Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Interpreting transactional distance theory and guided didactic conversation in connectivist terms

Roel Cantada

In this paper I will attempt to interpret and visualize Moore's Transactional Distance Theory (TDT) and Holmberg's guided didactic conversation (GDC) through a connectivist perspective. My contention is that connectivism can explicate these precedent distance learning theories (probably with distortion) and may be the universal theory for open and distance learning.

Moore's TDT

Michael G. Moore proposed three concepts that are interrelated in TDT. They are briefly defined below:

  1. Transactional Distance (TD) - a psychological and communication space that separates the learner and the teacher. It the space of potential misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner. Btw. transaction 'connotes the interplay among the environment, the individuals and the patterns of behaviors in a situation' (Boyd and Apps, as cited in Moore, 1997, p.22). For Moore, distance education is a transaction.
  2. Dialogue - is purposeful, constructive and valued by each party. Each party in a dialogue is a respectful and active listener; each is a contributor, and builds on the contributions of the other party or parties....The direction of a dialogue in an educational relationship is towards the improved understanding of the student (Moore, p. 24).
  3. Structure - expresses the rigidity or flexibility of the programme's educational objectives, teaching strategies, and evaluation methods It describes the extent to which an educational programme can accommodate or be responsive to each learner's individual needs (Moore, p. 26).
  4. Learner autonomy - is the extent to which in the teaching/learning relationship, it is the learner rather than the teacher who determines the goals, the learning experiences, and the evaluation decisions of the learning programme (Moore, p. 31).

Structure and autonomy

Let me start with learner autonomy and and structure. These two concepts have been expressed as having an inverse relationship. And that "structure and autonomy can be further represented in relationships that define learner control and instructor control. (Saba, 2003, p.13)". IMHO learner control and instructor control are two states of the concept "locus of control".

How do we visualize this in connectivism? Connectivism in my simplest understanding is the pedagogy of links/connections. (For a better explanation see George Siemens' "Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age"). So the control is over the links. If expressed in terms of Adaptive Navigation Support (Busilovsky, 2007), it is the ability to generate, remove, hide, sequence, and annotate links. Siemens himself does not negate the possibility of control when he said "Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – "not entirely" under the control of the individual. (Siemens, 2004) [my emphasis]". And true enough in a networked environment, we will find varying degrees of constraints to our ability to manipulate links. This is particularly true with Learning Management Systems, dubbed as "walled gardens", as oppose to open evironments like those espoused by "loosely coupled teaching" or the principle of "small pieces, loosely joined".

Currently, software developers had implemented the rules of constraints to linking in terms of role permissions. For instance, in Moodle, the student has no permission to create links in the course page. Only users with the role editing teachers, course editors, and administrators have those permissions. Of course the permissions can be changed by those who have permissions to grant permissions (usually the administrator).

To model the change in the locus of control over time in a system, I have graphed a closed learning network with three actors namely: a student, teacher and an adaptive system or machine. To simplify what I my illustration of a shifting control over the network in a turn-based manner, I have made the links static. But you can imagine that when an actor has grabbed control over the network of links then he/she/it can manipulate the nodes and links to her/his/it needs and wants. Turn based concept usually involve locking the resource being edited at the time by an actor, such that the other actors may not edit it at the same time.

The graphs below are multi-relational, 3-mode, signed graphs. The relations are color coded. Each relation (or set of links in one color) is owned by an actor. It can be interpreted as his/her personal learning space. But in this case, it is interpreted as power relations between actors, in relation to their learning environment, and the concept level. I have expressed the control as thicker lines.

Figure 1: Equalibrium (Time 0)

Figure 2: Time 1, Teacher has control

Figure 3: Time 2, Student has control

Figure 4: Time 3, Adaptive System has control

Figure 5: Animated video of turn-based passing of locus of control

The passing of control does not have to be turn-based at all. And it does not have to be control over the entire system. In an open environment, certain parts of the network are in the control of one person at the same time as other parts of the network are controlled by others. I will try to model this in another blog later on, as it could get very complicated. But you can think of let's say a student keeping a blog outside the LMS. It is connected to the LMS only via RSS but the teacher has no control over the blog.

