New Social Interaction Tools for Online Instruction

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT
President, Learning Peaks, LLC
Adjunct Faculty, University of Colorado, Denver


The importance of social interaction for learning has been clearly documented (Berge, 1995; Brown & Duguid, 1989; Fulford & Zhang, 1993; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Kanuka & Anderson, 1998; Kearsley, 1995; Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1999; McDonald & Gibson, 1998; Moore, 1991, 1993; Nunn, 1996; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). Social interaction allows the learner to reflect and reconsider, get help and support, and participate in authentic problem solving (Berge, 1996; Brooks & Brooks, 1999; Brown & Duguid, 1989; Lave & Wenger, 1991). A meta-analysis (Lou, Abrami, & d'Apollonia, 2001) evaluated the effect of social interaction in technology-based learning and uncovered important benefits for learners. Three of the more pronounced benefits for learners included improved learning strategies, greater perseverance, and reduced need for help from the instructor. These outcomes are especially important in distance learning because of the inherent difficulties with learning without the structure and motivational elements of an in-person classroom setting (Moore, 1991). Social interaction provides critical affordances for learners who are learning at a distance.

The types of social interactions that would normally occur in a face-to-face setting (discussion, sharing, peer review, group activities, etc.) must occur via online technologies and tools in online learning environments. These tools, and their inherent utility and usability, place limits on what kinds of online interactions are possible and likely to happen. Internet technologies have affordances that can be employed for learning because they provide an infrastructure that allows connections to people and objects that are not in the immediate physical environment (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turnoff, 1996; Ryder & Wilson, 1996). Although Internet technologies can promote beneficial interactions, they can also thwart them. Learners cannot effectively interact unless they are able to easily use the media they are tasked with employing for these purposes (Hillman, Willis, & Gunawardena, 1994; Kruper, 2002; Salmon, 2001). Affordances of different technologies also make some types of interactions easier and others more difficult or even impossible.

Web or computer conferencing is one of the most widely used tools for asynchronous discussions and collaborative work in online courses (Burge, 1994; Cartwright, 2000; Harasim, 1997). Despite the widespread use of computer conferencing, learners and facilitators describe numerous problems, including the extended time it takes to feel comfortable (Cartwright, 2000), and information overload from having to dig through large amounts of postings and the large percentage of posting content that is off topic or irrelevant (Burge, 1994; Shank, 2002; The Centre For Systems Science, 1994). A related complaint is the bandwidth and time requirements of opening numerous postings (McMahon, 1997; Shank, 2002). The bottom line is that computer conferencing tools can be cumbersome for social interaction.

I believe that existing tools for online social interaction in instructional environments are inadequate for the wide range of interactions that are needed and many social constructivist and computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) researchers and theorists agree (This article presents some of these arguments.). In order for more tools to become available, though, people in our field need to take an active role is proposing tools, work with developers to design, develop, and evaluate them, and bring about wide scale availability of promising tools. Many of us are already evaluating how to use existing tools to benefit online teaching and learning, but I am arguing that this is not enough. The purpose of this paper is to initiate a dialog about what other kinds of tools are needed and how we can provide forward motion on their development.

This paper begins by describing the types of interactions afforded by social interaction and discusses some of the existing tools that can appropriated for these purposes and their limitations with regards to these types of interactions. It ends with a call for people in our field, as key stakeholders, to propose, build, and evaluate additional social interaction tools so that more of the benefits of social interaction can be made available in online instruction. Then we need to make them easily available.

Affordances of Interaction for Learning

Ryder and Wilson (1996) called simple content interactions like those typically found in computer-based training (CBT) examples of “closed systems in which the content is pre-defined, responses are anticipated, and action is controlled by the designer alone” (Interactivity heading, para. 1). They call for open systems interactivity, which allows for “the mutual, autonomous, and simultaneous activity of both participants working toward a common goal” (A. Lippman, cited in Ryder & Wilson, 1996, Interactivity heading, para. 1). Ryder and Wilson listed Lippman's criteria for satisfying this definition of open systems interactivity:

  1. interruptability, the ability of either participant to interrupt the other at any point
  2. graceful degradation, the ability to set aside the unanswerable questions in a way that does not halt the conversation
  3. limited look-ahead, the quality that makes it impossible to predict the ultimate outcome of a conversation by either party
  4. no default, a quality which allows the shape of a conversation to develop naturally, organically, without a preplanned path
  5. the impression of an infinite database, the quality of limitless choices and realistic responses to any possible input (A. Lippman, cited in Ryder & Wilson, Interactivity heading, para. 1).

Open systems interactivity depends less on predetermined content and more on the types of interactions that happen naturally in the course of authentic activity (Ryder & Wilson, 1996). This is an important point, as networked technologies can allow interaction beyond the mere hardware and software in our computers. Ryder and Wilson noted, however, that networked technologies only provide the opportunity for open systems interactivity, but these opportunities must be fully exploited in order for their potential to be realized.

Open systems interactions commonly require social interaction because social interaction often provides the level of spontaneity and iteration described. These interactions provide opportunities for exchanges that can alter the content and context of learning.

Wagner (1997) outlined twelve specific instructional outcomes achievable through interaction:

  1. Interaction to enhance elaboration and retention.
  2. Interaction to support learner control/self –regulation.
  3. Interaction to increase motivation.
  4. Interaction for negotiation of understanding.
  5. Interaction for team building.
  6. Interaction for discovery.
  7. Interaction for exploration.
  8. Interaction for clarification of understanding.
  9. Interaction for closure.
  10. Interaction to increase participation.
  11. Interaction to develop communication.
  12. Interaction to receive feedback. (pp. 22-25).

