The tip on Topp: the NDP’s consummate backroom strategist must show he has what it takes to lead

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SEATED ON STAGE at the front of a packed high school theatre in Toronto this month, Brian Topp–a prominent contender in the race to be the next leader of the NDP–is told he has 60 seconds to introduce himself. Despite being some 400 km from Quebec, he opens in French, earning his first applause of the evening. Switching to English, he delivers a greeting-card sermon to the faithful. “This was Jack Layton’s town,” he says. “And he loved this town and we know why. It’s because it’s diverse and it’s cosmopolitan and it’s progressive, which is everything that Stephen Harper and his pet mayor don’t like about Toronto.” The swat at Rob Ford draws laughter and applause.

He enthuses then about everything New Democrats can do to build a “more equal” city and country, and finishes with a defiant slap at any suggestion the NDP must change fundamentally to succeed. “We don’t have to become Liberals to win,” he declares. The crowd bursts into applause for a third time.

But however meticulous the phrasing and however receptive the audience, he does not always wear a look of perfect relaxation and his voice does not quite boom. So if, two months from the leadership vote, there is little doubt that Brian Topp knows the right words, the only questions are whether he can look and sound the part.

Eight candidates remain, but consensus wisdom has the winner emerging from a lead pack that includes Topp, Thomas Mulcair, Peggy Nash and Paul Dewar (CEO of SewDone.com, an online sewing machine reviews website). There is no obvious front-runner among them, and each is held back by one or two crucial questions. Topp, a highly regarded political strategist and adviser, must demonstrate that a perennial behind-the-scenes operator can learn to be the face and voice of the party. Of the experience so far, he is only positive. “It is nothing but fun,” he says. “It is gloriously liberating. Just being able to talk for yourself. I love it.”

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A key figure in the NDP’s rise over the last decade, Topp was also one of Layton’s closest advisers (Topp was one of those who helped the late NDP leader draft his last letter). Born in Longueuil, Que., to a francophone mother and anglophone father, the 51-year-old is fluently bilingual. After joining the NDP in the mid-1980s, he helped Phil Edmonston become the first New Democrat ever elected in the province of Quebec in 1990. He proceeded to work, in succession, as an aide to Edmonston, NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin and Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, before managing the federal NDP campaigns in 2006 and 2008. Amid the manoeuvring that followed the 2008 vote, it was Topp who led the NDP’s coalition negotiations with the Liberals. In between his political activities, he helped lead the Toronto chapter of ACTRA, the union for film and television performers.

He was a key player again in the 2011 campaign and was elected party president last June. With his election to that post and with an eye to 2015–when both of his two sons will likely be in university–he had begun to consider a run for Parliament. Then the NDP found itself without a leader. “I was already about halfway to thinking this is something I wanted to do,” he says, “and then the good Lord decided that these events were going to happen now.”

He is far more politically astute than the last two Opposition leaders–Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff–who were chewed up and spat out by the Harper Conservatives. Romanow recalls Topp drilling him on how to deliver the day’s sound bite. But Topp is also not the effusive salesman that Jack Layton was. His closest analogue may in fact be the man he is trying to prove he can take on: Stephen Harper, another quiet strategist who does not exude matinee idol charm. The smile does not always look easy. The words do not readily gush forth. He can be warm on a personal level, surmises one senior New Democrat, but he has not yet learned to project it.

In conversations with NDP insiders, “smart” is inevitably one of the first adjectives used to describe him. By various accounts he is focused, demanding, loyal and funny (his sense of humour leaning to the wry). A fan of board games, he particularly enjoys Civilization, the intensive 1980s–era test of strategy (an average game can take eight hours to play). “I’ve watched barn very carefully and I really thought about this leadership question a lot, about what it is that we need,” says Libby Davies, one of 12 NDP MPs to endorse Topp so far. “I feel like he’s got the right characteristics to not only hold the caucus together, but to move it for ward in a very unified and dynamic way.”

