Improving Interaction in Online Learning

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

Brief Abstract

Online learning presents challenges for interaction, and engaging new strategies can replicate and even improve upon classroom-level interaction. In this presentation we provide practical solutions for instructional design with small group approaches along with social media engagement, increasing interactivity while sustaining student learning outcomes.


George Hess is an educator, musician, and author. An award-winning teacher, he has taught music technology, jazz, and theory at leading universities for over 25 years and has presented clinics and workshops worldwide. The author of Creating Music with Notion (Hal Leonard, 2015), he is a regular contributor to School Band and Orchestra and Music:Ed magazines. Hess has produced over 100 tutorial videos on music software, and his videos are featured on Groove 3 and the MuseScore website. Dr. Hess is currently professor of music at Sunway University in Malaysia. Previously, he was on the faculty at the National University of Singapore, Central Michigan University, Alabama State University and the University of Northern Colorado. He holds degrees from the Berklee College of Music and the University of Northern Colorado.

Extended Abstract


Essential to the student experience is the interaction with faculty and peers. There is considerable research that indicates that much of what we learn is achieved informally from peers and our environment and It is this type of interaction that is most difficult to replicate in online learning.

In this presentation, we will present practical solutions that have been successful in promoting both formal and informal interactions between both students and instructors and among students themselves. The presentation will share strategies for increasing interaction in the live video classroom as well as other methods for communicating with students, such as social media. We will provide the theoretical underpinnings for the actions and discuss the effect of instructional design on interaction. Participants will be invited to share their experiences and will be invited to engage in some of the methods including a Discord forum to allow for continued discussion beyond the presentation. 

At the conclusion of the presentation, participants will be able to:

  • Describe the difference between formal and informal interaction and explain the importance of each;
  • Explain why small groups are more conducive to learning in online environment; 
  • Discuss and develop strategies for implementing and managing small groups in real-time video classes; and
  • Utilize applications of social media to facilitate communication outside the classroom.

Online learning is a unique experience and while the outcomes may be the same as in the classroom, delivery and activities are different. According to Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance, three interrelated factors – course structure, interaction and the autonomy of learners – should be considered when designing an online learning environment. (Moore, 1993). He further postulates three types of interaction: Student-Content, Instructor-Student and Peer-Peer. (Moore, 1989). Learning requires sustained engagement with the content. Social interactions can be useful in initiating engagement and can help motivate sustained inquiry.

We propose that interpersonal interactions can be further broken down into formal and informal types. We define formal interaction as interactions that are required by the class, while informal interactions are those outside of class requirements and can be related to the course or not.


In this presentation we consider three possible means to encourage social interactions and informal learning: through the instructional design, the structure of real-time video classes, and supplemental forms of communication. 

Instructional Design

The instructional design of the course will have the greatest effect on the student’s interaction with the content, but it can also affect social interactions. Project and problem-based learning encourages peer-to-peer interaction (both formal and informal) and promotes active learning in the real-time video classroom. Project designs can also encourage collaboration beyond the team and even beyond the school. 

Real-time Video Classes

The most effective means to encourage interaction is during the real-time video classes. Whereas the physical classroom is primarily designed to accommodate large numbers of students and is not generally well-suited to small group work, the online environment is the opposite. Video conferencing software was designed for business meetings, not classes. (Orr, 2020). While programs today can accommodate upwards of fifty in a meeting, the results are not ideal. Large groups online can end up with passive learning, with challenges to interaction and difficulties in class management. The more people involved the more likely one encounters technical issues. However, when used as originally intended with small groups it can work well. Audio and video can be managed, work can be shared and interaction between instructors and students is more direct than even in the classroom.

Our experience suggests that in the ideal situation of six to eight students, each student is visible in a window large enough in gallery view to clearly see the student. Except for extenuating circumstances, all participants’ cameras are on. Students have control of their audio, and can mute or unmute as needed. It is recommended that some initial instruction on the operation of the environment precedes any content-based lessons. 

Two models for small groups in the classroom were successful in promoting interaction: breakout rooms and focus groups. Both encourage students to become more autonomous learners, though are suited to different methods of instruction. In cases where large online groups have educational utility, smaller breakout groups can help embed a level of interactivity and engagement, and add variety to a teaching plan. Breakout rooms are ideal for problem-based learning where students need to provide a solution at the end of class time.

Focus groups divide classes into small groups with each group the primary focus for one class per week, while other students observe. Focus groups are more conducive to project-based learning as they provide students an opportunity to receive guidance and feedback and develop peer-to-peer learning skills which can lead to informal learning. 

Small groups have two distinct advantages. The first deals with communication: smaller groups allow each person to speak – not only due to the greater amount of time for each individual, but also the smaller audience, and primarily that of their peers. Secondly, they allow for creative processes that by nature require a certain level of bravery – where unconventional and at times even outlandish ideas have a chance to be discussed.

While there are advantages to having every student essentially in the front row, there are drawbacks, too: there are no students sitting next to each other as would be in a classroom. Finding ways to recreate that sense of community is a key factor in the success of live sessions in online teaching and learning. 

Supplemental Communication: Social Media      

Both classes made use of social media. In one class, Facebook Watch Parties were used to replace live events. This had the distinct advantage of students using the chat function during the event – something that might not be possible in a physical setting. The other class used a private Facebook group to post new materials, such as free software offers, online events and articles that are pertinent to their work, and other relevant items. 

Discussion boards are often required in online classes but tend to achieve less than optimum results. The topics are often teacher-driven, inauthentic discussions and participation is poor. Students were asked to select the platform for discussio


The quality of work and grades in online classes were consistent with those in pre-pandemic classes. The student satisfaction based on university evaluations were also similar to those in face-to-face classes. 

Students who participated in project-based learning and focus groups indicated a considerable amount of collaboration outside of their assigned teams with both fellow students and even some outside of the class. This was strongly encouraged. Optional activities were voluntarily engaged with, even with minimal direct encouragement. 


Results indicate that it is possible to design an online learning environment with similar transactional distance as found in the classroom. Course designs should include collaboration along with small class groups that support peer-to-peer interaction. Supporting the class with social media can also be useful.

At a fundamental level video conferencing needs some inclusion of interaction. Passive learning is even less effective online than in the classroom. Otherwise, the content can simply be provided in a flipped classroom approach, where the material can be edited, students can access it at leisure, and rewind where necessary. The reason for live online classes is to enable interaction, and while there are technological options like Mentimeter to engage participation in large classes, active interaction is most effectively facilitated when small groups are enabled. 

This can be further enhanced with the use of social media strategies, which can incorporate large groups, student-led engagement, as well as asynchronous learning. Our online classroom experiences indicate that these approaches encourage peer-to-peer engagement, allowing online education to facilitate independence in some level of student-centered education, without any deleterious effects to student learning outcomes. [1487 words]


Miller, Andrew. (2020). Strategies for Improving Small Group Instruction. Edutopia, July 2020. Retrieved April 17, 2021.

Moore, M.G. (1989). Three Types of Interaction. American Journal of Distance Education. January 1989. 3:2, 1-7

Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical Principles of Distance Education (pp. 22–29). New York: Routledge

Orr, Jamie. A Brief History of Video Conferencing, All Work, November 2020.. Retrieved April 25. 2020

St George’s University of London, (2020) Transforming Your Teaching for Online Learning: Facilitating Small-Group Activities.