A Meta-Analysis of Three Types of Interaction Treatments in Distance Education

Sep. 30, 2009

Source: Review of Educational Research. Vol. 79, Iss. 3; p. 1243-1289, (September 2009).
(Reviewed by the Portal team)

This meta-analysis of the experimental literature of distance education (DE) compares different types of interaction treatments (ITs) with other DE instructional treatments.

Types of Interaction

An interaction is commonly understood to describe actions among individuals but is extended here to include individual interactions with curricular content. Moore (1989) distinguished among three forms of interaction in DE: (a) student-student (SS) interaction, (b) student-teacher (ST) interaction, and (c) student-content (SC) interaction.

SS interaction refers to interaction among individual students or among students working in small groups (Moore, 1989).

Student-instructor interaction traditionally focused on classroom-based dialogue between students and the instructor

SC interaction refers to students interacting with the subject matter under study to construct meaning, relate it to personal knowledge, and apply it to problem solving.

Strength of Interaction Treatments (ITs)

An important distinction lies between the actual behaviors constituting the three types of interaction, which for research purposes may be observed or measured, and the conditions or environments that are designed and arranged by teachers to encourage such behaviors. The authors refer to the latter as "interaction treatments" to distinguish them from the actual interaction behaviors that are intended to arise from them.

Purpose of the Meta-Analysis

This meta-analysis examines evidence of the effects of three types of ITs in DE research studies in relation to achievement outcomes. Another purpose that evolved out of Anderson's (2003a) hypotheses is to investigate combinations of ITs to determine if there are differences in their potential to affect achievement. Finally, asynchronous forms of DE are examined independently.

Research Questions

1. What are the effects of the three kinds of interaction (SS, ST, and SC) on achievement?
2. Does more overall IT strength promote better achievement?
3. Do increases in treatment strength of any of the three different forms of interaction result in better levels of achievement?
4. Which combinations of SS, ST, and SC interaction most affect achievement?
5. Are there differences among synchronous, asynchronous, and mixed forms of DE in terms of achievement?
6. What is the relationship between treatment strength and effect size for achievement outcomes in asynchronous only DE studies?

Seventy-four DE versus DE studies that contained at least one IT are included in the meta-analysis, which yield 74 achievement effects.

The effect size valences are structured so that the IT or the stronger IT (i.e., in the case of two ITs) serve as the experimental condition and the other treatment, the control condition. Effects are categorized as SS, ST, or SC. After adjustment for methodological quality, the overall weighted average effect size for achievement is 0.38 and is heterogeneous.

Overall, the results support the importance of the three types of ITs and strength of ITs is found to be associated with increasing achievement outcomes. A strong association is found between strength and achievement for asynchronous DE courses compared to courses containing mediated synchronous or face-to-face interaction. The results are interpreted in terms of increased cognitive engagement that is presumed to be promoted by strengthening ITs in DE courses.


The major conclusion from this review is that designing ITs into DE courses positively affects student learning.

Anderson, T. (2003a). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2), 9-14.

Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.

Updated: Nov. 30, 2009