Making the Connection: Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance and Its Relevance to the Use of a Virtual Classroom in Postgraduate Online Teacher Education

Spring, 2011

Source: Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 43(3), (Spring 2011), p. 187-209.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of the current study was to explore students’ perceptions of the virtual classroom in terms of the impact they considered it made on their sense of transactional distance.
The study concentrated on three key areas: relationship formation, knowledge development, and communication of information. These areas were identified because they were compatible with Moore’s (1997) Theory of Transactional Distance.

Moore (1997) argues that the nature of the transaction developed between teachers and students in distance learning needs to take into account three factors: dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy.

Moore (1997) indicates the important consideration in this respect relates to quality dialogue and the extent to which it is effective in enabling the resolution of learning problems the distance learner may be experiencing.
The second factor Moore (1997) refers to is the nature of the course structure.
This factor includes aspects such as the extent to which course goals and objectives are pre-prescribed, the pedagogical model used in teaching the course, the nature of course assessment, and the ability of the course to accommodate individual student needs (Zhang, 2003).
The third factor, learner autonomy, refers to the sense of both independence and interdependence perceived by learners as they engage in the course.

Research Participants and Context
The participants were 30 students in a postgraduate online teacher education programme at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

Adobe Connect Pro was the virtual classroom platform for this trial.
The virtual classroom enables users to interact using audio, video, and text and to share files, resources, and presentations using applications such as PowerPoint and Flash. It also has functionality such as application and desktop sharing, which can be used.

Research Questions
The following research questions guided data collection for this study:
1. What are the students’ perceptions of the virtual classroom’s effect on communication and relationship formation?
2. What are the students’ perceptions of the virtual classroom’s effect on knowledge development?
3. What aspects affected students’ engagement in the virtual classroom, and how?

Data were collected through interviews with the participants.


The findings reveal that the use of the virtual classroom can potentially, at least, contribute to the development of quality dialogue. However according to Moore’s theory, this dialogue depends on structural aspects and, consequently, student perception of learner autonomy.
Furthermore, it appears that most students held generally positive views of the usefulness of the classroom in supporting the dialogue creation.

Second, a significant number of participants commented that they felt reluctant to contribute because the environment did not afford sufficient reflective time to generate comments or input that was informed and relevant.
However, other students commented that the temporary nature of the synchronous exchanges actually encouraged them to contribute.

The author argues that although the synchronicity of the classroom can encourage dialogue for some, it would be fair to say that the quality of this dialogue is dependent upon other factors independent of the classroom itself.

Third, Moore’s theory calls for a balance between learner autonomy and course structure, so that learners maintain a sense of empowerment and ownership of the learning (content and process), while at the same time working within a structure that provides adequate direction and communicates clearly standards and expectations of performance.
However, it appears that some students felt that the virtual classroom imposes an unwanted external structure on their learning and diminishes some of the sense of learner autonomy.

The final factor, which certainly affected participants’ ability to engage in dialogue, was the impact of technical and infrastructural issues. In this study, there was no doubt that participant engagement (and hence dialogue) was significantly affected by these factors, which should not be taken for granted when making decisions about using such tools.


The author concludes that an extreme complexity of an effective balance between Moore’s elements of structure, dialogue, and learner autonomy, has been revealed.
Furthermore, this study provides an illustration of how imposing an external structure such as the virtual classroom may affect the generation of quality dialogue and learner autonomy.

Moore, M. (1997). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical principles of distance education (pp. 22–38). New York: Routledge.

Zhang, A. (2003). Transactional distance in web-based college learning environments: Towards measurement and theory construction (Doctoral thesis). Richmond: Virginia Commonwealth University. UMI No: AAT 3082019

Updated: Sep. 19, 2012


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