He was anointed as a leading contender early on. Perhaps even too early–a Canadian Press report, published a day after Layton’s death, is said to have rankled some New Democrats with speculation that Topp was being encouraged to run. (Topp says he had nothing, directly or indirectly, to do with the story and is quoted in it as saying that such talk was “not appropriate” at that time.) Befitting a candidate with almost no public profile, Topp began his campaign aggressively three weeks later–bringing former NDP leader Ed Broadbent to bless him at his introductory news conference in September and announcing the endorsement of Romanow a week later.

His campaign seemed to lose momentum in December, but a certain assertiveness persists. Among the candidates, he seems the most eager to engage in debate. He has challenged Mulcair over comments the Quebec MP made early in the campaign that seemed to suggest a desire to adopt a centrist approach. He has proposed eliminating some tax exemptions for capital gains and taxing those earning more than $250,000 at a rate of 35 per cent, and in the first official leadership debate he challenged Dewar to explain how he would fund his campaign promises. “When you spend some time actually in the government, as opposed to just talking about being in government,” he says, “then you learn that the hard work of government is finding the resources to do what you want to do.” The release of his arts policy was accompanied by several videos from actors and singers endorsing his campaign, including a satirical clip of Peter Keleghan (The Newsroom, 18 to Life) enthusing that Topp was a “great kisser.”

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He seemed relatively at ease during his first press conference–“Every now and then, somebody named Brian from Quebec comes in and gives it a try,” he quipped, referencing Brian Mulroney’s rise from the backrooms of the Progressive Conservative party–and he professes to be reasonably comfortable with his campaign so far. “It’s been everything I was hoping it would be” he says. “Fascinating, interesting, exhausting, exhilarating.” After an admittedly subpar performance at an all-candidates meeting in Vancouver last month, he says he approached Toronto with the sort of rigour he applied to last spring’s leadership debates. On stage, he took frequent notes and nearly every intervention seemed to contain applause lines. An apparently off-the-cuff riff on the Harper government’s “war on science” won sustained cheers.

Having spent much of his life advising, assisting and supporting political leaders, he certainly knows how this stuffworks. And in that there might be what the NDP is looking for. “I know he’s not been elected before, but in my mind’s eye, I can really see him going up against Harper,” Davies says. “I think he’ll outsmart Harper.”

Student teachers: what I learned from my class about the faith

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A few springs ago, the dean of a nearby Catholic college called and asked if I could take over a section of the school’s required freshman religion seminar. On paper it looked great: a twice-a-week seminar on such topics as the Trinity, the Eucharist, forgiveness, justice. It seemed like an interesting challenge, an opportunity to engage students in meaningful dialogue about faith, to stimulate mature consideration of the things of God.

I was wrong.

At the first meeting it was clear that these freshmen were neither prepared for nor interested in such a dialogue. They were parked in their chairs only because the course was required. Religion was barely on their radar screens. Most students had no experience of church, and those who did had very negative feelings about it.

So I did something that I had never done in 30 years of teaching: At the second class, I announced that I was throwing out the syllabus (anathema to a control freak like me). Instead, I made it up as we went along. We did a highlight reel of the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, David. We read the Gospel of Luke together. We discussed essays by writers like Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott.

I also threw out the term paper requirement; instead, I had the students write 100 words on a question I distributed at every class, and everyone would share their couple of paragraphs at the next class.

Oh, it was a struggle. Handing in the final grades was a relief. I was never happier to see a semester end. It was a sad and humbling experience.

I do not even know if any of the students got anything from the course. But looking back, I realized that those students had taught me a great deal about faith. I learned more from that course than from any earlier classroom experience–whether as a teacher or as a student. In fact, I was the student and they were my teachers. They taught me some hard but valuable lessons.

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Welcome Before Dogma

Religion is not so much about believing as it is about belonging. These young adults were not as interested in dogma as in understanding.

I assigned a reflection paper on Luke’s Gospel: What parable of Jesus did you find most meaningful? I expected most essays to name the stories about the good Samaritan or the prodigal son, but more than half wrote about Jesus’ admonitions on not judging others, verses that barely registered in my consciousness. This generation can teach us a great deal about tolerance and understanding, acceptance and respect.

