Transactional distance theory: is it here to stay?

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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.


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).


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).



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 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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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Jacqueleen A. Reyes, Learning Solutions Program Developer, Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, Inc. 4300 W. Cypress Street, Ste. 600, Tampa, FL 33607.