Transactional Distance Theory

Those in the School of Business can probably tell us a lot about transactions. We most commonly think about them in the exchange of money for a product. This involves a close face to face component where money is handed back and forth between the people. Some transactions involve credit or debit cards, and some are on the Internet where distance is a factor. We may not feel so secure about those distant transactions. Transactions in learning are the exchange of knowledge between instructors and learners. And in online learning this involves distance; a potentially insecure, lonely environment.

Michael Moore, a leader in the field of distance education, coined the name “transactional distance” in 1980. It is “a psychological and communication space to be crossed; a space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of the instructor and those of the learner”. The theory was expanded and elaborated by Saba and Shearer in 1994. If learning outcomes are to be maximized, the transactional distance must be minimized. Interactive components in the online classroom are the key to accomplishing this.


Dialogue between learners and instructors -learners in an online course are not just separated by geographical distance but by design and structure of a course. They may feel disconnected or isolated if they are just given an assignment and reading and told to meet a deadline. This leads to low motivation, less engagement with the course material and ultimately – attrition – the killer of all online programs. So how do you increase dialogue?

  • Use discussion boards where the instructor actually comments back to learner posts in a timely manner, or summarizes learner posts at the end of the discussion. A great motivator is to name learners and specific contributions in the summary: “John Smith provided a foundation concept blah, blah, blah. Susie Jones furthered that concept by explaining Saba’s research done in 1998”. Learners love that pat on the back or recognition and are motivated to contribute more significant ideas.
  • Use discussion boards that require learners to interact with other learners in a meaningful way. Don’t just accept replies that state “good job” or “I agree”. Ask the learner to further the discussion by bringing in evidence in an article, or personal experience, or by elucidating the idea posted by the first learner. Research shows that learners are more motivated and more satisfied with learning that involves peer to peer interactions or participation in a purposeful community of inquiry (Moisey, Neu, & Cleveland -Innes, 2008) and (Stavredes, Herder, 2013).
  • Blogs and Wikis provide a different peer to peer interactive experience. Blogs tend to allow more free flowing thoughts and ideas. Wikis require learners to contribute and refine ideas into a succinct product.
  • Use Blackboard IM as an immediate question/answer platform when learners and instructors are online simultaneously.
  • Provide a place for learners to ask questions or seek directions of other learners in the course.
  • Use Kaltura to place short 3-7 minute videos; either lectures, voice over power point, announcements, or feedback to students on a project. Add a question/answer component after a video to help ensure assimilation. Seeing the instructor’s face and expressions improves satisfaction in the course by fostering a sense of community.
  • Utilize Blackboard Collaborate in office hours, community meetings with learners and instructors for explaining or expanding concepts, or a place for learners to meet to exchange ideas and build knowledge without the instructor.


Structure and Design of the course – the flexibility or rigidity of instructional methods and strategies can greatly increase or decrease transactional distance. Structure has a big influence in motivation to succeed in the course, and general satisfaction with the subject matter. Learners who can’t navigate the course or find vital information easily will become frustrated with the course and are less likely to participate fully.

  • Extrude the components of your syllabus into the Bb classroom. Syllabi are very important documents. They provide the direction and structure of the course, and expectations of the instructor for the learners. We expect learners to read the document, but it should not be used as a listing of course activities. Learners are using more and more mobile devices in learning. Constant downloading of documents can be expensive, time consuming, annoying on a slow service, or hard to read once acquired. If you place the course schedule, textbook and resource links, parameters for discussions or papers in the Course Information area they are easily seen by the student by one click and become better reminders of how to act in the course.
  • Anything to do with course materials and content should be in a content item on the menu (not in the syllabus). If your course is arranged week by week use weekly folders with the reading, Discussion Board, written assignments and quizzes inside the folder. If you want to contain all the quizzes in one menu item “Quizzes” then link to the quizzes folder or quiz in the weekly folder. This will provide the learners with a clear list of activities and due dates. If you arrange by unit….do unit folders the same way.
  • Be sure there are active links to the VC for help, and the library, and any other technical assistance you deem important. Learners need to have a way to request help quickly to stay active in the course.
  • The Effective Design Initiative(EDI) course provides you with a checklist for classroom design items – some which are required and some that offer suggestions and best practices. Use this to set up your course design.
  • Think interaction in whatever ways are comfortable for you.


Autonomy – the degree of self-directedness of the learner. This is a trickier component. Some instructors have very specific components with which every learner must interact. But research has shown that some autonomy gives the learner a sense of ownership, satisfaction, and accomplishment. Giving learners options on how to learn is a good solution.

  • Giving learners some choices can be simple or more complex. Because people learn differently you could provide videos, power point slides, or audio for the chapters. They select what works for them. Some textbooks provide at least the PPT’s and the audio in the faculty resources.
  • You can provide some different learning options in different weeks – such as a choice of article critiques.

You can encourage your learners to research and bring new found knowledge to the classroom discussion or blog.

So consider all those academic transactions you could make with your students. By decreasing the transactional distance and you will “show them the money”. You’ll give them evidence of a more successful classroom experience.

“Moore, M. G. 1991. Distance education theory. The American Journal of Distance Education 5 (3).

Saba, F. & Shearer, R. (1994). Verifying key theoretical concepts in a dynamic model of distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 9(3).


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