10 Swan, “Building learning communities in online courses: The importance of interaction”


Swan, K. (2002). Building Learning Communities in Online Courses: The importance of interaction. Education, Communication & Information, 2(1), 23–49. https://doi.org/10.1080/1463631022000005016.


This literature supports the idea for the need of interaction in online learning communities. It takes into account the three main types of interaction a student receives in the classroom; interaction with content, interaction with students, and interaction with instructors. By analyzing the results of two studies, the information shows the importance of interaction in an online community to support student success.

Key points

  • Three types of interaction are investigated in both studies in the article.
    • Interaction with course content—Ten concepts to support effective web design
      •  Instructors acting as facilitators, variety of presentation styles, multiple exercises, hands-on problems, learner control of pacing, frequent testing, clear feedback, consistent layout, clear navigation, and available help screens.
    • Interaction with instructors—establishing social presence and student perceived interaction is critical. Instructors must establish the managerial cognitive and affective role in the classroom.
    • Interaction among students—asynchronous interaction among students and development of discussion and social presence.
  • Study one: focus on course design, student perceptions and interactivity in online courses.
    • 22 subset variables of course design also considered and correlations were run to look for relationships between course design variables and student perceptions.
      • Student satisfaction and perceived learning were highly correlated.
      • Interactions with instructors and satisfaction with courses were significant.
      • Students that rated their activity level high also reported high satisfaction with learning and higher levels of perceived learning.
      •  Consistency with content presentation, structure of content, perceived learning, perceived interactions with instructors promoted a significant correlation.
      • The fewer number of learning modules and straightforward course design promoted students perceived learning.
      • Students who reported high levels of interaction with instructors related strongly to student satisfaction and perceived learning.
      • Students who related a level of high interaction with other students also reported high levels of course satisfaction and higher levels of learning.
  • Study two: focus on immediacy, social presence, and interactivity in asynchronous discussion.
    • Social presence based on “community of inquiry” model with three components. Cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence.
      • Three types of social presence responses; affective, interactive, and cohesive responses.
        • Affective indicators—personal expressions of emotion, feelings, or beliefs.
          • Finding that students adopt verbal immediacy behaviors to make up for lack of non-verbal and vocal cues communicated online.
          • Participants use paralanguage (use of emoticons, capitalization, punctuation, exaggerated spelling) to take the place of gestures and facial expressions
          • Self-disclosure (sharing of personal information) evoked the greatest number of responses from other students.
        • Cohesive indicators—verbal immediacy behaviors that build and sustain a sense of group commitment or presence.
          • Indicators showed this was the least used of verbal immediacy behaviors
          • Patterns showed decline as course progressed, possible because participants felt more cohesion later on in the course.
        • Interactive indicators—provide evidence that the other is attending (support of personal interaction among communicators).
          • Across all modules, frequency of acknowledgement was very common.
          • Agreement/Disagreement and approval were used almost as frequently.
          • Interactive behavior seemed to grow over the time of the course.


Both studies support various aspects of communication and interaction within an online learning community. The first study demonstrates the need for instructors to be cognizant of the types of interactions their students have with them, the content, and each other. Swan’s (2002) results indicated, “courses that include ample opportunity for interaction with instructors are preferable to those with limited or no interaction, and that interaction with instructors is an important factor in online learning” (p. 32). Contributing factors to successful online discussion include the frequency of interaction and the value the instructor places on the discussion. Creating a space for online interaction for students and consistency for course structure is a key success factor. All factors of interaction can lead to participant success and satisfaction.

The second study explores the type of interactions during discussions that learners participate in.  Building a healthy online community involves indicators of affective, interactive, and cohesive responses in class discussions. The study suggested that online participants make up for the lack of affective communication channels by engaging in a greater number of verbal immediacy behaviors. Evidence also displayed that development and maintenance of interaction within the online classroom is also important for success. More research is needed in the educational community to develop and explore types of interactions in online learning environments.

Discussion questions

  1. The first study indicates three main areas of interaction; content, students, and instructor. Which one do you think is most important and why?
  2. What ideas do you have about the relevance of each type of interaction during a course?
  3. The second study was conducted with a group of graduate students. Do you think similar results could be replicated in undergrad or high school students? Why?

Additional resources

  • Saadatmand, M., Uhlin, Hedberg, Åbjörnsson, & Kvarnström. (2017). Examining learners’ interaction in an open online course through the community of inquiry framework. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 20(1), 61–79. https://doi.org/10.1515/eurodl-2017-0004.


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Online Learning Toolbox by Evrim Baran is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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