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Required Student Interaction & Online Courses: Can Less Can Be More?

Friday, March 28, 2014 -- Shane Dennison

What is the appropriate balance of expected student-to-student interaction and/or student-to-instructor interaction in online courses? When are such interactions needed for community building and overall student success, and when is too much too much, consequently pulling the student away from the goal of successful completion of the course assignments/assessments? Furthermore, how does an instructor or learning management system effectively monitor participation and give appropriate levels of credit to students for such interactions?

Communication between the course instructor and students (and among the enrolled students themselves) can be used to enhance the feeling of community, simultaneously serving to allay anxiety associated with the initial experiences with online learning (Long-Goding, 2006).Cognitive theory suggests that more interaction in learning environments leads to improved learning outcomes and increased student satisfaction, two indicators of success useful to program administrators. Using a sample of 359 lower-level, online undergraduate business courses, a team investigated course enrollments, student and faculty time spent in interaction, and course-completion rates, all drivers of resource consumption. Their key findings indicated that increased levels of interaction, as measured by time spent, actually decrease course-completion rates. This result is counter to prevailing curriculum design theory and suggests that increased interaction may actually diminish desired program reputation and growth (Grandzol, 2010).

We must also keep in mind that creating and enacting student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions within an online course can’t always be approached the same when considering secondary students and post-secondary students (or even when considering subsections within these groups of students with totally different needs). For instance, while too much required online peer or teacher interaction may be a hindrance to overall course-completion requirements, an at-risk high school student may need such interactions if offered in the appropriate format and dosage.

Online course technology at the secondary level has now embraced community-building capabilities that include threaded discussions, digital drop-boxes, and chat areas within courses so that continuous, topic-related communications can occur between teachers and students (Vesely, Bloom, & Sherlock, 2007). Some at-risk students, who may have reached at-risk status because of in-class behavioral issues or the inability to deal with various teacher personalities, may actually benefit from these alternative community-building options much more than they could face to face (Watson & Gemin, 2008). Palloff and Pratt (2007) shared that those who possess introverted personalities are more adept at creating a virtual environment because they prefer processing information before responding to it. Face-to-face classrooms often don't provide this type of option to such learners; at-risk students may feel more comfortable contributing through virtual community-building avenues then they do through face-to-face venues (Palloff & Pratt, 2007).

Yet, we must also conduct further studies from the perspective of the at-risk student. Perhaps, some students within this classification could excel even further within online classes if most topic-related interactions were removed. The answer of giving them more online interactions with their teacher and/or other students versus a face-to-face option may not be a viable answer at all. More evidence needs to be gathered concerning if many at-risk students yearn or need a more student-centered approach altogether—even in regard to limiting required interactions with their instructor and/or classmates. We as educators must ask ourselves if the goal of requiring online interaction is for the sake of mirroring face-to-face pedagogy in regard to attaining social skills, such as group project experience, to prepare students for 21st century career skills. Or is it just for the sake of throwing some required interaction expectations within an online course that may not have secondary students’ best interests in mind just so we can satisfy certain national online standard requirements? Now that we have the technology to offer secondary students a variety of online communication/interactions, we need to rally to find how to best implement these in effort to only require and utilize such tools that will best serve students in their success of the online course at hand, while preparing them for 21st century skills they will actually need.

Stay Tuned:

Part 2: Current iNACOL and student-to-student & student-to-teacher online course interaction expectations.

Part 3: Possible alternatives to current student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions that better monitor students’ participation and give appropriate credit to secondary students taking online courses.


Grandzol, C. J., & Grandzol, J. R. (2010). Interaction in online courses: More is not always better. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 13(2), 1-18. Retrieved from

Long-Goding, J. L. (2006). Student success in an online learning environment. Retrieved from

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Vesely, P., Bloom, L., & Sherlock J. (2007). Key elements of building online community: Comparing faculty and student perceptions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3), 234-246.

Watson, J., & Gemin, B. (2008). Promising practices in online learning: Using online learning for at-risk students and credit recovery. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Retrieved from