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Unit 2-4

Page history last edited by Gary Motteram 10 years, 4 months ago


Unit 2—Section 3: Transactional distance and the affordances of specific technologies


Whatever technology you make use of, there are some general issues and principles that most DE systems subscribe to. Whilst deriving from DE traditions, these issues also relate to emergent metaphors associated with approaches described as distributed learning, open learning, online learning. We'll consider briefly some of these here, allowing us to return to some salient aspects in the next two units.


Moore (1993) originally coined the concept 'transactional distance' describing "the universe of teacher-learner relationships that exist when learners and instructors are separated by space and/or by time" (1993: 22). This distance is not only characterised by physical distance, however. It refers to possible interactions between learners, between learner(s) and instructional material, between learner(s) and tutor. These may in turn be mediated by the choice of specific technologies. We have already touched on this notion of mediation in our discussion around DTVC (eg O'Sullivan et al, 2004 on mediated immediacy). If you follow up more recent research which has tried to explore this concept in practice you will find some interesting studies. Look, for example at: Goel, Zhang and Templeton (2012) who relate these ideas to students intentions to follow further courses by distance.


These interactions are fundamental to the design of any online learning course. Deciding how materials will work, what they will look like and how they will be delivered is a key question and one that the distance programmes in the School of Education face on a regular basis and no doubt you will all have been challenged by in your own contexts.


The influential variables in this picture are: structure (reflecting institutional control through the design of learning materials) and dialogue (reflecting the amount of learner control afforded through interaction). Moore suggested that the relationship between dialogue, structure and learner autonomy exists even in face-to-face contexts. It serves to describe the relationship between learning materials and imposed structure within them and expectations of learner activity: the greater the internal structure of materials, (eg a didactic lecture in a face-to-face context or video or televised materials delivering content to the learner at distance), the greater the transactional distance between learner and teacher, that is there is less opportunity for dialogue.


As suggested, we have technologies that mediate more constructivist approaches, which suggest a different interactional relationship between learner and instructional content; moreover, we are also in a world where access to those technologies is far different from the days of first generation distance learning. However, Thorpe (2002: 107), in an article considering learner support at distance in the light of the opportunities afforded by new technologies, also states (my highlights):


third generation ODL [open and distance learning] will not necessarily be collaborative and constructivist (Garrison, 1997; Jonassen et al, 1995) just by virtue of the use of these technologies. The social interaction and virtual presence that can be delivered, require theintegration of both pedagogy and technology and practical commitment to collaboration in learning.


The technologies


Writing in 1993, Bates predicted: "By the year 2010 … telecommunications-based technologies will have become the primary means of delivery of distance teaching" (p 213). Look how right he turned out to be!! He also signalled similar words of warning to Thorpe:


This is not to argue that this inevitable trend is necessarily in the best interests of learners; whether or not third generation institutions are effective will depend not so much on whether they use new technologies, but on how those technologies are applied (p 214).


Bates made an interesting distinction between media and technology. (Think about how you might revise this table today -- 2013 additions in green.)




Distance education applications

Text (including graphics)





iPads, Androids/ Tablet computers?

Course units

Supplementary materials

Correspondence tutoring


Electronic publishing


Cassettes, radio




Telephone tutoring



Broadcasting, videocassettes, video discs

Cable, satellite, fibre optics, ITFS, microwave





Computers, telephone, satellite, fibre-optics, ISDN, CD-ROM, videodisc, iPads, Androids

Computer-aided learning (CAI, CBT)

Email, computer-conferencing, audio graphics

Databases, multimedia, 3D virtual worlds


Whatever technologies you add to this table, we need to determine what each can do. Then how does this relate to teaching methodology and perceptions of learning in a given context. We've already started to think about this as we explored asynchronous and synchronous technologies. What does each afford in learning terms?


The word 'afford' is deliberately chosen here as you will come across the term 'affordances' in some of the literature you will read. This refers to 'the perceived and actual properties of how an artefact can be used' (Gibson, 1977). So do asynchronous communication opportunities differ from synchronous exchange in terms of deep and surface learning, for example? What particular affordances of the mode of communication or indeed specific tools lead to these perceptions? Do they have particular resonance with understandings about 'transactional distance'? How do they mediate the type of learning generally and the aims of a particular learning event?



Unit 2: Task 4 – Understanding affordances


Here is a paper by Conole et al, which I encourage all of you to read as it develops a framework for thinking about a pedagogic approach to design decisions involving mediating tools, and provides an exemplification of this in action. Use this to think about your own pedagogical thinking, the type of learning you want to effect in your subject teaching, the 'fit' with mediating tools that you are currently using, or gradually exploring. You might use your own experience of online learning to generate specific examples of practice - more or less effective.


Conole, G., Dyke, M., Oliver, M. and Seale, J. (2004) Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design. Computers and Education, 43, 17-33, 39(1), 170–174.




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