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A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF TRANSACTIONAL DISTANCE THEORY

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A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF TRANSACTIONALDISTANCE THEORYPaul Gorsky and Avner CaspiThe Open University of IsraelThis investigation reviews published empirical studies that attempted to support or to validate transactionaldistance theory (Moore, 1993). It was found that either data only partially supported the theory or, that if theyapparently did so, the studies lacked reliability, construct validity, or both. It was concluded that the basicpropositions of transactional distance theory were neither supported nor validated by empirical research find-ings. Furthermore, it was found that the theory may be reduced to a single proposition (as the amount of dia-logue increases, transactional distance decreases) and that this proposition may be construed as a tautology.INTRODUCTION AND RATIONALEMany attempts have been made to define dis-tance education. Some view it as a unique dis-cipline (Holmberg, 1986; Sparkes, 1983) whileothers view it within the bounds of traditionaleducational endeavor (Keegan, 1986). Overthe past 20 years, parallel to developments incommunication technologies, several theorieshave been proposed that seek to define anoverall framework through which distanceeducation may be viewed. Theoreticians suchas Garrison (1989), Holmberg (1989), Keegan(1986), Moore (1993), Peters (1983), and Ver-duin and Clark (1991), have all made signifi-cant contributions to our understanding ofdistance education.One attempt to define distance educationand to articulate a theory about its underlyingmechanisms was made by Michael Moore.The theory evolved from basic insights regard-ing independent learning and learner auton-omy (Moore, 1972) into a multidimensionalset of interrelated definitions, propositions andconstructs known as the "Theory of Transac-tional Distance" (Moore, 1993). The processof theory development was driven initially byresearchers who conducted theoretical studies(e.g.. Garrison & Baynton, 1987; Garrison &Shale, 1987; Keegan, 1980). More recently,some empirical studies have been conducted inorder to ascertain the construct validity of thetheory (Bischoff, Bisconer, Kooker, & Woods,1996; Bunker, Gayol, Nti, & Reidell, 1996;• Paul Gorsky, The Open University of Israel, 108 Ravutski St., P. O. Box 808, Ra'anana, Israel 43137. Telephone: +972-9-778-1339. E-Mail: [email protected] Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Volume 6(1), 2005, pp. l-Il ISSN 1528-3518Copyright © 2005 Information Age Publishing, Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.The Quarterly Review of Distance Education Vol. 6, No. 1, 2005Chen, 2001a, 2001b; Chen & Willits, 1998;Saba& Shearer, 1994).Moore (1993) defined distance education as"the universe of teacher-learner relationshipsthat exist when learners and instructors areseparated by space and/or by time" (p. 22).This definition includes both synchronous andasynchronous delivery formats. Transactionaldistance theory is important conceptually,since it proposes that the essential distance indistance education is transactional, not spatialor temporal. Advances in communicationstechnology, which made synchronous andasynchronous interaction readily available,enabled interaction to become a key factor indistance education systems. Prior to theseadvances, distance education was often studiedin comparison to face-to-face or classroominstruction. The usefulness of such compara-tive studies has diminished as results generallyindicated "no significant difference." By plac-ing transaction at the core of distance educa-tion, Moore offered new insights into themechanisms of distance education programsand pointed toward new and importantresearch directions.Today, transactional distance theory isimportant in practical terms for several rea-sons. First, many researchers view it as a basicanalytical framework for understanding dis-tance education systems. Garrison (2000)wrote that theories such as transactional dis-tance theory are "invaluable in guiding thecomplex practice of a rational process such asteaching and learning at a distance" (p. 3).According to Jung (2001), "Transactional dis-tance theory provides a useful conceptualframework for defining and understanding dis-tance education in general and as a source ofresearch hypotheses more specifically" (p.527). Second, researchers often cite the need toreduce transactional distance. Murphy andCollins (1997) attempted to identify communi-cation conventions in real-time, interactiveinstructional electronic chats (IECs) and toexamine whether IEC users recognize a needto use these conventions to communicateclearly with others. They concluded that usersrecognized a need to use a variety of communi-cation conventions to reduce transactional dis-tance in computer-mediated educationaltransactions. Third, the theory is assumed"true" and is taught at institutions of higherlearning. For example, the importance of thetheory is described on the Minnesota StateUniversity at Moorhead (2002) Website:The purpose of the site is to gain a basicunderstanding of Transactional DistanceTheory, or TDT. As today's generationsand future generations move toward aneducational process through means of tech-nology, understanding TDT is vital for peo-ple to be effective in distance learning andteaching.The initial purpose of this study was toappraise the current status of the theory vis-a-vis empirical findings made in the studies citedabove. Special attention was paid to howresearchers defined operationally the key con-structs of the theory (structure, dialogue,learner autonomy and transactional distance).For each of the constructs, three questionswere posed: How was it defined operationally?How was it measured? To what extent weremeasurements deemed valid and reliable?Next, the global, dynamic aspects of thetheory that emerged from the research datawere studied by posing additional questions:Were learning outcomes measured? If so, howand to what extent? Did transactional distanceappear to affect learning outcomes? Did theempirical data indeed support the theory in itspresent form?The two questions about learning outcomesare especially relevant since a theory should beable to explain processes and predict events. Ifthe theory of transactional distance is to beuseful to distance education (and possibly toeducation in general), the variable transac-tional distance must correlate in a significantand meaningful way with learning outcomes.Given the high face validity of the theory,expectations were to find a high-level


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