Probing the Value of Online Student-Student Interaction

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Classic online course standards emphasize the value of three types of interactions: student-instructor interaction, student-content interaction, and student-student interaction. But a recent pointed query from a colleague spawned a research project that led to questions about the heretofore unquestionable value of student-student interaction within an online classroom.  Especially today in an age where students are fully bathed in other online communities of choice through TikTok, Twitch, and Reddit.

Let’s begin with a general observation.  If you watch anonymized online student communities on the internet, you’ve grown to expect a weekly student post about the soul-killing nature of discussion boards and group projects. In the replies, there are always a few defenders of the pedagogical tools, but most participants affirm their widespread dissatisfaction.

Of course, student contempt for a pedagogical tool shouldn’t ground its dismissal.  Students don’t typically love exams, but exams remain a mainstay in the educational arena; however, keep in mind that online courses aren’t required to have exams.  On the other hand, quality assurance standards almost always require online courses to create persistent opportunities for student-student engagement.

In truth, some discussions and group projects are wonderful additions to some courses. The question is, are they defensible as a mark of quality across the board? Are they defensible as they are often currently implemented, on a weekly schedule, with multiple required interactions?

Three studies are typically cited when establishing the value of student-to-student engagement. In 2005, Marks, Sibley, and Arbaugh published a study to evaluate the impacts of all three forms of course interaction through a student survey.  They observe a relationship between perceived student-student interaction and satisfaction. However, explicitly, the authors noted (twice within the text), “The influence of student-student interactivity was less than expected” (p.554).  Further, expectations for frequency of interaction as it relates to student perceptions is not explored. This article has been cited 664 times.

Chang and Smith (2008) studied student engagement in a computer science course, again through a student survey. Their findings suggest that student course satisfaction was related to perceived student-student interaction in the course. Participants did not, however, evaluate any courses without student-student interaction. The article has been cited 268 times.

Similarly, Sher’s 2009 contribution to the conversation also surveyed students, again measuring the perceived presence of student-student interaction. Again, the students’ perceived peer engagement was linked to satisfaction. Again, the presence or frequency of engagement was not documented outside perception. This article has been cited 584 times.

Online communities of choice have grown increasingly popular since the publication of these articles. One can’t help but note the sense of student “isolation” the study authors hoped to address with student-student classroom engagement.  Today, the presence of myriad social online communities has likely addressed the sense of isolation for some students and aggravated it for others.  It’s unclear that such a void still exists for classroom communities to fill.

More recently in 2017, Kurukay and Inan launched a survey of students, some of whom were in an online class with student-student interaction, and others who were in an online class without such interaction. That is, the presence and absence of student-student interaction was objectively assessed and compared.  The authors found that the presence of student-student interaction did not impact student satisfaction in the survey. The authors did find, however, that group projects tended to elevate student achievement. This is perhaps unsurprising as academically inclined students typically elevate the performance of underperfomoing peers.

So, if we are truly evidence-based in our approach to designing courses, what can we conclude about student-student interaction?  We can safely conclude that some student-student interaction may be beneficial in course design, but there is little evidence to suggest that persistent, weekly assignments that involve multiple interactions are better than occasional opportunities for students to connect.


Miriam Bowers-Abbott, MA, is an associate professor and faculty fellow at Mount Carmel College of Nursing.

References

Chang, S. H., & Smith, R. A. (2008). Effectiveness of personal Interaction in a learner-centered paradigm distance education class based on student satisfaction. Journal Of Research On Technology In Education. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ826084.pdf

Marks, R. B., Sibley, S., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2005). A structural equation model of predictors for effective online learning. Journal of Management Education, 29(4), 531–563. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=1b6253eca2404e511b0da57e95960172d044c83d

Kurucay, M. , & Inan, F. (2017) Examining the effects of learner-learner interaction on satisfaction and learning in an online undergraduate course.  Computers & Education, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S036013151730146X

Sher, A. (2009). Assessing the relationship of student-instructor and student-student interaction to student learning and satisfaction in web-based online learning environment. Journal of Interactive Online Learning. https://www.ncolr.org/jiol/issues/pdf/8.2.1.pdf

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