, post video greetings, and stimulate dialogue between students through the use of written, audio, and video comments. I recommend checking out this older post about the advantages to using online tools to elicit student responses over raise your hand in physical classrooms.


Structure refers to the level of guidance and direction provided within the course design, as well as the level of responsiveness of the course design to accommodate individual learners’ needs (Huang et al., 2016). A rigid course structure may disrupt organic and creative dialogue, but novice learners dealing with novel information may require higher levels of structure than experts (Benson & Samarawickrema, 2009; Huang et al., 2016).

Teachers should attend to the complex relationship between structure and dialogue (Saba & Shearer, 2017) in order to reduce transactional distance. We can measure how transactional distance is perceived by students in their courses by surveying them (Elyakim et al., 2019). Recent efforts by researchers (Benson & Samarawickrema, 2009; Huang et al., 2016) have revealed that courses with high structure and high dialogue (+D+S) tend to be the most effective in reducing transactional distance and that courses with low dialogue and low structure (-D-S) will likely result in the most transactional distance, with +D-S and -D+S falling somewhere in the middle.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous learning

One of the weirdest debates (to me, at least) that has raged in education as we wait for our schools to reopen is over whether we should be focusing our efforts on delivering synchronous or asynchronous learning experiences, as if this was an either/or decision. Fueling the debate are teachers reporting Zoom and MS Teams horror stories on Facebook and Twitter, and parents, like in the video below, who are so frustrated by course designs that they are just about ready to give up on distance learning altogether.


The thing is, there is nothing inherently wrong with asynchronous learning, nor with synchronous learning. Each is suited to solve different instructional problems, under specific conditions, depending on the goal of the learning, the characteristics of the learners, and the course format. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I hear of school leaders prescribing 100% synchronous learning during this time period, I can’t help but cringe. Besides synchronous learning tools being notoriously unreliable and difficult to use with a large number of young students, prescribing 100% synchronous learning violates two key principles of instructional design for online learning:

  1. A direct copy of a face-to-face classroom using online tools will surely fail
  2. You should never completely eliminate a useful instructional strategy from your toolbox

While it works much, much better for the learning context that we’re in at the moment, we probably shouldn’t prescribe a 100% asynchronous format for an online course either. Students can benefit from a synchronous dialogue session via conference call once in a while, if only to reduce the feeling of isolation between peers and instructors. For what it’s worth, if I had to depict my own views about when to use synchronous or asynchronous learning as a graphic, it would look something like this:

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 5.56.09 AM

Instead of having an unproductive debate over asynchronous or synchronous learning, one way we can improve our practice during these unusual circumstances is by attending to the design components of dialogue and structure, as proposed by transactional distance theory and other online learning theories, to reduce transactional distance and improve learning outcomes. While we may have to continue this physical distancing for some time, when teachers design well-structured courses that enable students to ask questions, engage in discussions, receive and give feedback, and actively participate in class activities (Joksimović, et al., 2015), we bring our learning communities closer together.

– Zach Groshell


Benson, R., & Samarawickrema, G. (2009). Addressing the context of e-learning: Using transactional distance theory to inform design. Distance Education, 30(1), 5–21.

Elyakim, N., Reychav, I., Offir, B., & McHaney, R. (2019). Perceptions of Transactional Distance in Blended Learning Using Location-Based Mobile Devices. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 57(1), 131–169.

Gorsky, P., & Caspi, A. (2005). A critical analysis of transactional distance theory. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(1), 1–11.

Huang, X., Chandra, A., DePaolo, C. A., & Simmons, L. L. (2016). Understanding transactional distance in web-based learning environments: An empirical study. British Journal of Educational Technology<

Joksimović, S., Gašević, D., Kovanović, V., Riecke, B. E., & Hatala, M. (2015). Social presence in online discussions as a process predictor of academic performance. Journal of Computer Assisted Learn

Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view, Belmont, CA: Wad- sworth

Saba, F., & Shearer, R. L. (2017). Transactional Distance and Adaptive Learning : Planning for the Future of Higher Education. Milton, UNITED KINGDOM: Routledge. Retrieved from


p style="margin-left:24pt;text-indent:-24pt;">

Has the Coronavirus Online Period Proven that all Teachers can use Technology?