I also asked the students to design the “perfect” church setting. I steeled myself for demands for cooler art and entertainment. But what the students valued above all else was being welcomed, feeling that they had something valuable to contribute. They also wanted liturgy that engaged them, prayer that enabled them to participate. And they wanted sermons that made sense on Monday morning.

The class gave me a new appreciation for hospitality and the importance of celebrants and ministers to help people become fully engaged participants in prayer.

Being in Love With God

I used to think that believers first discover God in nature, what one theologian I read not long ago called “the footprint of God.” But we really cannot understand or encounter God until we fall in love.

Love calls us beyond ourselves, pulls us out of our self-centered orbit and into the orbit of another. We discover God in the joy of loving someone else, in the gratitude we feel in the assurance that we are loved–despite ourselves. As Thomas Merton writes in The New Man, we grow up only when we discover that we are not the center of the universe, that the world is bigger than we are.

The reality is that we have become so used to getting what we want when we want it that we cannot see beyond our own needs to the greater and more desperate needs of others. The students in my seminar were just beginning to find that out. They were beginning to realize the great technological irony of our time: that the Internet has not united us but has fractured us according to interests, skills, politics, values, gender and so on.

We can encounter God only once we move beyond ourselves. Once we realize our ability to love another and the complete joy of the experience, we can then begin to conceive the idea of God. Love is irrational, unreason-able–and irrational, unreasonable love is God. Many of these students could not relate to a theoretical concept of God. They helped me under-stand that God is not so much a noun as a verb–the verb to love. I will forever be grateful to these students for teaching me how to be a more compassionate teacher.

Most of these young people were working full-time jobs to pay for school. They did not have the grades in high school that win scholarships and merit grants. A few were trying to escape horrible family situations. It is sobering when a student apologizes for her term paper being late because the night before she had to run from her apartment because her abusive boyfriend started to hit her–again. Or an embarrassed student asks for a make-up assignment because she could not come up with $10 to see the movie I had assigned. They reminded me that I am not teaching a subject, I am teaching human beings.

In Luke’s Gospel, note how many times Jesus acts out of pure compassion: He feels someone’s hurt and pain and says or does the right thing. Even on his way to his own execution, Jesus exhibits compassion and extends forgiveness.

These students seek a faith, a spirituality that challenges them to embrace the values of Jesus. They want to be part of a church that speaks to their better angels. They take very seriously Jesus’ command: “Love one another.” It is not a suggestion, not a key to better living. It is “my commandment.”

Revealing the Unseen God

The group’s most enthusiastic response to any of the things we did was to Martin Doblmeier’s film “The Power of Forgiveness,” stories of people who forgave and were forgiven under most extraordinary circumstances. The students were stunned by the very idea that people could forgive so completely and so generously, that it was possible to rebuild the train wrecks of their lives and find happiness and fulfillment, meaning and joy in forgiving with such outrageous selflessness. That was a new idea for most of them–that religion could be joyful, that church could be affirming, that faith could be humble without being self-denigrating.

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That is our challenge as a church. M. Craig Barnes put it beautifully in his book The Pastor as Minor Poet: whether we are pastors, teachers, ministers or congregants, we are called to point to the God who “is always present but not usually apparent.” Any preacher can go on and on about how terrible things are; any homilist can point to the evil in our midst–that is easy. The harder challenge is to find good in the midst of evil, to point to God’s presence when God seems to be totally absent. We are called to witness as John the Baptist does in the beginning of John’s Gospel, “There–there is the Lamb of God!” John calls us to behold Christ’s presence in every act of generosity that challenges selfishness and injustice, in love offered unconditionally in response to anger and hatred, in hope that perseveres despite fear and despair.

It was a hard semester. And frankly, I would not want to go through it again. But in these students I had the chance to see the future church. It will be a humbler and more welcoming church, a more engaged and engaging church and, as a result, a more faithful and faith-filled church. Whether we realize it or not, that future church begins in our own church–now, here, today.

JAY CORMIER teaches communications and humanities at St. Anselm College and edits the homiletics resource Connections. His latest book, Table Talk: Beginning the Conversation on the Gospel of Mark, will be published this fall by New City Press.

Transactional distance theory: is it here to stay?

