In this post I review an article that provides the first systematic review of the Interaction Equivalency Theory (EQuiv) that I formulated 15 years ago. The article is:

Graham, C., & Massyn, L. (2019). Interaction Equivalency Theorem: Towards Interaction Support of Non-Traditional Doctoral Students. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 14, 187-216.

Personal Introduction

In 2003 I published an article in which I wrestled with the increased capacity for interaction that was becoming available to those of us designing online courses.  I realized that synchronous, asynchronous, text, video, voice, mutli media, “smart” content and many more tools and toys were becoming available and flogged by ed tech companies. I also realized that many of these tools were expensive both in terms of money to purchase and support and in the time they took for both students and teachers to first learn to use, and then to effectively use.  Perhaps I was being both simplistic and reductivist, but I speculated that though interaction is critically important in distance education, it can take many forms and further that one form can substitute for another. Building on Michael Moore’s notions of student-student, student-teacher and student-content interactions, I gave a very fancy name (Anderson’s Interaction Equivalency Theory) to the idea that if you could have a high level of one of these student interactions, you could reduce or even eliminate the other two. I further contented that adding the remaining two forms, may increase learning and persistence, but it would be more expensive (time and money). 

The article was submitted and published: 

Anderson, T. (2003a). Getting the mix right again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2), 1-9.

I got a few comments on the article and gradually noticed that others were quoting the article (not all positively) and a few researchers were using it in their conceptual rationale for their work.  I see today that Google Scholar lists 934 citations to the article. So I was pleased with its modest interest and use. But I wasn’t even convinced myself it was entirely true. Like too many educational (and theological) theories, it could be used to explain a result in  hindsight, but it is very challenging to design and implement experiments that could falsify  the theory.  

Partially to increase the validity and value of research in education that does not necessarily use control groups and other positivist methods, systematic reviews have recently become more widely used (for example see Martin, F., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., & Budhrani, K. (2017). Systematic Review of Two Decades (1995 to 2014) of Research on Synchronous Online Learning) Thus, I was really pleased to see the first systematic review of the Equiv. Theory.  

The Graham & Massyn  (2019) article comes from Connie Graham’s PhD Thesis and is authored  with her supervisor Liezel Massyn from the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Systematic Review Methodology

Like any good research project, this one starts with the research question . “How can the EQuiv be used to enhance interaction opportunities of non-traditional doctoral students?” It then provides the selection keywords (key words like doctoral education, EQuiv, interaction, non traditional students etc.) that were used to query the major journal databases and dissertation indices.  The papers were further weaned to to focus on ones in  which interaction and non-traditional doctoral students were highlighted, with or without the EQuiv Theory. 

 The context of this research is also of considerable personal interest to me, as I helped design, taught and researched with ‘non-traditional’ EdD students, studying at a distance, at Athabasca University.  The paper is really three mini-systematic reviews rolled into one.  The first is a review of issues related to non-traditional doctoral students. This section reviews studies that relate  to completion, supervisor- student relationships, risk factors for dropout etc.  The next section reviews interaction requirements in education in general and specifically with doctoral students. The final section  reviews the EQuiv theory itself.

1. Doctoral studies with non traditional students

The doctoral research hones in on the often mythical relationship between the student and the supervisor. The the teacher’s role in this relationship has been described as “mentor” “master” ‘supervisor’. Graham & Massyn use the term ‘master-apprentice’ to describe  the ideal form of this relationship. This relationship originally evolved on campus-based universities. At its best the student not only acquires content knowledge but also is socialized into the profession. This is accomplished by regular planned and spontaneous interactions between master and the apprentice doctoral students.  This master/apprenticeship relationship is used in the training of doctoral candidates to help them to gain a deep understanding and opportunity to participate in the culture of their discipline tribe.  This  model/design has hundreds of years of university replication baring evidence that it can work.  However, the Internet came along and caused us learn how to use mediated communications to create Equiv learning and socialization outcomes. 