- Posted in Uncategorized by

I love online learning. I love it so much that I decided to get an online degree in it. Working in a physical brick-and-mortar school is a pleasure, for sure, but I’ve long been interested in bringing the best of online learning into the face-to-face classroom. This is not because I think these tools are cool, or because I wish to replace human interaction with a dystopian educational system in which every child receives personalized training from a computer. It’s because I think that there are facets of online learning that can enhance proven instructional methods.

As an example, let’s take the ubiquitous face-to-face practice of “raise your hand and share.” We know that asking a lot of questions and eliciting the responses of all students is an effective teaching method due to years of research on the best teachers (Rosenshine, 2012). But by asking questions in the default face-to-face way, teachers are unlikely to get to every student, and, unless you use popsicle sticks or some other randomizer, teachers’ calling methods will probably always be biased. Teachers naturally wish for confirmation that their lessons are going well, so we tend to call on students that always raise their hands, the very students who probably already know the content before the lesson is taught. By using online tools, such as those mentioned in this older post, teachers can enhance how they might typically ask questions by posting a discussion question that requires every student to answer at once, with the added (and significant) advantage that teachers now have access to a mine of assessment information and can provide detailed feedback outside of student contact hours.

A few weeks ago, millions of students in areas affected by the Coronavirus outbreak were forced to make the shift towards online learning. As a teacher at an international school in China, this has meant that we have had to rapidly expand our capacity to improve learning outcomes from a distance. I’ve learned a lot from the experience, but if I had to whittle it down to just one take-away, it is that I am now much more certain that every teacher is capable of teaching with online tools.

Knowledge, motivation, attitude, or philosophy?

I used to think that knowledge held the answer to why teachers did not move to adopt the online tools that I found to be quite effective in my teaching. I assumed that if all non-adopting teachers received training on how to use online tools, they would know more about the tools, and then go and use them. Diffusion of innovations theory supports this assumption by identifying knowledge as the first stage in the adoption process (Pashaeypoor et al., 2017; Rogers, 2003; Sahin, 2006). Indeed, the user’s perception that technology is easy to use and might be useful –  aka knowledge – predicts higher levels of adoption (Scherer et al., 2019; Viswanath & Davis, 2000).

What I’ve seen from teachers during this online learning period, however, has challenged this knowledge-first assumption. Due to the sudden nature of the Coronavirus, schools have not had the time to provide robust LMS or online tools training that would fill all of the necessary gaps in knowledge. Teachers, parents, and students have just had to roll with it, and roll with it they have! Despite the lack of training around online tools, teachers around the world are teaching with online tools, and, from my viewpoint, using them well. The truth behind why teachers do not adopt technology normally is probably closer to what we all suspected deep-down all along: Teachers will use a technology – and probably use it well – if they have no other choice but to use it. In short, online tool adoption in education is likely more motivational, attitudinal, and philosophical, rather than solely due to (lack of) training.

What, then, can instructional leaders do to ensure that the best teaching methods are enhanced by online tools once we return to face-to-face learning after this Coronavirus clears up? We can first identify what those “best teaching methods” are, and provide ample support for their use from the research base, as well as explanations that are consistent with the science of learning. For example, most schools will likely identify “eliciting performance through spaced and interleaved practice” as part of their instructional design. Once the effective teaching methods are identified, schools should select online tools that fit the methods. To continue with the spaced practice example, we know that certain online tools can enhance practice because humans are terrible at adhering to practice schedules and computers are great at managing them. Once the methods-based online tools are identified, teachers should be required to use them alongside viable non-digital alternatives. And since we now know that teachers are more capable with tech than we assumed, there shouldn’t be any issues moving forward, right?

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg


Pashaeypoor, S., Ashktorab, T., Rassouli, M., & Alavi Majd, H. (2017). Experiences of nursing students of Evidence-Based Practice Education according to Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Model: A Directed Content Analysis. Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism, 5(4), 203–209. Retrieved from

Rogers, E.M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Sahin, I. (2006). Detailed review of Roger’s Diffusion of innovations theory and educational technology. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 5(2), 14–23.

Scherer, R., Siddiq, F., & Tondeur, J. (2019). The technology acceptance model (TAM): A meta-analytic structural equation modeling approach to explaining teachers’ adoption of digital technology in education. Computers and Education, 128(0317), 13–35.

Viswanath, V., & Davis, F. D. (2000). A Theoretical Extension of the Technology Acceptance Model: Four Longitudinal Field Studies. Management Science, 46(2), 186–204.