Probing the Value of Online Student-Student Interaction: A Comprehensive Exploration

In the ever-evolving landscape of online education, one fundamental question has persisted over the years: What is the true value of online student-student interaction? Classic standards in online course design emphasize three types of interactions: student-instructor interaction, student-content interaction, and student-student interaction. These interactions are considered the pillars of effective online learning. However, recent discussions and evolving digital landscapes have raised concerns about the previously unquestionable value of student-student interaction within the online classroom. Today’s students are immersed in a digital world filled with social platforms like TikTok, Twitch, and Reddit, which have transformed the way they connect and engage with their peers. This article delves into the evolving dynamics of online education and reevaluates the significance of student-student interaction, considering the contemporary context.

The Landscape of Online Education:

Online education has experienced remarkable growth over the past few decades. It has evolved from a novel experiment to a mainstream mode of learning, offering a wide array of courses and degree programs to students of all ages and backgrounds. With this expansion, the demand for high-quality online education has increased. Institutions, educators, and researchers continually strive to improve online course design and delivery to ensure that students receive a valuable and engaging educational experience.

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The Three Types of Interactions in Online Courses:

Before we delve deeper into the subject of student-student interaction, it’s essential to understand the three primary types of interactions emphasized in online education: student-instructor interaction, student-content interaction, and student-student interaction. These interactions are seen as essential components of effective online learning.

  • Student-Instructor Interaction: This involves communication between students and their instructors. It includes activities like receiving feedback on assignments, asking questions, and seeking guidance on course material.
  • Student-Content Interaction: This type of interaction centers around the engagement of students with the course content. It includes activities like reading, watching lectures, completing assignments, and taking quizzes or exams.
  • Student-Student Interaction: Student-student interaction focuses on engagement between students within the online learning environment. It includes activities like discussions, group projects, peer feedback, and collaboration on various course-related tasks.

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The Perceived Value of Student-Student Interaction:

A significant shift in the conversation about online education occurred when a colleague raised a pointed query about the value of student-student interaction. Traditionally, this type of interaction has been considered a cornerstone of effective online learning, fostering collaboration, knowledge sharing, and a sense of community among students. However, in the modern landscape where students are actively participating in other online communities of their choice, such as social media platforms, the value of student-student interaction within the formal education setting is being challenged.

Challenges in Implementing Student-Student Interaction:

A common observation is that students often express dissatisfaction with certain pedagogical tools, such as discussion boards and group projects. While students’ negative opinions about particular tools do not necessarily warrant their dismissal, it is essential to consider the reasons behind these sentiments. Online courses are not required to incorporate exams, despite students generally having mixed feelings about them. However, quality assurance standards almost always necessitate the inclusion of persistent opportunities for student-student engagement in online courses.

The question that arises is whether discussions and group projects, as they are commonly implemented on a weekly schedule with multiple required interactions, are defensible as a universal mark of quality in online education. Are there alternative approaches that might better meet the needs and expectations of modern learners?

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The Evolution of Online Communities:

Since the traditional studies on student-student interaction were conducted, online communities of choice have gained tremendous popularity. Platforms like TikTok, Twitch, and Reddit have become essential parts of many students’ lives. These platforms offer diverse social experiences, entertainment, and opportunities for connection, both within and beyond the educational context. With these thriving online communities, it becomes essential to assess whether the sense of isolation that traditional student-student interactions aimed to address still exists within formal online classrooms or if it has been mitigated or aggravated by these external digital communities.

A Critical Review of Existing Research:

To investigate the value of student-student interaction, it is crucial to examine the existing research on the topic. Three key studies often cited in discussions of student-student interaction’s value are Marks, Sibley, and Arbaugh’s study from 2005, Chang and Smith’s research from 2008, and Sher’s contribution in 2009.

Marks, Sibley, and Arbaugh (2005) conducted a study to evaluate the impact of all three forms of course interaction through a student survey. Their findings revealed a connection between perceived student-student interaction and student satisfaction. However, the authors explicitly noted within the text that “The influence of student-student interactivity was less than expected” (p.554). This study has been cited 664 times in subsequent research.

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Chang and Smith (2008) explored student engagement in a computer science course, again through a student survey. Their results indicated a correlation between student course satisfaction and perceived student-student interaction. Notably, this study did not evaluate any courses without student-student interactions, leaving room for questions about the necessity of this interaction. It has been cited 268 times in subsequent research.

Similarly, Sher’s 2009 study surveyed students, measuring the perceived presence of student-student interaction. Once again, the findings indicated that students’ perceived peer engagement was linked to satisfaction, but the presence or frequency of engagement was not documented outside of perception. This study has been cited 584 times in subsequent research.

A New Perspective: Isolation and Engagement in Modern Online Communities

As online communities of choice have grown increasingly popular since the publication of these studies, it’s imperative to recognize the evolving landscape of student engagement. The original studies aimed to address the perceived isolation of students in the online learning environment by promoting student-student classroom engagement. However, with the proliferation of social online communities, it’s unclear whether such a void still exists for formal classroom communities to fill. Modern students are often deeply immersed in various online communities, which raises questions about the necessity and impact of student-student interaction in formal online education.

Recent Studies: Reevaluating the Impact of Student-Student Interaction

In 2017, Kurukay and Inan conducted a survey involving students, some of whom were enrolled in an online class with student-student interaction, while others were in an online class without such interaction. This research uniquely assessed the presence and absence of student-student interactions and compared the outcomes. The authors’ findings were thought-provoking; they concluded that the presence of student-student interaction did not significantly impact student satisfaction in the survey. However, they did find that group projects tended to enhance student achievement. This outcome is perhaps unsurprising, as academically inclined students often elevate the performance of their peers, leading to improved overall group outcomes.

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Group Projects: A Potential Game Changer

The revelation from Kurukay and Inan’s study regarding the positive impact of group projects on student achievement raises intriguing possibilities. While persistent, weekly student-student interactions might not be universally essential, occasional opportunities for students to connect in meaningful ways, such as through well-designed group projects, could hold substantial value. Group projects have the potential to foster collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills, preparing students for real-world challenges where teamwork and cooperation are crucial.

An Evidence-Based Approach to Course Design

Considering the evolving landscape of online education and the diverse needs of modern learners, an evidence-based approach to course design becomes paramount. Instead of adhering strictly to traditional models of student-student interactions, educators and course designers must adapt their strategies based on empirical research and the specific requirements of their students.

An effective approach could involve incorporating occasional, purposeful student-student interactions, such as collaborative projects, debates, or peer feedback sessions, into the curriculum. These interactions should be thoughtfully designed to align with the learning objectives of the course and provide students with meaningful opportunities to engage with their peers. Additionally, instructors could leverage emerging technologies and social platforms to create innovative and engaging collaborative experiences within the online learning environment.

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Conclusion, Student Interaction:

In conclusion, the value of online student-student interactions is no longer a one-size-fits-all concept. The traditional weekly discussions and mandated group projects might not universally enhance the learning experience for every student. Instead, an adaptive and evidence-based approach that considers the evolving digital landscape, the prevalence of social online communities, and the specific needs of learners is essential. By embracing occasional, purposeful student-student interactions and integrating innovative collaborative experiences, educators can create engaging and enriching online learning environments.


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