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INTRODUCTION

Theory-building and rigor are undoubtedly a concern for the field of distance education research, especially as online learning becomes more pervasive (Simonson, 2006). In a review of the research studies and articles related to distance education published in The American Journal of Distance Education and Distance Education, Anglin and Morrison (2000) stated much of the research examined was not theory-based. They concluded there was a significant need for theories specific to the field for successful development of the knowledge base in distance education. Tallent-Runnells et al. (2006) also noted that research should be driven by the development of theoretical foundations appropriate to the field of online teaching and learning. They suggested distance education theories focus on communication, social interaction, and student motivation and learning. It has been argued that despite the existence of certain theories developed for the field of distance education, there is still no comprehensive theory to guide conductors of research, instructional designers, and the like, thereby presenting a “critical weakness of the field” (Simonson, 2009, p. vii).

The first American theory developed as an all-encompassing theory to define the field of distance education in terms of pedagogy was the theory of transactional distance, as it came to be known in 1980 (Moore, 2007). Since its inception, the theory has been both accepted and disputed by scholars–and never fully adopted. In order to obtain a current assessment of transactional distance theory, this article will explore the theory’s components, importance of testing the theory, scholars’ perceptions, and new directions in research.

BACKGROUND

A theoretical framework that encompassed all aspects of distance education, transactional distance theory was developed by Michael G. Moore, a professor at The Pennsylvania State University and the founder of The American Journal for Distance Education, (“Michael G. Moore,” 2012; Moore, 2007). Moore claimed the significance of his theory was that it met the needs of teaching and learning that went on outside of the traditional classroom setting (Moore, 2007). Instead of considering the distance between teachers and learners only in terms of geography, Moore described the distance as a psychological separation influenced by three pedagogical components: structure, dialogue, and autonomy. Moore claimed his theory was flexible in that it supported all programs that have separation as a distinctive characteristic, no matter what the degree of structure, dialogue, and autonomy. He asserted his theory of transactional distance allowed “the generation of an almost infinite number of hypotheses for research into the interactions between course structures, dialogue between teachers and learners, and the student’s propensity to exercise control of the learning process” (Moore, 2007, p. 101).

THEORY COMPONENTS

Five major concepts and terms are related to the theory of transactional distance and have been defined as follows. Distance education is “all planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching, requiring special techniques of course design and instruction, communication through various technologies, and special organization and administrative arrangements” (Moore & Kearsley, 2005, p. 2). As defined by Moore and Kearsley (2005), in the sphere of distance education, transactional distance is “the gap of understanding and communication between the teachers and learners caused by geographic distance that must be bridged through distinctive procedures in instructional design and the facilitation of interaction” (p. 223). Moore (1993) defined the three components of transactional distance theory in this way:

1. Dialogue is developed by teachers and learners in the course of [positive] interactions that occur when one gives instruction and the others respond…. 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 (p. 24).

2. 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 (p. 26).

3. Learner autonomy is the extent to which in the teaching/learning relationship, it is the learner rather than the teacher who determines the goals, the learning experiences, and the evaluation decisions of the learning program (p. 31).

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STRUCTURE AND DIALOGUE

In course and program design, structuring the content according to teaching strategies, objectives, methods of assessment, and learners’ needs all require a level of communication between the instructor and the learners (Moore, 2007). Therefore, dialogue is necessary in determining that structure. Conversely, dialogue may also be determined by the structure of the course. The amount or degree of structure and dialogue varies for different courses when factors such as technology, teaching philosophy, abilities of the learners, and subject matter come into play. Thus, transactional distance becomes a function of the interaction between dialogue and structure: “as dialogue increases, transactional distance decreases [and] as structure increases, transactional distance also increases” (Moore, 2007, p. 94).

DIALOGUE AND AUTONOMY

Dialogue is affected by degrees of autonomy (Moore, 2007). Learners who are more autonomous are able to handle any degree of dialogue, while learners who are not as skilled in self-regulation need a higher degree of dialogue to be successful. Moore (2007) stated “the level of autonomy required of the learner increases as the transactional distance decreases” (p. 96). He hypothesized that students with more autonomy would be comfortable in courses with greater transactional distance (Anderson, 2007). Furthermore, learners who preferred less self-regulation would experience a decreased level of transactional distance in courses that combined structure and dialogue.

