May 30, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Think about it: in a traditional classroom, students and instructors have the opportunity to interact face-to-face. What does this mean? It means that when a student asks a question, the instructor can address it immediately. It means that when an instructor asks the class for feedback, the students can also respond immediately.

Main concept? Immediacy.

In online learning, immediacy looks different because there's a space--a physical, cognitive, and psychological distance between an instructor and a student--and it's necessary to navigate for success.

The key ingredient to a successful online class is something you've probably never heard of: transactional distance.

What is it? It's the space between the instructor and the student during the learning process. What kind of space? Psychological and cognitive, and physically separated. 

It's a pedagogical idea, that is, a theoretical one. The larger the transactional distance between an instructor and a student, the less successful the experience all around. The shorter it is, the better.

Instructors and students describe it as a perceived distance between them. Students can feel isolated and unsupported, and instructors can feel like they're not getting through to their students.

How can students and instructors minimize transactional distance? Let's take a closer look at four strategies:

1. Live social events and positive learning culture

Live events like webinars, real-time Q&A forums, lectures, and discussions encourage online learners to ask questions, share opinions, and connect with classmates. What makes these live events better? Video capabilities. 

Webinars allow students to participate and instructors to glean feedback from students. For students who cannot attend at the specific time, conferencing software has recording capability so that students can engage and then follow-up with questions after.

Creating a positive online learning culture minimizes transactional distance as much as live events. WHen online learners feel like they're part of the community, they're more likely to participate.

What does this look like? Cultivating online learning communities on social media, requiring student participating, and encouraging additional support.

2. Regular, personalized feedback

One of the best ways to bridge transactional distance? Offering timely feedback to students so that their learning improves. What does this look like? Assignments graded regularly--within a day or two of submission--with specific feedback aimed at generating positive changes in a student's work. Highlight accomplishments offer opportunities for improvement, and give a healthy dose of encouragement.

When students feel like their instructor cares, they're more likely to respond in positive ways. 

Remember: students want and need to know where in the assignment they need to make a change--and where they did well. 

Aside from assignments, instructors also need to respond to students' questions--setting up video conferencing or responding to emails should happen within 48 hours of a student's request. Less time is better. 

Bottom line? Instructors need to be present and offer timely communication to minimize transactional distance.

3. Student coaches

Coaches help students figure out how to develop self-advocacy and self-efficacy to navigate academic and non-academic issues. 

Coaches help students explore the "why" for their education--and encourage their motivation.

How do coaches minimize transactional distance?

They work with students on applications, admissions, orientation, and enrollment. They develop a shared understanding of the "why" for education. They assist students in understanding their strengths so that they can be successful.

They also foster relationships among university support systems and help students establish routines and schedules.

Coaches and students develop lasting relationships that traditionally lead to mentorship--and help students build a sense of accountability and efficacy.

Many coaches serve as liaisons between students and their advisors and help build a big picture of who a student is, what he or she needs, and the student's goals. 

4. Slow release of course content

When students first log on to their online course, seeing dozens of assignments can feel overwhelming. Set up your online course and minimize your transactional distance so that students see only a few weeks at a time.

For those who like to work ahead, you can release the whole course in checkpoints. In other words, after students finish the first checkpoint, maybe they need a password or code to unlock the second. This way, students can still work at their own pace and feel accomplished as they work through stages. 

Transactional distance exists in online courses, but by maintaining positive relationships and offering necessary supports, neither students nor instructors should feel it--and everyone can succeed.

Learn more about online studies. 

 

Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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