Topic Progress:

Central to social constructivist learning theories is the idea of interaction. Wagner defines interaction as

reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another1

Based on the work of Moore2, Anderson3, 4 provides a model for how interaction occurs in online educational environments.

Modes of Interaction

Anderson’s model shows the three primary ‘objects’ in educational enterprises as being students, teachers, and the content. These are shown in green in the image above. Between the three objects are arrows that refer to what Anderson calls ‘modes of interaction’, at least one of which is necessary for learning to occur. So the three primary modes of interaction, along with examples are:

  • student-content interaction (the arrow on the left side of the diagram),
    • students listening to a lecture (live or recorded),
    • reading topical commentary in a learning management system or in printed materials,
    • taking notes,
    • performing research,
    • memorizing facts,
    • metacognitive strategies such as journaling,
    • solving problems,
    • resolving apparent contradictions,
    • examining foundational assumptions.
  • student-student interaction (the recursive arrow at the top of the diagram),
    • cooperative learning activities,
    • collaborative research and design,
    • problem- or project-based learning,
    • debates,
    • discussion forums,
    • social media, such as blogs or wikis,
    • study groups,
    • virtual communities.
  • student-teacher interaction (the arrow on the right side of the diagram)
    • lectures or tutorials (provided students can ask questions and offer comments),
    • question-and-answer sessions about content, class procedures, difficult topics, personal issues, and so on,
    • feedback on assignments,
    • postings and responses in discussion forums,
    • e-mail or instant messages,
    • one-to-one conversations via telephone or Skype,
    • synchronous web conferences.

Formal educational systems have long prioritized student-teacher interaction as being the most critical of the three modes of interaction, while traditional online learning environments in higher education have prioritized student-content interaction through the use of static text-based learning materials and activities.

Optional  Blog Topic

In light of what you learned in the ‘think’ module of this course, which of the modes of interaction would you predict to encourage deeper approaches to learning?

Remixing Anderson’s Model

Kanuka5, suggests that Anderson’s model may lead educators to view the different modes of interaction as being independent of each other, when they are actually interdependent. She maintains that both student-student and student-teacher interactions that are of educative value occur in the context of the content to be learned. She suggests that Anderson’s model could be better visualized as

Interaction Model Kanuka


In my work,6, I suggest that neither of the two models above demonstrate the idea that there could be two different kinds of student-student interaction. On one hand, students could be interacting with other students, but on the other, they could also be interacting with their own ideas as they rearrange their mental models. I proposed a model that merges both Anderson’s and Kanuka’s models, as below.

Modes of Interaction - Madland

In my depiction of educative interactions, there are still three objects (although I think that ‘agents’ would be a better word), students, their peers, and the teacher. Interactions take place through structured learning activities in the context of the content that is to be learned.


  1. Wagner, E. D. (1994). In support of a functional definition of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 8, 6-26.
  2. Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3, 1-6.
  3. Anderson, T. (2003). Modes of interaction in distance education: Recent developments and research questions. In M. G. Moore & W. G. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of distance education. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.
  4. Anderson, T. (2002). An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. Proceedings from Instructional Technology Forum, Paper #63.
  5. Kanuka, H. (2011). Interaction and the online distance classroom: Do instructional methods effect the quality of interaction? Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23, 143-156.
  6. Madland, C. (2014). Structured student interactions in online distance learning: Exploring the study buddy activity. Master of Education. Athabasca University.