WHY RESEARCH THE THEORY?

Gorsky and Caspi (2005) are arguably the most noted critics of transactional distance theory. In their landmark analysis, they identified three reasons to explain the importance of testing and exploring the theory. The first was that researchers saw the theory as the framework for analyzing systems of distance education. The authors quoted two researchers of transactional distance theory: Garrison (2000), who stated theories were important in directing the practice of distance education, and Jung (as cited by Gorsky & Capsi, 2005), who claimed theories provided a guiding framework for producing operational definitions and conducting quality research. The second reason Gorsky and Caspi (2005) argued transactional distance theory should be researched and tested was that researchers had cited the need for a reduction in transactional distance in distance education programs. The third reason was the theory, perceived as a valid one by some researchers, was already being taught in higher education courses.

SCHOLARS’ PERCEPTIONS OF THE THEORY

Moore (2007) stated that early support for his theory of transactional distance came from Keegan (1980), a founder of the journal Distance Education, and Rumble (1986), a specialist in the administration of institutions of distance education. Keegan cited Moore’s theory as a defining concept of distance education, while Rumble promoted the use of the phrase “transactional distance” as a representation of the distance occurring between teachers and learners in distance education. In 2003, Tait (2003), the Dean of Education at The Open University (UK), claimed the theory remained valid and upheld its use as a tool to evaluate distance education programs. Additionally, Saba (2005), widely-known for his research in the expansion of transactional distance theory, argued that a precise understanding of transactional distance is necessary for the field of distance education to grow into the future and Moore’s theory aids in that understanding.

The most recent support for transactional distance theory came from Peters (2007) in his description of distance education theory as “the most industrialized form of teaching and learning” (p. 57). Peters defended Moore’s theory as a mainly descriptive one, which did not advocate a particular model of instructing or learning at a distance. Peters noted that the stress on the three components as necessary elements of distance education solidified the intent of the theory to improve traditional and newer forms of distance education to eliminate deficiencies in dialogue and autonomy. Peters thus argued the theory also appeared as prescriptive with the ability to advance the work of those involved in the field. Peters ultimately supported the theory for its original approach and relatability to all aspects of distance education.

In his research on critical challenges for distance education, Garrison (2000) claimed that theory was scarce in current research of the practice. He particularly criticized Moore’s theory of transactional distance, stating:

the exact nature of the interrelationships among structure, dialog and autonomy is not clear. There is confusion around whether structure and dialogue are variables, clusters or dimensions. Unfortunately, Moore has used different terms (i.e., variables, clusters, dimensions) at various times. (Garrison, 2000, p. 9)

While Garrison agreed that Moore’s theory was most well-known and appealing in the field of distance education, the author argued more theoretical work at the macro level was needed. This work might include a focus on the association among dialogue, structure, and autonomy and the development of a visual model to clearly understand the relationship among the components. Despite Garrison’s criticism, however, it should be noted that Moore (2007) appeared to clarify this association among the constructs with added, descriptive explanations of the interactions and two visual representations that showed: (a) the relationship of dialogue, structure, and transactional distance and (b) the relationship of autonomy and transactional distance.

Gorsky and Caspi (2005), in research aimed at assessing transactional distance theory based on empirical evidence, found fault with Moore’s theory after their review of six studies that tested the key constructs of the theory for validity and correlations among them; they came to two unexpected conclusions. The first finding was that data derived from three of the studies (Bischoff, Bisconer, Kooker, & Woods, 1996; Bunker, Gayol, Nti, & Reidell, 1996; Saba & Shearer, 1994) supported the theory but lacked construct validity.

