Academic journal article Quarterly Review of Distance Education

A Critical Analysis of Transactional Distance Theory

Academic journal article Quarterly Review of Distance Education

A Critical Analysis of Transactional Distance Theory

Article excerpt

This investigation reviews published empirical studies that attempted to support or to validate transactional distance theory (Moore, 1993). It was found that either data only partially supported the theory or, that if they apparently did so, the studies lacked reliability, construct validity, or both. It was concluded that the basic propositions of transactional distance theory were neither supported nor validated by empirical research findings. Furthermore, it was found that the theory may be reduced to a single proposition (as the amount of dialogue increases, transactional distance decreases) and that this proposition may be construed as a tautology.


Many attempts have been made to define distance education. Some view it as a unique discipline (Holmberg, 1986; Sparkes, 1983) while others view it within the bounds of traditional educational endeavor (Keegan, 1986). Over the past 20 years, parallel to developments in communication technologies, several theories have been proposed that seek to define an overall framework through which distance education may be viewed. Theoreticians such as Garrison (1989), Holmberg (1989), Keegan (1986), Moore (1993), Peters (1983), and Verduin and Clark (1991), have all made significant contributions to our understanding of distance education.

One attempt to define distance education and to articulate a theory about its underlying mechanisms was made by Michael Moore. The theory evolved from basic insights regarding independent learning and learner autonomy (Moore, 1972) into a multidimensional set of interrelated definitions, propositions and constructs known as the "Theory of Transactional Distance" (Moore, 1993). The process of theory development was driven initially by researchers who conducted theoretical studies (e.g., Garrison & Baynton, 1987; Garrison & Shale, 1987; Keegan, 1980). More recently, some empirical studies have been conducted in order to ascertain the construct validity of the theory (Bischoff, Bisconer, Kooker, & Woods, 1996; Bunker, Gayol, Nti, & Reidell, 1996; Chen, 2001a, 2001b; Chen & Willits, 1998; Saba & Shearer, 1994).

Moore (1993) defined distance education as "the universe of teacher-learner relationships that exist when learners and instructors are separated by space and/or by time" (p. 22). This definition includes both synchronous and asynchronous delivery formats. Transactional distance theory is important conceptually, since it proposes that the essential distance in distance education is transactional, not spatial or temporal. Advances in communications technology, which made synchronous and asynchronous interaction readily available, enabled interaction to become a key factor in distance education systems. Prior to these advances, distance education was often studied in comparison to face-to-face or classroom instruction. The usefulness of such comparative studies has diminished as results generally indicated "no significant difference." By placing transaction at the core of distance education, Moore offered new insights into the mechanisms of distance education programs and pointed toward new and important research directions.

Today, transactional distance theory is important in practical terms for several reasons. First, many researchers view it as a basic analytical framework for understanding distance education systems. Garrison (2000) wrote that theories such as transactional distance theory are "invaluable in guiding the complex practice of a rational process such as teaching and learning at a distance" (p. 3). According to Jung (2001), "Transactional distance theory provides a useful conceptual framework for defining and understanding distance education in general and as a source of research hypotheses more specifically" (p. 527). Second, researchers often cite the need to reduce transactional distance. Murphy and Collins (1997) attempted to identify communication conventions in real-time, interactive instructional electronic chats (IECs) and to examine whether IEC users recognize a need to use these conventions to communicate clearly with others. …

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