Interaction in Virtual Classrooms

In my work with teachers as they begin teaching in virtual spaces, a common reaction from those whose first experiences were disappointing is “they just post silly stuff,” and they contend that students do not engage in academic discussions when online. When pressed to define silly stuff, they suggest using text abbreviations, deviating from the assigned task, and contributing only superficially to the discussion (with statements like “I agree” that are usually expressed in vernacular) all contribute to their perceptions. They attribute their reluctance to adopt online tools in part to that characteristic of students’ interactions. I contend those educators’ perceptions are accurate, and must be properly interpreted to be overcome. Students are posting “silly stuff” because that is what they typically do when they interact in virtual spaces. “When in Rome, do as the Romans” has become “when online do as the netizens,” and this is demonstrated by students’ silly interactions in virtual classrooms. Educators can be proactive in the design of online spaces so as to encourage the transition from silly interaction to academic interaction.

Educators who instruct students in appropriate academic and professional interaction provide cognitive scaffolds for the interaction. These examples become the model for students to transition from silly to academic interaction online. The transition necessitates patience and persistence, however; just as students do not become expert programmers or poets with little effort, they cannot be expected to interact like experts in a space where they have much experience interacting with silliness.

Bonnie Nardi (2005), a scholar from the University of California, Irvine, observed that in settings in which communication occurs via ICT (specifically, Nardi studied instant messaging), three factors are associated with sustained interaction. In settings in which an individual feels a member of the group (affinity), a desire to contribute to the activity of the group (commitment), and is motivated to know and understand the activity of the group (attention), an individual is more likely to sustain communication within the group. Sustained communication is necessary for the social construction of knowledge and for creative and complex problem solving within a group, therefore educator tasks must encourage “the creation and renewal of social bonds of affinity, the establishment of commitment, and the capture of attention” (Nardi 2005, 125). Charlotte Gundawardena, Constance Lowe, and Terry Anderson (1997) observed that participants in online discussions (a platform that allowed for social interaction at a distance and asynchronously) engaged in social interaction for five purposes: a) sharing information, b) discovering dissonance, c) constructing new knowledge, d) testing new knowledge, and e) applying new knowledge. In their data, sharing knowledge accounted for the greatest number of interactions (almost 200 postings compared to fewer than 10 postings in the other purposes). This suggests that social interaction in online environments, even when focused on content, does not necessarily lead to deeper understanding.

The conclusions of Nardi (2005) and Gundawardena, Lowe, and Anderson (1997) suggest that the prompts used by teachers in virtual spaces should encourage and facilitate the work of students interacting about curriculum beyond a superficial retelling of the content. My informal questioning of undergraduate and graduate students in online learning environments (this is admittedly a weak sample of students to whom I have had access, but that has included learners in state universities, community colleges, and online universities, studying in in-person, online, and hybrid settings) indicates online teachers who frame that expectations for online interactions with phrases such as “post and respond at least three times during a week” and “give thoughtful responses rather than simply ‘I agree’” are generally not encouraging interaction beyond simply sharing of information. Those students suggest that prompts that necessitate respondents going into more detail or asking new questions leads to discussions that provide a compelling reason to revisit and understand others’ posts. Curriculum designers recognize that such prompts require a different approach for educators, and necessitate such discussions remain open for extended time.

In-person discussions are synchronous events, so educators can react to what is said immediately and to thus steer the discussion away from irrelevant topics just as the deviation occurs. Online discussions are asynchronous; participation takes place at different times for different people, and so it is difficult to steer discussion in a timely manner. As a result, educators lead the discussions using different methods. During in-person discussions, the teacher sustains the discussion by evaluating what is said and providing prompts to improve the discussion and encourage full participation by everyone. Sustaining online discussions requires teachers develop and use anchors or prompts to sustain discussions with minimal direction once it starts. The initial prompts must engage participants and encourage thoughtful and extensive responses from the beginning. Online teachers tend to evaluate online prompts and anchors after the discussion and to make changes to improve it when used again. The creation of protocols that establish the cognitive structures and conditions under which students are expected to interact with others facilitates the transition from students engaged in silly interaction to academic interaction.

Through their own active learning about the transition from in-person to online social dynamics, educators can facilitate the transition for themselves and for their students to create environments to which students feel affinity with and commitment to a class as a social group of learners. Once protocols to guide these social interactions are established, educators must participate in the interactions and model the kind of interaction they expect, thus becoming mentors for apprentices. Educators also facilitate the application of ICT-mediated social dynamics to academic problems by creating rubrics that specify the goals the interactions. Rubrics that characterize cognitive interactions, the reasoning of arguments, and the use of resources and evidence of new learning provide scaffolding for ICT-mediated academic interactions.


Gunawardena, Charlotte, Constance Lowe, and Terry Anderson. 1997. “Analysis of a Global Online Debate and the Development of an Interation Analysis Model for Examining Social Construction of Knowledge in Conferencing.” Journal of Educational Computing Research 17(4): 397-431.

Nardi, Bonnie. 2005. “Beyond Bandwidth: Dimensions of Connection in Interpersonal Communication.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work 14(2): 91-130.