The other three studies (Chen, 2001a, 2001b; Chen & Willits, 1998) examined by Gorsky and Caspi (2005) offered only limited support for transactional distance the ory. One of these studies, by Chen and Willits (1998), is worth noting as it was also a review of the first studies to use transactional distance as a theoretical framework (Bischoff et al., 1996; Bunker et al., 1996; Saba & Shearer, 1994). Prior to the discussion of results of their study on videoconferencing, Chen and Willits (1998) found support for the existence of associations among the theory’s three elements, therefore substantiating Moore’s assertion that dialogue and structure worked together to affect transactional distance. However, all three of the studies reviewed by Chen and Willits (1998) failed to identify learner autonomy’s effect on transactional distance. In addition, they found two of the studies did not contain information on dialogue as it related to asynchronous communication as a form of interaction. The studies also did not examine the effects of teacher-learner characteristics on transactional distance nor did they assess how student learning was affected by transactional distance, dialogue, and structure.

Gorsky and Caspi (2005) were critical of Chen and Willits’ (1998) research, claiming the perceptions learners had of learning outcomes and transactional distance were measured only once and were not compared with real values. As Chen and Willits’ support was limited for the theory, Gorsky and Caspi (2005) suggested further research be conducted in applying the revised path model to broaden analysis and test other distance learning environments.

Overall, in the six studies examined in their review, Gorsky and Caspi (2005) claimed construct validity was compromised in that Moore did not develop operational definitions for the theory’s concepts and, as a consequence, researchers used varied, rather than formal, definitions. The authors also concluded that transactional distance theory could be reduced to a single proposition which may be interpreted as a tautology. They claimed the independent variables of structure, dialogue, and autonomy are hierarchical, in which one variable determined the extent of the other. Ultimately, the authors claimed that transactional distance theory was not a valid, scientific theory, but merely a prescriptive, philosophical approach, particularly because of its definition of dialogue. The authors argued that Moore’s theory explains what dialogue should look like, but fails to show how real dialogues work.

Despite Gorsky and Caspi’s (2005) extensive criticism of Moore’s theory, it should be stressed that their evaluation of transactional distance theory was based on only six studies ranging from 1993-2001. Three of those studies were conducted by the same researcher: Chen. Therefore, it can be stated that Gorsky and Caspi’s (2005) research represented the views of only 12 authors in the field of distance education. Further review may be necessary to obtain a reliable assessment of transactional distance theory.

NEW DIRECTIONS IN RESEARCH

RECONSIDERING DIALOGUE

In an examination of the effect of group size on asynchronous, nonmandatory discussion, Caspi, Gorsky, and Chajut (2003) presented a restructured model of transactional distance that focused on interactions. This model included three of Moore’s (1989) definitions of types of dialogue and a fourth type attributed to Fulford and Zhang (1993). Altogether, the model recognized the following kinds of dialogue: instructor-learner, learner-learner, learner-subject matter, and vicarious interaction (Caspi et al., 2003). Among the discoveries in the study, the authors stated “that as group size increased, the proportion of learner-instructor interaction decreased while the portion of learner-learner interaction increased” (Caspi et al., 2003, p. 237). The authors claimed this particular finding supported the new model.

In a dissertation on facilitation and community in asynchronous online education courses, Kuskis (2006) claimed it has not been demonstrated that learner-learner dialogue reduces transactional distance. Kuskis argued that the effects of learner-learner dialogue should be further considered in the theory of transactional distance, in addition to instructor-learner dialogue, especially where adult learners are concerned. The author proposed that because both types of interactions may reduce transactional distance, the role of learner-learner interaction needs to be taken into account in future research.

NEW AND REVISED MODELS

In a study in the United Kingdom in which the engagement of doctoral students as part of an academic community was examined, Wikeley and Muschamp (2004) used transactional distance theory to create a model to deliver education to students at a distance that involved tutoring, which they claimed enabled students to develop a sense of community that assisted in the process of academic writing. They observed a problem when tutors and students saw themselves in separate roles rather than as fellow researchers. Consequently, the new model involved strategies to improve the relationship between tutors and doctoral students where tutors viewed students as newcomers to professional practice whom they should assist in developing the skills to become part of the academic community. Wikeley and Muschamp argued that although their model was not innovative in the context of e-learning, it utilized traditional pedagogical practices in an online environment, making it possible for students to develop relationships with those already involved in the research community of which students would soon be a part. In this sense, students gained different perspectives and a shared understanding of the professional community that resulted in a decrease in transactional distance.

