Where are my Classmates? Social Interaction Online

Caron L. Treon, Anaheim University, California, USA

Treon, C. L. (2018). Where are my classmates? Social interaction online. Relay Journal, 1(1), 167-172. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/010117

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This piece reviews the literature which examines social interactions in online environments. The main interest was to find out whether online students were autonomous learners, who would be motivated to participate with their fellow classmates. After conducting a review of the material on social interaction in online learning environments it was discovered that the level of social interaction varied dependent on a number of factors. One of the main factors being a learners’ motivational level. Many of the researchers proposed ideas for further research into increasing learners’ levels of social interaction in the future including the idea of using different software programs in their classes.

Keywords: social, interaction, online, autonomy

This paper is a review of the literature dealing with social interaction in online learning environments. With a lot of universities moving more and more classes online, there is a big question about how to maintain social interactions in this learning context. This review focused on the factors that individual researchers found that influence the amount of time that learners spend interacting with their peers in online classes. It also includes ideas from many of the researchers for further research in this area, mainly to see what could lead to increased social interaction between learners in online classes.

What comes to mind when we see the words “autonomous learner,” or “autonomy?” For many people what comes to mind is a picture of a studious learner bent over material or searching for resources in a library by themselves. The reason why we have this picture may be because of the prefix of autonomy, “auto.” The definition of auto from Dictionary Reference online reads, “auto, a combining form meaning “self,” “same,” “spontaneous,” used in the formation of compound words like, “autograph, autodidact.” This definition seems to be intuitive and leads one to the image of the lone student. Autonomy however does not mean “alone.” Benson’s definition of autonomy doesn’t specify if autonomy is an action taken alone or with others. The definition Benson introduces gives is as follows “autonomy can be broadly defined as the capacity to take control over one’s own learning” (2011, p. 2). Even though this definition does not mention whether autonomy happens alone or with others, Benson for one believes that interdependence is a necessary key to achieving autonomy. Benson’s citation of Kohonen shows that Benson does not believe that autonomy happens independently. Kohonen says that, “…autonomy thus includes the notion of interdependence, that is being responsible for one’s own conduct in the social context: being able to cooperate with others and solve conflicts in constructive ways” (1992, p. 19). Kohonen’s statement demonstrations that learners need other learners, teachers, and tutors to be truly autonomous. Social interaction consequently becomes necessary when it comes to autonomy, because interdependence cannot happen without it.

Social constructivist theories fit best when describing social interaction. These theories include the ‘zone of proximal development’ introduced by Vygotsky in 1978 (Benson, 2011). Vygotsky’s theory was that the learner would make up the difference between their own abilities and where they wished to be through the help of other learners and teachers. Little, Thorne and Smith have also contributed research to show that factors that contribute to learner autonomy like “cognitive processes, including the critical reflection and decision-making so essential to autonomy, are seen to depend on participation in meaningful social interaction” (Murphy, 2014, p. 120). This leads to more input and output (Murphy, 2014. Social interaction and autonomy are seen to be “crucial in sustaining language learning motivation (Murphy, 2014, p. 121).”

Social interaction seems easy to achieve when one examines a traditional American classroom. In most American traditional classrooms students engage in group or pair work, often using their classmates to “fill in the gaps” in their learning and knowledge. However, what happens when the classroom loses this face to face interaction? What happens when it goes online? Does social interaction suffer when students are no longer able to communicate face to face? The studies I reviewed prove that social interaction is both necessary and achievable in distance education as long as certain factors are taken into consideration.

There are many issues to be considered when looking at social interaction in distance education. In the studies I reviewed these were the issues addressed: motivation, emotions, the formation of online communities, social behaviors and the types of tasks students were asked to complete, as well as a reminder not to take learner participation in online social interactions for granted. One important factor when it comes to ensuring that social interaction happens online is to have the support of everyone for the program or course. This is shown in Liu’s (2008) study. When everyone is involved in creating a good environment for promoting social interaction, then students will find the programs to be more motivating. Motivation is studied by Murphy in her 2014 piece. She finds that students are particularly motivated when they are studying another language for a specific reason/purpose. The study presented by Freiermuth and Huang (2012) breaks down motivation even further by focusing on four factors that affect task-based motivation. The four aspects they focus on are: the willingness to communicate, task attractiveness, task innovativeness and the need to communicate in the target language.

