Volume:3, Issue: 2

Dec. 1, 2011

Transactional Distance or Community of Inquiry: A need for a theory of focus in online learning
David Wicks [about] , Janiess Sallee [about]

DESCRIPTORS: distance education, online learning, Transactional Distance theory, Community of Inquiry model, social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence, instructional design models and templates.

SYNOPSIS: The authors evaluate two theories – Transactional Distance Theory and Community of Inquiry Model with the goal of determining whether one is more useful to those engaging in online learning research and teaching. The conclusion is that focus should be made on the second theory since it can aid practitioners with instructional design models and templates, and help to make sure that online courses address important issues related to social, teaching, and cognitive presence.


Distance education is a relatively young research field with many of its early theoretical models focused on management and structural issues. The few distance education theories related to teaching and learning issues, such as constructivism, were borrowed from other disciplines.  Over the years, as structural issues were resolved and communication technology improved, teaching and learning theories specific to distance education have received greater attention. Improvements to Internet-based learning technologies such as asynchronous discussion forums and learning management systems led to a new sub-field of distance learning called online learning (Garrison, 2009). During this time, two original theoretical models emerged that inform both research and practice, Transactional Distance Theory (Moore, 1973) and Community of Inquiry Model (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). 

The purpose of this paper is to evaluate these two theories with the goal of determining whether one is more useful to those engaging in online learning research and teaching. Finding a single theory of focus may be important for three reasons. First, if we can agree to focus on a single theory, it may expedite teaching and learning innovations in this field where technology continually advances. Second, focus on a single theory may help current researchers concentrate on theory-based studies. Distance education and online learning research studies often lack a theoretical foundation (Moore, 1985; Zawacki-Richter, Baecker, & Vogt, 2009). All three levels of research, that is theory, empirical studies, and program evaluation, are necessary if a field of study is going to reach maturity where it is producing valid and reliable findings that inform both practice and new research (Ellis, 2001).  Finally, focus on a single theoretical model will aid practitioners, helping them understand and implement research-based methods to improve their craft.

However, focus on a single theoretical model may not be in the best interest of the field.  One reason is that much of current online learning theory lacks empirical support (Gorsky & Caspi, 2005). Encouraging researchers to focus on a single theory may prolong the use of other theories that have not been validated empirically. Another reason to encourage the use of multiple theories is the ever-changing nature of distance education and technology. It may be impossible to consider a single theory (Schneider, 2009). For example, a theory written when independent learning was the dominant form of distance education may not be broad enough to explain phenomena in synchronous online learning. The two theories being considered in this paper have both withstood the changes in distance education as it has evolved to be primarily focused on online learning.  Moore’s Transactional Distance Theory is approximately forty years old. The Community of Inquiry theoretical framework is over a decade old. Both continue to be heavily referenced in the literature and are worthy of being considered as primary theories of focus in distance education and online learning research. 

An examination of the strengths and weaknesses of these two theories may help determine whether one should be a theory of focus.  The Transactional Distance Theory (TDT) describes the psychological and communication space between the teacher and learner (Moore, 1973). This space can be thought of as an area of possible misunderstanding by the learner.  There are two elements that can either reduce or increase transactional distance.  The first element is dialog, which consists of interactions between teachers and learners. These may be in the form of email messages, discussion board posts, or even as part of a Skype conversation. The second element is structure, which is the design of learning in response to learner needs. A correspondence course may have almost no structure where an online course could be divided into modules with multiple weekly deadlines. Increased dialog in the form of more communication between teacher and student, combined with less structure or increased autonomy, may reduce the transactional distance.  Moore (1993) theorized that this reduction in transactional distance leads to increased learner performance and satisfaction with the learning experience.

TDT should be considered in any discussion of focusing on a single online learning theory because it remains relevant almost four decades after it was introduced.  Despite being developed during a time when most distance education theory and practice was focused on independent learning, TDT is used to describe online and blended learning today (Gorsky & Caspi, 2005).  TDT continues to be referenced in the literature (Garrison, 2000; Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008). Finally, there is evidence that theorists are modifying their work to include a transactional component (Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008).  A weakness of TDT is its failure to address collaboration or community.  The transaction is between a teacher and a student, student to student, or student to content, rather than a team of students collaborating where group cognition can benefit all members (Stahl, 2005). A search of the literature revealed no evidence of TDT being supported or validated by Level II or empirical research findings (Ellis, 2001; Gorsky & Caspi, 2005). Level III or program evaluation research is lacking as well. A theory that cannot be validated will not lead to improved instructional strategies.

The second theory being considered is the Community of Inquiry (CoI) (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000).  This theory states that deep and meaningful learning is experienced in an online course through the development of three presences: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence.  Social presence is the degree to which students feel socially and emotionally connected to others in the learning environment.  Participating in a text-based discussion forum may be the only way for students in an asynchronous online course to let others know they are present and have ideas to share. Teaching presence is the design, direction, and facilitation of a course.  These duties are typically handled by the instructor, but a more constructivist-oriented course with greater autonomy may allow students to influence planning, instruction, and interactions. The final element is cognitive presence, which is the extent to which students are able to collaboratively construct knowledge (group cognition) as participants in the course.  Using CoI, students work collaboratively as they make meaning of the course content. Contrast this with the independence and isolation of a student constructing knowledge in a correspondence course.

CoI should be included in any discussion of a theory-of-focus in online learning research. Over ten years of Level II and Level III research have been conducted (Swan & Ice, 2010). Research methods have been clearly documented in the literature and members of the founding research group maintain a website that freely shares a validated instrument, along with a frequently updated literature review (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, Vaughan, & Akyol, 2011).

One concern of CoI is that a majority of the research focuses on student satisfaction rather than empirical studies with deep and meaningful learning as the independent variable (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009). CoI’s validity may be in question when most of the studies are measuring perceived learning rather than using proven methods for measuring learning. Another concern is that CoI was originally developed for online courses that are heavy on text-based threaded discussions. Therefore, CoI may not be inclusive of all forms of distance education.  Specifically, CoI fails to account for independent learning or correspondence courses which still play an important role in distance education, especially in the developing world where computer technology and electricity are not reliably available in all educational settings (McLendon & Cronk, 1999).  These issues should not eliminate CoI from consideration.  In fact, these exactly the type of issues that should be brought up and addressed as a theory moves towards maturity.

Concluding, the purpose of this paper was to determine whether either the TDT or CoI would be more useful to those engaging in online learning research and teaching. CoI appears to be a better fit for a majority of the online learning research being conducted today because of the popularity on community and collaboration. Valid and reliable instruments that can measure TDT’s effects need to be developed before it can be widely used in empirical research.  Even the type of criticism CoI is currently receiving appears to be productive as it will encourage future researchers to consider defining deep and meaningful learning as dependent variable which may improve validity.  Finally, focusing on CoI should aid practitioners as instructional design models and templates can be developed to help make sure that courses address important issues related to social, teaching, and cognitive presence.


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