Surface and Deep Learning Processes in Distance Education: Synchronous versus Asynchronous Systems

Oct. 27, 2008

Source: Computers & Education 51 (2008), p. 1172–1183

(Reviewed by The Portal Team)

Distance learning is different from regular learning in the classroom. One of the main factors which influence the effectiveness of the learning process is the interaction that exists between the teacher and the student. The current research indicates that different interactions have different effects. There are two methods used for implementing distance learning systems, i.e. synchronous and asynchronous. This research is based on the model developed by Oliver and McLaughlin. According to this model, there exist five types of teacher–student interactions: social, procedural, expository, explanatory and cognitive. The present study refers to the cognitive interaction and differentiates between surface processes and deep processes. Deep learning processing is a process that takes place when students translate new information into engraved concepts and relate it to their life experience. Existing thinking schemes change during this process and the learned material is assimilated within the student’s perceptions web. However, surface learning processing, i.e. understanding and remembering existing information, primary absorption of new information and understanding it at a simple level, does not change the student’s engraved thinking processes.



This comprehensive study was performed on 160 students who participated in an ‘‘Introduction to Computers” course that was transmitted via the internet. Approximately 50 students dropped out during the research period, and 90 students took the final examination. Of these, 59 students who met the criteria required for maintaining validity using Glanz’s personality test were chosen. New immigrants, students with various types of learning disabilities (dyslexia, attention deficit) and students who did not answer some of the exam sections were excluded.



The study presents different variables and their influences on the students’ achievements and their satisfaction from learning via a synchronous versus an asynchronous distance learning system. The interaction level between the students and the teacher and among the students was found to be a significant factor in determining the effectiveness of the teaching method. The observations and interviews which were held with the students helped clarify the information that was obtained using the quantitative research tools, and showed that the presence of a teacher–student interaction which accompanies the learning process is very important for all learners. However, students with high-level thinking can overcome the low-level of interactions in asynchronous learning.


Oliver, R., & McLaughlin, C. (1996). An investigation of the nature and forms of interaction in live interactive television, ERIC Document No. 396738.

Updated: Dec. 01, 2008