Wang’s (2005) study focuses on “the development of social and affective connections, the learners’ participation in online communication, and the impact of social interaction on student’s learning” (Wang, 2005, p. 79). Wang says that there are three factors that influence students’ social involvement behaviors: social context, online communication, and interactivity and online privacy. Wang’s piece includes how students’ social involvement behaviors, social context, online communication and interactivity will affect social interaction communities. Furnborough’s study talks about how interaction enhances adult education beginning students of French, Spanish, and German especially when it comes to how their feelings with either enhance or restrict autonomous interdependence.

Many of the pieces talked about how communities need to be formed online in order to foster social interaction and how they are related to motivation. Wang’s (2005) piece includes how students’ social involvement behaviors, social context, online communication and interactivity will affect social interaction communities.  Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems’s (2003) paper does not focus on the positives of social interaction, but instead serves as a reminder that the online environment doesn’t automatically inspire students to socially interact with each other, and reminds people not to neglect the social psychological dimension of the desired interaction.

In terms of findings for this research, Murphy’s (2014) finding, that there is support for autonomous distance learning is certainly echoed across almost all of these studies. Students can increase their learning through social interaction if certain factors are in place. Murphy (2014), Liu (2008), and Furnbourough and Huang’s (2012) findings highlight the importance of having the support of tutors, teachers, other staff and administrators in order to make distance education classes a complete success. Furnbourough goes even further by showing that one of the reasons why one of her test groups, group C did poorly was because they were unwilling to contact tutors or socially interact with their classmates or in other communities online.  Murphy, Wang, and Liu all stress the importance of communities for online learners in their findings. Murphy’s (2014) findings suggest that if the learner can find an online community in the target language to help them to meet their language learning goal, they will be more motivated to learn the target language. Liu (2008) and Freiermuth and Huang (2012) both found that course and task design were essential to boosting motivation which lead to more social interaction.

Wang’s (2005) results were mixed. The positive outcome of his study is that online education provides students with more control over their level of participation, but the downside is the reduced “human aspect” He found that the “lack of visual and tonal clues and context information leads students to express strong opinions, which though possibly leading to meaningful and deep learning, also could lead to potential conflicts” (Wang, 2005, p. 86). Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems’s research was more of a literature review than a study, but they too came up with results that would improve student social interaction online. Their finding is that there needs to be a social community for student learners, not just a cognitive one. Students need a place to be actually social, a place to meet their peers, people with the same perceived goals (Kreijns, Kirschner & Jochem, 2003, p. 343). These authors believe that having an online community that is only focused on critical thinking burns out students. There are many positive findings that have come out of these studies, but there are always problems and weaknesses when it comes to research.

Whenever there is research done in the field of autonomy there are problems and weaknesses with those studies. One of the weaknesses with several of these studies was sample size. Wang’s (2005) study followed three learners. It is hard to draw too many conclusions from studying three people, or make many generalizations about the research and the findings. Murphy’s (2014) study had problems because not all her participants kept up their journals which was her form of measurement. Only thirty-one out of 191 participants kept up with their logs for the full nine months of the study. Liu’s pitfall was that she only interviewed the students and not the administrators, or teachers thus not gaining a “complete picture of the phenomenon” (Liu, 2008, p. 12). Like problems and weaknesses, gaps are often found in studies.

When it comes to research, often some things are overlooked, or not considered for the research at the time the study was conducted. Murphy (2014) did not consider learners with a common learning goal. She wanted to study online communities and how they boosted learner motivation. She might have had very different results if all the learners she studied were learning the target language for the same reasons. Furnborough (2014) didn’t take into consideration the anxiety factor of one of her groups, group C. This group was the same one that did not reach out to other learners or tutors for help. Perhaps if she had considered it, group C’s results might have been different. Liu’s (2008) study only looked at one kind of interactive software and didn’t consider other interactive software like video conferencing, Skype or meetings and chat rooms. Even though there were some gaps in the research, sometimes these studies didn’t focus on the gaps, instead they focused on what might be considered for further research.