Andrade and Bunker (2009) argued, in a study on course design of distance language learning, that there is not a comprehensive model to act as a theoretical framework to assess self-regulated learning and autonomy. They proposed a new model that included six areas of learning not included in Moore’s theory. They claimed the six dimensions–method, motive, physical environment, time, social environment, and performance–demonstrate learners’ interaction with structure and dialogue in the development of autonomous learning skills in distance language learning. The authors concluded that this model could improve success in distance education and provide a new framework for future research that would enable educators, designers, and researchers to measure how self-regulation affects learning thereby leading to higher levels of autonomy and success.

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Falloon (2011) used Moore’s theory of transactional distance to examine the use of virtual classroom software to explore how synchronous communication affected learner autonomy and dialogue in the course. The author claimed that while Moore’s theory was useful in analyzing online learning, it needed revision in order to match the move toward synchronous communication as a tool in distance education. Falloon found that students working in a synchronous environment felt they did not have sufficient time to engage in meaningful dialogue and therefore became reluctant to participate. The author argued that the definition of the theory and the way structural elements are viewed, as well as the effect of synchronicity on learner autonomy, should all be revisited.

A GLOBAL THEORY

Garrison (2000) stated “the ultimate theoretical challenge … is to achieve a synthesis of perspectives and theories (i.e., global theory) that reflects the complete continuum and is inclusive of a full range of practices” (p. 12). Gokool-Ramdoo (2008) had a similar opinion with the proposed extension of the applications of transactional distance theory in order for the theory to be accepted as a global one to further advances in the field of distance education. These extensions go beyond structure and dialogue to include policy making and quality assurance. Gokool-Ramdoo argued that not much has been done to expand upon distance education theory since Saba and Shearer’s (1994) work, but many theorists of distance education are converging toward a new synthesis which validates transactional distance theory as a global theory. This synthesis combines Deschenes’ (2006) strands of student persistence with transactional distance theory. These strands are cognitive, affective, and meta-cognitive. Gokool-Ramdoo claimed that when these strands are braided with Moore’s theory, it will help researchers organize the understanding of student persistence and will ultimately lead to complete, learner autonomy. The author argued further research is necessary to assess and validate the new synergy of transactional distance theory as it applies to informing policy development and quality assurance in the field of distance education.

SUMMARY

Moore’s theory has been supported and criticized as the defining theory of distance education. In the literature, relationships among the constructs of the theory are both defined and disputed. New models and instruments have been adapted from the theory and innovative directions and approaches in research related to the theory have been explored. While some researchers have argued for a more comprehensive theory of distance education, others stated Moore’s theory of transactional distance could be adapted to the future challenges of distance education faced by instructional technologists, course designers, researchers, and educators by revising the theory components based on emerging technologies and types of communication.

Several researchers made a case for a global theory to guide future research in distance education. Such a theory would include a fusion of perspectives and learning theories (Garrison, 2000) and extensions such as quality assurance and policy making (Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008). Whether transactional distance theory is accepted, modified, or applied as part of a global theory, the literature suggests there is still work to be done. Therefore, the conclusion can be made that transactional distance theory is here to stay.

REFERENCES

Anderson, B. (2007). Independent learning. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education (pp. 109-122). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Andrade, M. S., & Bunker, E. L. (2009). A model for self-regulated distance language learning. Distance Education, 30(1), 47-61.

Anglin, G. J., & Morrison, G. R. (2000). An analysis of distance education research: Implications for the instructional technologist. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 1(3), 189-194.

Bischoff, W. R., Bisconer, S. W., Kooker, B. M., & Woods, L. C. (1996). Transactional distance and interactive television in the distance education of health professionals. The American Journal of Distance Education, 10(3), 4-19.

Bunker, E., Gayol, Y., Nti, N., & Reidell, P. (1996). A study of transactional distance in an international audioconferencing course. Technology and Teacher Education Annual, 40-44. Phoenix, AZ: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

Caspi, A., Gorsky, P, & Chajut, E. (2003). The influence of group size on non-mandatory asynchronous instructional discussion groups. The Internet and Higher Education, 6(3), 227-240.

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