If we look at a typical doctoral student in the USA and in Canada today, they are studying all or some of  their program online. In addition there are a myriad student-student online support interactions using social media.  These students don’t often sit around the graduate coffee room and don’t get to be personally present when the cultural activities of the discipline are presented. However, they may (or may not) be meeting regularly with their supervisor via Skype, be following each others tweets and blog posts, and be following similar research topics or developments in their respective networks and forwarding them to each other.  In addition they may be networking with professors and other graduate students around the world thus creating a new form of connected doctoral student. 

Neither the “sitting at the knee” master-apprentice  model nor the “connected model” works out in reality. Today the master is as often not on campus and private office conversations seem hard to arrange. Doctoral students have many demands on their time from vocation, family and health and are not readily available to benefit from face-to-face encounters. 

On the other end, the master is often using different tools (University versus commercial provision) or prides themselves on NOT being on social media.  Thus, the amount of personal interaction and socialization is extremely varied in today’s doctoral programs.  This article begs the question, If the traditional student-teacher (master-apprentice) interaction is impaired does the Equiv theory help us to design compensatory interactions?

2. Interaction in Doctoral Education- especially at a distance

The second section deals with interaction in education with a focus on non traditional doctoral students. It is a good overview of this critical role of interaction in all modes of formal education. The usual student-teacher, student-student and student-content interactions are reviewed. I especially liked the section on student-institution interactions. I’ve usually considered this a subsection of student-content interaction.  Especially for doctoral students an efficient and comprehensive web site or portal is critical to answer detailed procedural questions that every student bumps into. How many people of the candidacy examination committee?  Which of the Faculty members would be the best member of my supervision committee?  In days past these questions could be answered by informal conversation among grad students or hints from “the master”. But today a good web site is much more effective . 

3. Interaction Equivalency

The third section of the review (longest and one of most interest to me) is on interaction equivalency.  The review notes the earlier work by Simonson, Schlosser, & Hanson, 1999, that describes the necessity for distance education students having the “equivalent” experience in education as their campus based colleagues. This use of the equivalency  in Simonson et al’ article is not what I had in mind. Distance education is not ‘equivalent’ to campus education in the sense that some experiences both on campus and off are not experienced by those not engaged in that mode. A lecture is NOT identical to a videocast, but they may  have identical outcomes.  Demanding literal ‘equivalence’ denies the unique affordances of both the live performance and highly mediated interactions.

The review then does a really good job of explaining the theory with some of the diagrams created by my colleague Terumi Miyazoe.  

Graham and Massyn found a total of 25 papers directly using the Equiv theory that they summarize.  The authors create a table in which they categorize and give examples of  12 different characteristics of the research papers such as  learning method, type of students, interactions etc.  None of the studies seem to directly falsify or uniquivacably support the theory, but most give a sense that it is a useful tool to think through a problem.  As expected, the results are a bit inconclusive or as they state in the conclusion  “the literature on the EQuiv is contextual, relative, and inconclusive.”  This is not surprising as the Equiv is perhaps best used as a diagnostic or mnemonic aide to design and learning enhancement. One of the authors noted correctly that we never really provided a precise way to measure “high” or “low” levels and thus researchers have been forced to create their own metrics. And really, this is all I really wanted from the “theory”.  Equiv is a designers’ (or teacher’s tool) that can and has inspired some empirical research but perhaps is best classed and measured by its efficacy as a design tool.

In the summary, Graham and Massyn present a new graphic that illustrates the Equiv in doctoral studies.

The dotted line shows potential (or likelihood) of  challenges in quantity and quality of interactions with teacher that are routinely faced by non traditional, distance students.  The diagram shows how an intervention, with enhanced S2S, S2T or S2C interaction, can address this deficiency and lead to social and academic integration and thus successful educational experiences.

To conclude, congratulations to Graham and Massyn for a useful contribution to the Equiv and by extensive online learning literature. As they note its use in the important and growing area of doctoral research, at a distance, is very under researched and there is lots of interest and room for ideas on how to make this experience more effective – for students, teachers and institutions.