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Exploration and Description of Nature and Significance of Course Participants' Interactions in a Multi-Site Distance Learning Course with Implications for Design in Distance Education


This study sought to explore and describe the nature and significance of course participants’ interactions in a multi-site engineering DE course where learners in actual classrooms engaged in interactive and collaborative learning across different countries (USA, China, and Taiwan). The objective of this exploration, carried out via a qualitative case study methodology, was to first investigate what is actually occurring in a distance learning course that utilized advanced synchronous technologies, in order to then provide insights concerning possibilities for instructional design in DE. To this end, I conducted classroom observations, artifact analysis, surveys, and interviews to examine in-depth the nature of course participants’ (i.e., the instructors and the learners) live interactions across the different geographical sites. From this in-depth exploration I then discuss possibilities for design in DE.

Classroom observations and artifact analysis revealed that live synchronous sessions were not used for delivery of content but were utilized as an instructional space for discussions and guided activities. To enable productive discussions during the live synchronous sessions, an inverted approach to learning was used where learners learned the course material on their own and engaged in group discussions with peers prior to the scheduled live sessions. During live sessions instructors guided learners’ learning by engaging the learners in discussions and by examining their understanding of course concepts. During these live sessions different opportunities were provided for learners to interact with their peers and by sharing their perspectives and insights co-construct disciplinary knowledge and contextual understanding of course concepts. Survey and interview reports further validated observations and revealed that purposeful interaction with peers contributed to more learning. Learners also found instructors’ guidance during live sessions helpful and reported learning more from those peers who contributed to discussions. Notably, given the global nature of the multi-site course, most learners reported having learned more from their own classmates as opposed to remote learners. Face-to-face interaction with their own classmates was noted to be the significant factor that increased opportunities for interaction and thus contributed to more learning. However, most learners found interacting and doing projects with remote learners a great learning experience that expanded their knowledge.

Drawing on this study’s findings and current research and trends in education, I discuss possible future changes in the nature and scope of instruction both in DE and higher education in general. I note that all learning will become a form of distance learning with a content delivery that heavily relies on instruction through video. I also elaborate on the idea of “connected classrooms,” where distance learning with actual remote classrooms may become a common instructional design.

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