Educators continue to ask both the right and wrong questions about distance learning during this online learning period. In a recent post, I argued that instead of squabbling over which technology we use, or whether a synchronous format has advantages over an asynchronous format, we should look at distance learning through a different lens. Specifically, we should look at how we can reduce the psychological distance, aka transactional distance, between teachers and learners through pedagogy.

What do I mean?

During this online period, we simply cannot change the fact that students are geographically separated from their peers and their teachers. What we can do is re-conceptualize distance by ignoring “constraints” like time and space and see distance more as a psychological construct that can be reduced by facilitating dialogue between teachers and learners, and attending to the structure of our courses so that navigation is not a barrier, but an asset, to social interaction. The following descriptions from the creator of transactional distance theory (TDT)  are useful for understanding these two cornerstones of “distance-reducing” instruction:

Dialogue. According to Moore (1993), dialogue should be “purposeful, constructive and valued by each party. Each party in a dialogue is a respectful and active listener; each is a contributor, and builds on the contributions of the other party or parties… The direction of a dialogue in an educational relationship is towards the improved understanding of the student” (p. 24).

Structure. Structure “expresses the rigidity or flexibility of the programme’s educational objectives, teaching strategies, and evaluation methods. It describes the extent to which an educational programme can accommodate or be responsive to each learner’s individual needs” (Moore, 1993, p. 26).

When we start to conceptualize distance as transactional rather than geographical, it becomes apparent that it is the pedagogy, not the tool nor the physical location of the students, that is the key to successful online learning. In order to demonstrate this concept, let’s take a look at the following formats: One-way lecture hall, one-way Zoom call, and the ideal versions of both face-to-face and online learning formats in the next section of this post. I think you will quickly see that even when learners are learning in a face-to-face format, poorly designed instruction can negate the advantages of physical proximity.

One-way lecture hall

Physically close, transactionally distant.

University, Lecture, Campus, Education, People, Seminar

Even when students are present in a brick-and-mortar classroom, we can subscribe to a pedagogy that is transactionally distant and ineffective. One-way lecturing, in which the teacher mechanically delivers a unidirectional monologue, prohibiting dialogue or interaction, is the quintessence of bad teaching, regardless of students’ physical location.

One-way Zoom call

Physically distant, transactionally distant.

Webinar, Computer, Cam, Training, Education, Learn

Talking at students from your computer while they play with their phones under the table is the digital equivalent of sitting in a one-way lecture hall while students play with their phones under the table. Of course, I am being extreme; Very few teachers use Zoom or MS Teams as I’ve just described, just as very few teachers spend all day one-way lecturing. I just watched my mom’s Deaf pre-school class during a Zoom call and she had them running about their houses to find objects that matched certain criteria… highly engaging and interactive!

Let’s take a look at the two ideal designs for each format, face-to-face and remote, in the two next sections.

Ideal design for face-to-face AND online learning

Reprinted with permission from

The ideal design for a learning environment, regardless of the format, has a teaching agent who asks questions and elicits student responses (Rosenshine, 2012), provides feedback through short-cycle formative assessment (Wiliam, 2011), and guides students through practice activities to the point of automaticity (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993; Ericsson, 2015). When done right, these teaching activities inherently reduce the psychological and communications space between learners and teachers. In addition to utilizing research-informed instructional procedures that reflect our understanding of the human cognitive architecture (e.g., Mayer, 2017; Sweller, van Merriënboer, & Paas, 2019), transactional distance theory suggests that we attend to dialogue and structure when designing courses.

I am going to end this post with a few practical applications from TDT that we might be wise to consider during this online learning period. Are these groundbreaking? Of course not, but the implications for communication, satisfaction, and probably student performance, are potentially great . How many of the following “distance-reducing strategies” have you used successfully in your online teaching?


I promote a variety of forms of interaction, including:

  • instructor-learner interactions
  • learner-learner interactions
  • Audio, video, written, meme/gif communications

I’ve integrated a variety of discussion and collaborative tools, including:

  • Forums
  • Chats
  • Wikis
  • Shared docs/walls/slides

I’ve designed a highly usable course:

  • Navigation is easy and automatic
  • Course structure enables dialogue

I’ve set it up so that I’m accessible and available:

  • Students know how to get help from me
  • I regularly update my profile pic
  • I send regular greetings so that students can see my face or hear my voice

I avoid rigid, dialogue-prohibiting structures:

  • I allow students to ask questions in unusual times and places
  • I’ve created backchannels simply for socializing
  • I modify the course structure in response to student feedback

I hope this post was useful to you. I’m excited to be sharing some of these and other ideas about how to “reduce the distance in distance learning” at the Vietnam Tech Conference, hosted by UNIS Hanoi and Saigon South International School. Check it out, it’s free!

– Zach Groshell, @mrzachg



Ericsson, A. K., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance (Anders Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer, 1993). Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. Retrieved from

Ericsson, A. K. (2015). The Differential Influence of Experience, Practice, and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Individual Performance of Experts. Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

Mayer, R. E. (2017). Using multimedia for e-learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33(5), 403–423.

Moore, M. G. (1993). The Theory of Transactional Distance. In Handbook of Distance Education (pp. 32–46).

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Paas, F. (2019). Cognitive architecture and instructional design: 20 years later. Educational Psychology Review, 31(2), 261–292.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment.

TDT – here is my Mendeley folder with the articles that I drew from to inform this and The Unproductive Debate of Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning post:

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4 thoughts on “Reducing the Distance in Distance Learning

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