Most studies had ideas about things that could be researched in the future to further promote social interaction online. Liu thought that in the future, research should look at how students interact with other available software programs. Furnborough wonders how tutors can “suggest” ways to help students instead of just offering solutions to their problems. She also wants more research on affective factors like anxiety. Kreijns, Kirschner and Jochems want there to be more programs creating courses that would have a social component combined with a critical thinking component. Wang wants to know more about how student personalities explain participation patterns, and how social interaction affects the student’s satisfaction and their learning outcomes.

The points that these authors are bringing up that influence social interaction like emotions, task type and social behaviors do not seem to be gaps in the research, but promising avenues for further exploration. It is clear that there are a lot of factors such as motivation that go into making social interaction in distance education a success. The possibilities for research seem endless as more and more students turn to the internet to meet their educational needs.

Notes on the contributor

Caron Treon is a Doctoral Candidate in TESOL at Anaheim University and holds a Master’s in TESOL from California State University, Sacramento. She teaches preparatory writing at the University of California, Davis for Sacramento City Community College with sixteen years of experience in the ESL field. She lives in Carmichael, California with her husband and two daughters.


Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and Researching Autonomy. Harlow, UK: Pearson.

Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com

Freiermuth, M., & Huang, H. (2012). Bringing Japan and Taiwan closer electronically: A look at an intercultural online synchronic chat task and its effect on motivation. Language Teaching Research, 16(1), 61-88. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168811423341

Furnborough, C. (2012). Making the most of others: Autonomous interdependence in adult beginner distance language learners. Distance Education, 33(1) 99-116. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2012.667962

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P., & Jochems, W. (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: A review of the research. Computers in Human Behavior, 19, 235-253. http://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/16872

Liu, S. (2008). Student interaction experiences in distance learning courses: : A phenomenological study Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, X1(1). http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring111/Liu111.html

Murphy, L. (2014). Autonomy, social interaction, and community: A distance language learning perspective. In G. Murray (Ed), Social dimensions of autonomy in language learning (pp. 119-134). London, UK: Palgrave

Wang, H. (2005). A qualitative exploration of the social interaction in an online learning community. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 11(1), 79-86. Retrieved from http://www.sicet.org/journals/ijttl/issue0502/Wang.Vol1.Iss2.pdf

2 thoughts on “Where are my Classmates? Social Interaction Online”

  1. The paper offers a good review of social interactions in online environment. It also provides good reminders of factors that need to be taken into account when considering offering an online language course that aims to promote social interactions. I also find the “autonomy” section useful in framing the thought of how should read autonomy and link it to social interaction in this particular review.

    I do understand that there are limitations in terms of the length of the paper and the nature of the piece itself, so here are some notes for considerations

    – Although a number of studies have been cited, I would have liked to see more studies (being more comprehensive) included to support each factors identified. It appears to me that each factor identified only comes a single study and may not be a good representation of factors influencing in online (language) learning.
    – It would have been much clearer if details of each online learning environment in the cited studies had been provided. This is because I think that each type of online learning environment (online course, MOOCs, blended learning) and the nature of the course (compulsory, optional, academic or professional development) would have important impact on how social interactions are formed and how each factor influences these interactions.
    – The type of the course should also have been identified though I know from the references that most of the cited studies are for language learning. I think that this is crucial when providing a review piece like this as it can shape the whole review to one particular branch of social interactions – is it for language learning or for something else? I am not sure of the real intention of review whether it is specific for language learning or for online learning in general?
    – With a review like this, I think it may be a good idea to provide the criteria of including certain studies into the review whether it is relevant to particular type of learning or to your teaching and learning context? To me, this is the issue of credibility and preventing the act of “cherry picking” the literature.

    Overall, I really enjoy reading this review and it does offer some food for thoughts especially for people who are running online courses or considering designing ones.

  2. Hi Napat,
    Thank you for reading and reviewing my piece in Relay. It’s pretty exciting as it is the first piece I’ve ever had published. I’ve read your suggestions and you have valid points. This paper was originally for a Learner Autonomy class I took in the second year of my doctoral studies. I will try to find some if not all of the pieces so that I can add some of the information that you are referring to.

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