Peer interaction: the experience of distance students at university level

Ferguson, R. (2010). Peer interaction: the experience of distance students at university level. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(6) pp. 574–584.



Learning is increasingly seen as a transformative process which takes place in a social setting (Mezirow 2000). This active view of learning focuses on how people learn together in different groups, including communities of inquiry, communities of interest, and communities of practice (Wenger 1998; Lipman 2003; Jones & Preece 2006). Socio-cultural researchers have demonstrated that thinking and learning together are related processes shaped by culture and context (Wells & Claxton 2002; Mercer 2004; Mercer & Littleton 2007). From this perspective, interaction, in the sense of a ‘sustained two-way communication among two or more persons for purposes of explaining and challeng- ing perspectives’, is inextricably linked with learning; ‘without critical interaction there is no way to facilitate critical learning’ (Garrison 1993, pp. 14 and 16).
Accepted: 11 September 2010 Correspondence: Rebecca Ferguson, Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, UK. Email:
This study investigates how university students on distance learning courses experience inter- action with their peers. Students on two distance learning courses at The Open University (UK) were interviewed, to investigate learners’ experience of interaction on these courses. The analy- sis, using a grounded-theory approach, reveals disparities between course designers’ and stu- dents’ reasons for integrating computer-mediated interaction within the courses. It draws attention to the significant affective challenges that online students face when working together, and demonstrates a need to pay attention to their problems with self-presentation. The study also reinforces the socio-cultural view that it is important to consider the various contexts in which online learning takes place. Distance students have opportunities to structure their own learning contexts, and this allows them to source face-to-face learning interaction and other forms of support as they engage with individuals in their everyday environment.

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