Increase interactivity to improve online student success

Moore’s Transactional Distance Theory informs us that the more autonomous a learner, the less structure and dialog (interactions) they require to succeed in an educational setting.  Students possessing self-regulated learning skills such as good time management, study, and organizational skills are more likely to be successful in the virtual classroom. The reverse is also true – students who lack these skills may benefit from online course design that integrates a higher level of structure and interactivity.

A recent study published in the Online Learning Journal compares outcomes for students enrolled in an online precalculus course over a two year period. The first year courses are referred to as Online with Low Interactivity (OLI) and the following year as Online with High interactivity (OHI). The second year (OHI) courses differed from the first year by an increase in the number of whole-class emails by more than double, as well as the implementation of voluntary weekly meetings.

Several announcements and reminders were sent to the OHI classes via email, as opposed to using the announcements tool within the LMS, thereby eliminating the need for students to log into their courses to read the announcements. In addition to the more than double whole-class email messages, students were invited to participate in a weekly synchronous session – reviewing content-related topics, answering questions, etc.

The results show the OHI group performed a half-letter grade higher than the OLI group. Overall results show significantly fewer failing grades and withdrawals, as well as fewer Ds and an increase in C and above letter grades.

Cung, Xu, and Eichhorn’s study offers some specific examples of how to integrate structure and interactivity into an online course, thereby mitigating the transactional distance students may experience in the virtual learning environment and improving student success.


Cung, B., Xu, D., Eichhorn, S. (2018). Increasing Interpersonal Interactions in an Online Course: Does Increased Instructor E-mail Activity and a Voluntary In-Person Meeting Time Facilitate Student Learning?. Online Learning, [S.l.], v. 22, n. 3, sep. 2018. doi:


Synchronous learning and the asynchronous online course

The new GRCC strategic plan includes a college action project (CAP) focusing on expanding and improving outcomes in online learning. CAP members include faculty, staff, and administrators from various disciplines and departments across campus. This year we will be piloting a web-conferencing solution – Zoom- in tandem with Techsmith Relay SaaS – a cloud-based media management tool. Our goal is to improve access to student support services and increase instructor immediacy and teaching presence in the virtual classroom.

Skype video conference
Skype – CC-BY-NC-SA by M. Fawcett on Flickr

Departments that will be exploring how to use these technologies to support distance learners include: advising, enrollment services, the Library, academic tutoring and student success. Students will be able to consult with support professionals in real-time using audio / video or through the instant messaging / chat feature. Other features include a “waiting room” offering privacy when serving students one at a time, a whiteboard, screen sharing, remote control, and a recording feature for students to review help sessions later.

In a 2010 study, C. Baker from Tarleton State University, found that synchronous online learning resulted in significantly higher levels of instructor immediacy and presence. Teacher presence is the degree to which a student feels their instructor is accessible and responsive in the virtual classroom. Immediacy refers to the degree to which students feel their instructor is a “real person”.

The use of synchronous technologies such as web-conferencing in the online course can help to mitigate feelings of isolation which often result in lower student satisfaction levels and higher attrition rates. However, there are certain constraints in regards to flexibility when adding synchronous activities to an asynchronous online course .

Using a design-based research approach, P. Lowenthal and others (2017) were intentional in their efforts to leverage synchronous technologies in the  redesign of virtual office hours. Although few students historically attended office hours – whether virtual or face-to-face – by including the synchronous sessions in the syllabus, using the LMS calendar to remind students of the sessions, adding a brief instructional lesson and recording the session, they saw increased student attendance, participation, and satisfaction.


Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation. The Journal of Educators Online. 7(1), 1-30.

Lowenthal, P. R.; Dunlap, J. C. & Snelson, C. (2017). Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours. Online Learning 21(4), 177-194. doi: 10.24059/olj.v21i4.1285

UGA OER study shows promise for underserved students

Pell-eligible students enrolled in courses using OER at the University of Georgia not only saw signifiant improvement in course final grades but also lower withdrawal rates.


Colvard, N., Watson, E.,  & Park, H. (2018). The impact of Open Educational Resources [OER] on various student success measures. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Ed. Vol 30, No 2.


Balancing online and on-campus course enrollments

Research shows that students enrolling in at least one online class have a greater chance of completing their academic programs.

But what is the ideal mix of online to face-to-face enrollments?

Peter Shea and Temi Bidjerano gathered data from 45,557 students from 30 community colleges that considered the number of online courses students took along with their on-campus courses. Their findings indicate that for the average full-time student, no more than 40% of their courses should be taken online. In other words, the average full-time student should take as many as two online courses and three on-campus courses during a semester. For students considered academically at-risk, the number of online courses should be fewer. Conversely, students with higher GPAs may consider taking more online.


Shea, Peter & Bidjerano, Temi. (2018). Online course completion in community college and degree completion: The tipping point.  The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Vol 19. No. 2.

Other resources:

Johnson, Hans & Cuellar Mejia, Marisol. (2014). Online Learning and student outcomes in community colleges. Public Policy Institute of California.