29 Woo and Reeves, “Meaningful interaction in web-based learning: A social constructivist interpretation”


Woo, Y., & Reeves, T. C. (2007). Meaningful interaction in web-based learning: A social constructivist interpretation. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 15–25. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2006.10.005.


Interaction is an essential ingredient of any learning environment (face-to-face classroom-based, synchronous/asynchronous online education, or blended models) (Woo & Reeves, 2007).  As Web-based learning environments have continued to grow over the years maintaining interaction is more challenging than in the traditional face-to-face learning environments.  This article takes a look at many different types of interaction that can happen in web-based instruction.  Not every interaction will lead to increased learning.  The authors of this article define meaningful interaction as having a direct influence on learners’ intellectual growth.

Woo and Reeves hope to improve and/or create design principles to increase the quality of Web-based learning environments by examining online interaction in terms of meaningful learning based on the learning theory known as social constructivism.

Key points

  • One of the key components of good pedagogy, regardless of whether technology is involved, is interaction.
  • Instructional designers still lack sound theoretical foundations for determining what is good quality or meaningful interaction
  • Meaningful interactions are unlikely to occur without the provision of an instructional design model that fosters them.
  • Defining online interaction
    • Interaction in various forms of learning environments has been defined in a variety of ways.
    • The nature of interaction is also dependent upon the context in which interaction occurs, in a face-to-face environment or at a distance.
    • Moore’s (1989) classic definition of interaction within distance education is based upon a communication-based framework, defining the sender and receiver of three types of interaction:  learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner.
    • Northrup (2001) proposed five interaction purposes: to interact with content, to collaborate, to converse, to help monitor and regulate learning (intrapersonal interaction), and to support performance.
  • The meaning of meaningful
    • Idle chatting, online surfing, or mindlessly clicking Web pages is unlikely to lead to substantive learning even though learners are interacting with other objects.
    • Interaction must stimulate the learners’ intellectual curiosity, engage them in productive instructional activities, and directly influence their learning (Hirumi, 2002; Vrasidas & McIsaac, 1999).
    • The meaning of meaningful interaction is strongly related to the learning theories underlying the development of particular learning environments.
    • Learning is derived from rich conversation with other people who have similar or different perspectives based on their own life experiences (Jonassen, 1999; Jonassen et al., 1995).  We call this theory social constructivism.
  • Social Constructivist perspective
    • Meaningful interaction
      • Many educators have come to see the value of social constructivism as a foundation for the design of more effective learning environments.
      • In an online learning environment designed on the principles of social constructivism, meaningful interaction should include responding, negotiating internally and socially, arguing against points, adding to evolving ideas, and offering alternative perspectives with one another while solving some real tasks (Jonassen et al., 1995; Lapadat, 2002; Lave & Wenger, 1991,: Vrasidas, 2000; Vygotsky, 1978).
    • Authentic Tasks/Activities
      • To accomplish an authentic task, students must interact through sharing what they are thinking, relating their ideas to past experiences, collaborating with their peers, actively constructing their own meaning, and incorporating the diverse perspectives of others (Barr & Tagg, 1995).
      • Newmann and Wehlage (1993) outlined five standards for authentic activities:
      1. Higher order thinking
      2. Depth of knowledge
      3. Connectedness to the world
      4. Substantive conversation
      5. Social support for students
      • Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver (2002) identified the following ten main characteristics of authentic activities:
        1. Authentic activities have real-world relevance.
        2. Authentic activities are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.
        3. Authentic activities comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time.
        4. Authentic activities provide the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives, using a variety of resources.
        5. Authentic activities provide the opportunity to collaborate.
        6. Authentic activities provide the opportunity to reflect.
        7. Authentic activities can be integrated and applied across different subject areas and lead beyond domain-specific outcomes.
        8. Authentic activities are seamlessly integrated with assessment.
        9. Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.
        10. Authentic activities allow competing solutions and diversity of outcomes.


The main substance of this article is that to improve the learning effects of online interaction we first need to clearly understand the essence of interaction from a social constructivist learning theory.  Once this is understood research can be developed and conducted to determine the proper principles of design to gain more effective interaction and activities for Web-based learning environments.

In order for the learning to be significant the interaction must be meaningful.  This meaningful interaction will only happen if the instructional design does not foster them.  Meaningful interaction should include arguing against points, adding to evolving ideas, and offering alternative perspectives with one another while solving some real/authentic tasks.  Students should be sharing what they are thinking, relating their ideas to past experiences, collaborating with their peers, actively constructing their own meaning, and incorporating the diverse perspectives of others.

Discussion questions

  1. Of the multiple learning theories available, why is it that Web-based learning environments have seemingly gravitated toward a social constructivist mindset?
  2. Will the best principles of design differ depending on how the course is conducted over time.  i.e. courses that are self-paced (MOOCs) versus courses that have weekly or regularly scheduled deadlines like a semester length college course?
  3. What is more important, the technology used or how the technology is used?
  4. Focus has been shifted from quantity of interaction to quality of interaction.  Do you think that quantity can also be a part of quality?

Additional resources

  • Bronack, S., Riedl, R., & Tashner, J. (2006). Learning in the zone: A social constructivist framework for distance education in a 3-dimensional virtual world. Interactive Learning Environments, 14(3), 219–232. https://doi.org/10.1080/10494820600909157.
  • Berge, Z. (1999). Interaction in Post-Secondary Web-Based Learning. Educational Technology, 39(1), 5-11. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44429005
  • Janette R. Hill, Liyan Song & Richard E. West (2009) Social Learning Theory and Web-Based Learning Environments: A Review of Research and Discussion of Implications, American Journal of Distance Education, 23(2), 88–103. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923640902857713.


  • Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27(6), 12−25. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.1995.10544672.
  • Hirumi, A. (2002). The design and sequencing of E-learning interactions: A grounded approach. International Journal on E-learning, 1(1), 19−27. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/8390/.
  • Jonassen, D. H. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional theories and models (pp. 215−239), 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Jonassen, D. H., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J., & Haag, B. B. (1995). Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 9(2), 7−25. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923649509526885.
  • Lapadat, J. C. (2002). Written interaction: A key component in online learning. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 7(4), JCMC742. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2002.tb00158.x.
  • Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  • Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1−6. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923648909526659.
  • Northrup, P. (2001). A framework for designing interactivity into web-based instruction. Educational Technology, 41(2), 31−39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44428657.
  • Reeves, T. C., Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2002). Authentic activities and online learning. In A. Goody, J. Herrington, & M. Northcote (Eds.), Quality conversations: Research and development in higher education, vol. 25 (pp. 562−567). Jamison, ACT: HERDSA Retrieved April 1, 2004, from http://elrond.scam.ecu.edu.au/oliver/2002/Reeves.pdf.
  • Vrasidas, C. (2000). Constructivism versus objectivism: Implications for interaction, course design, and evaluation in distance education. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 6(4), 339−362.
  • Vrasidas, C., & McIsaac, M. S. (1999). Factors influencing interaction in an online course. American Journal of Distance Education, 13(3), 22−36. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923649909527033.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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