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Transactional distance and dialogue: An exploratory study to refine the theoretical construct of dialogue in online learning

, The Pennsylvania State University, United States

The Pennsylvania State University . Awarded


Theory building is complex and ongoing. Theories need to be constantly tested and the underlying constructs explored, as knowledge of a field evolves. This study, which is in support of Moore’s (1980, 1993) theory of transactional distance, is exploratory and descriptive, and focuses on one of the key variables in the theory dialogue.

As discussed by Moore (1980, 1993) and Burbules (1993), dialogue is a purposeful journey that an individual or group undertakes with others to expand understanding and create new knowledge. Dialogue is not depicted by any one singular event, but the destination hopefully results in “aha” moments when concepts and constructs around ideas become clear. In education, as Burbules discusses, dialogue is a subset of educational exchanges and is different from chatting, arguing, or negotiating.

The intent of the study is to examine dialogue, one of the three main variables of the theory. Through a review of the literature on dialogue in education, the study proposes a conceptual definition of dialogue for online learning environments based on the works of Burbules (1993) and Moore (1980, 1983a, 1993), and a classification scheme for dialogue based on the philosophical work of Burbules on dialogue.

The study uses a form ethnography and content analysis in its research design and methodology. It is exploratory, so it does not rely on a random sample nor are the results intended to be generalizable across a large population. The results of the study discuss how the a priori classification scheme for dialogue, constructed from Burbules’s work and other research studies on classroom/course interaction, is tested for inclusiveness of all observed written speech acts and for the addition of other dialogic qualifiers. The analysis demonstrates how the classification scheme is used to classify speech acts as “Dialogue towards Understanding,” “Dialogue towards Conversation,” or “Passive/Silent” by the type of dialogic form, move, and outcome that exists in the speech act. The unit of analysis for this study is an entire written speech act that may contain one or more paragraphs.

This study provides a definition of dialogue, which is a subset of all educational communications where the intent is dialogic exchanges that lead to the increased understanding of the student and knowledge building. The definition of dialogue and the proposed classification scheme for dialogue are intended to support further testing of the theory of transactional distance. The study only represents a starting point and provides baseline tools so future studies can explore the affect of dialogue on transactional distance and the other key variables of the theory: structure and autonomy.


Shearer, R.L. Transactional distance and dialogue: An exploratory study to refine the theoretical construct of dialogue in online learning. Ph.D. thesis, The Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved December 16, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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