When viewed this way, the term structure by Moore is not equivalent to structure in connectivism. Moore's structure is only a subset of many patterns of control over the network at different time period. It is equivalent to a structure that is NOT controlled by the student.

Control is usually described as control of sequencing the learning resources or links to the resources. This is expressed below as arcs in the learning environment level.

Figure 6a: No sequencing

Figure 6b: Sequencing by student and teacher

Fig.6b above shows that there is a contradiction between how the student sequence the resources and how the teacher sequence them. The teacher starts from resource 1 and ends with resource 3; but the student start from resource 3 and work backwards.

Control can also be expressed as control over the concepts themselves, especially when there is assessment of the personal conceptual network of the student.


Dialogue can be modelled as links between actors, or mediated by the learning environment. Take note that Moore's dialogue is always positive, which may not be the case when modelled here.

Figure 7: Dialogue between student and teacher


In my model of distance, I hooked on the concept of misunderstanding. IMHO misunderstanding occurs at the concept level. It is expressed here as the difference between the personal conceptual subnetwork of the learner and that of the teacher. Here are three possible interpretations of distance:

Figure 8: Distance 1

In Fig.8 the student has not linked the concepts, while the teacher has linked them. We may say that the student does not see any connection, may be confused, or is a beginner. But these are value statements. The graph does not state that the teacher's version is correct, and the student is wrong. It simply states that there is a difference between the coneptual network of student and teacher.

Figure 9. Distance 2

In Fig. 9 the student has linked concept 1 and concept 2 but not concept 3. Can we say then that this student has less distance with the teacher than that in Fig.8?

Figure 10. Distance 3

In Fig.10, the student has linked the concepts like the teacher, but negatively. We can interpret it as that the student thinks the concepts are contradictory, or conflicting. Definitely, the teacher and student are in disagreement.

In addition, if we go back to Fig. 6b you'll notice that there is no difference between the conceptual network of the student and the teacher, despite the fact that they sequenced the resources contradictorilly. Is this possible in real life? Only empirical data will show.

So in summary there are many patterns of interpreting transactional distance in connectivism. What excites me about this is that, it is a formal presentation wherein we can apply mathematical techniques. Although I still don't know what computational analysis is appropriate.

Using Pajek I was able to extract the individual relations from the network above. And here they are for clarity.

Figure 11: Student Control

Figure 12: Teacher Control

Figure 13: Adaptive System Control

Holmberg's Guided Didactic Conversation

Let me now turn to Borje Holmberg's theory. Unfortunately I've lost my reference while I'm typing this, so I will try to reconstruct what I remember about it. I belive it's a conversation of the student with himself as a reflection of content. It is therefore a relation between the student and the resources of the learning environment. But if we push back the time slice far enough, each resource will have an actor developer, author, etc. node associated with it. That is why I usually call these ghost nodes. But since the teacher in distance learning is also not physically present before the learner, is the teacher a ghost in the machine as well?

Anyway, I've modelled it below.

Figure 14: Guided Didactic Conversation in a Network

I interpret it as a process of increasing or decreasing the link property e.g. significance, usefulness, relevance, etc. between actor and the learning environment's resources. This is visualized as varying line weights and varying distances of nodes relative to the student node.


Brusilovsky, P. (2007). Adaptive navigation support. In P. Brusilovsky, A. Kobsa, & W. Nejdl (Eds.), The adaptive web, methods and strategies of web personalization. Springer, pp.263-290.

Moore, M. "Theory of transactional distance." In Keegan, D., ed. "Theoretical Principles of Distance Education (1997), Routledge, pp. 22-38.

Saba, F. (2003). Distance education theory, methodology, and epistemology: A pragmatic paradigm. In Moore, M.G., & Anderson, W.G. (eds.) Handbook of distance education. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved June 17, 2009 from .

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