These outcomes are highly valued by constructivist theorists, who believe that social interaction is critical to learning (Brown & Duguid, 1989; Burbules & Bruce, 2002; Grabinger & Dunlap, 1995; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). Many of these outcomes are most fully operationalized through social interaction. Social interaction in online instructional occurs through tools and technologies, and these tools and technologies afford certain kinds of interactions and inhibit others.

Tools for Social Interaction

A variety of tools are commonly used for social interaction in online instruction. Although there is plenty of overlap and it is difficult to neatly categorize the tools, the following categorization system may be useful for making distinctions between them (The Lab at Brown University, 1999).

Computer conferencing, also known as asynchronous discussion forums, is widely used for dialog and collaborative work in online courses (Burge, 1994; Cartwright, 2000; Harasim, 1997). This type of tool supports collaborative learning and interaction among course participants, including the instructor (Cartwright, 2000; Harasim, 1997; Shank, 2002), helps learners practice dealing with complex and realistic problems, and allows learners and the instructor to help each other with course, content, and technological problems (Cartwright, 2000). Computer conferencing can reduce the isolation felt by distance learners learning alone (Burge, 1994). Additional benefits of computer conferencing include allowing conversations to take place at each individual's convenience and permitting individuals to take time to digest what is written and to respond (Burge, 1994; Woolley, 1998).

Despite the widespread use of computer conferencing, learners and facilitators express numerous problems with these tools. Commonly reported problems include difficulties in adjusting to the technology and the extended time it takes to feel comfortable using it for online conversations and group work (Cartwright, 2000), reservations about conversing in print, and worry about perceptions by others and lack of visual cues (Shank, 2002; The Centre For Systems Science, 1994). A common complaint among online learners is information overload from having to dig through large amounts of postings and the large percentage of posting content that is off topic or irrelevant (Burge, 1994; Shank, 2002; The Centre For Systems Science, 1994). A related complaint is the bandwidth and time requirements of opening numerous postings (McMahon, 1997; Shank, 2002). Additionally, because of the time lag inherent in computer conferencing, discussions may lose momentum and seem fragmented (Burge, 1994; Shank, 2002; Woolley, 1998).

Wenger (2001), in a survey of tools available for supporting online communities of practice, asserted that new tools are still in need of development because optimal tools are not always available to support the following interactional needs continua:

Additional tools that allow for the instructional outcomes that Ryder and Wilson (1996), Wagner (1997), and Wenger (2001) described are greatly needed in order to afford a wider range of social interaction benefits. In the next section, I will describe my research on a potential new tool for targeted knowledge building. This is an important instructional activity (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994), but existing tools do not easily afford this type of activity. Although my research showed that the tool has a great deal of promise, there is currently no way to make the tool easily available to those without advanced authoring skills.

Example of One New Tool

CSCL researchers and theorists have articulated the need to explore how technologies can provide support for optimal interaction and superior instructional strategies rather than merely make use of available but less-than-optimal technologies (Lipponen, 2002; Suthers, 2001). Many have described the affordances of representational systems (Löhner & van Joolingen, 2002; Suthers, 2001; Suthers, Girardeau, & Hundhausen, 2002). These affordances necessarily restrict or enhance what is able to be represented by the system and thereby change learners’ focus and activity. The call by CSCL researchers and theorists for more and better tools for the range of dialog activities mirror those by Harasim (1997; 1996) and Wenger (2001).

My dissertation study (Shank, 2003) evaluated prototypes of targeted knowledge building tools that can be easily embedded in online instructional content. Figure 1.2 shows one example of such a tool, a dynamically populated matrix form (with the names of the learners hidden) that was embedded in online course materials for a public health course during this study. This form allows learners to populate the matrix with potential interventions that might occur before, during, or after a motor vehicle occupant injury event. This simple knowledge building tool allowed learners to practice using a real-world public health tool.

haddon's matrix image

Figure 1. Haddon's Matrix embedded in injury prevention course materials.

The study’s primary purpose was to analyze these simple prototype knowledge building tools in order to make suggestions for additional development and use.  Nine instructors, thirteen instructional designers and developers, multiple learners, and I evaluated the tools. The tool proved to be quite valuable as a support for online social interaction. It supported a variety of instructional activities and could be used for a variety of content types and strategies. Most of the instructors and instructional designer/developers who designed a lesson and implemented it continued to use the tool after the study concluded.


Learning in more authentic ways often involves social interaction and social interaction in online courses and instructional materials occurs through tools like computer conferencing. Despite the widespread use of computer conferencing, learners and facilitators describe numerous problems in using these tools. Additional tools are needed to support a much wider range of social interaction activities (Harasim, 1997; Harasim et al., 1996; Wenger, 2001). One activity that is not easily accomplished with computer conferencing tools is targeted knowledge building. My dissertation study evaluated a tool to allow learners to create targeted knowledge with others without the overhead of computer conferencing.

Since social interactions have high potential instructional value and existing tools do not easily afford the wide range of interactions that Wilson (1996), Wagner (1997), and Wenger (2001) proposed, additional tools are needed. Instructional technologists and instructional designers and developers, as key stakeholders, need to propose, build, and evaluate additional social interaction tools so that more benefits of social interaction can be made available in online instruction. The targeted knowledge building tool I designed and studied required advanced authoring skills so it cannot be readily used, as is, by most faculty, instructors, and instructional designers. Even after we design and evaluate such tools, we need to find ways to make them widely available. The purpose of this paper is to begin a dialog about how to make this happen.


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ITFORUM PAPER #81- New Social Interaction Tools for Online Learning, Patti Shank, President of Learning Peaks. Posted on ITFORUM on December 28, 2004. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at