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Transactional Distance Case Study

In this case study, we reviewed some dialogue between students on WhatsApp negotiating a new assignment, with the following questions in mind:

  1. What variables are impacting transactional distance?
  2. What could be done to offset these?
  3. What impact does this have on how assessments are crafted?

As always, there were some good comments from my classmates:

What variables are impacting transactional distance?

One student not even participating
Not enough guidelines for the assignment
Students feel frustrated with the lack of clarity from the tutor as well as the lack of participation from Stuart (other student)
Too much autonomy from the tutor and not enough communication
What could be done to offset these?

Active student is going to post to the discussion board to see what others think about the assignment and this would give a chance for the tutor to respond and to close the transitional distance
Also just for the tutor to be more communicative and to give a more detailed outline of what they would like from the assignment.
What impact does this have on how assessments are crafted?

I think if the guidelines are very vague it will mean a diverse range of assignment submissions from all the students. Maybe this is what the instructor would like? Or maybe the Instructor doesn’t even realize how vague they have been?

From personal experience as a student I would always get the most frustrated with my professors when they didn’t give clear guidelines as to what they wanted from our assignment. I think this will clear up a lot of the frustration and transactional distance if the tutor/instructor interacts and communicates more with their students.

There are a few things that seem not to work well for this online course and have as a result the transactional distance.

The teacher doesn’t put o lot of effort on creating well structured assignments for the students. There is a lot of ambiguity of what the assignment is asking for and when they need to submit it. It is really important to have a well structured assignment (both for on-line teaching and face-to-face teaching) so that students know what they need to do, how much time they have to work on it, when they need to submit. Also the teacher doesn’t have a lot of communication with the students; it seems they are unable to communicate with him/her and ask for clarifications.

Another is is the disengagement of the 3rd student. He doesn’t offer help in the assignments and doesn’t communicate with his group. He is completely off the radar. Could it be because of the poor structure of the course or he just doesn’t want to put a lot of effort? I can’t say for sure but his behavior is creating issues in his group and the other 2 students don’t know if they need to report it or not. They look unwilling to do it probably because they believe that the teacher won’t do anything about it.

I believe that in the interest of inclusivity assignment briefs should always be explicit. It’s not about providing a template or spoon feeding your students, it’s about being fair and getting the best out of your students. These students are wasting valuable time second guessing vague assignment guidelines. If this was a large cohort, the academic would more likely be bombarded with students emailing to ask for clarification on the assignment brief.

As a parent of a dsylexic teenager I have seen too many ambiguous homework questions that serve only to stifle thinking, creativity and confidence.

What variables are impacting transactional distance? Lack of guidance and structure. Student disengagement. Use of WhatsApp as opposed to discussion board

What could be done to offset these? Link back to Tutor to request clarity

What impact does this have on how assessments are crafted?

At what stage in programme of study Is this a recently formed group of students or are they well established ? A well established cohort of students may explain the lack of clarity and structure from tutor as regards the assignment. Perhaps the tutor was deliberately giving students free rein.

I don’t think an ambiguous assessment brief is particularly helpful even if it does spark discussion between students. Assessment literacy is not inherent, we learn it from experience, and students come from all sorts of learning backgrounds. If a student has never done the sort of assessment the course requires, they are not going to know how to begin interpreting and answering a vague assignment question. Should a student receive a lower mark for not understanding what was being asked of them?

The temporal and physical differences between the group members, plus different levels of motivation to do the work (plus all the other learner variables), are going to add to the challenge of discussing what an assignment is really asking and how the group are going to divide the work and complete it. Assessment design, from the assignment brief, to the format of the submission and the submission process can be informed by the fact the students will be using online tools and methods to do the work. I feel like we should make an assignment brief as accessible as possible, not try to make it harder for the students.

If a learning outcome is along the lines of problem solving/interpreting a brief as a team, then a deliberately vague assignment brief makes sense, but if the learning outcomes are the usual measuring of the ability to critically discuss or apply learning etc, a vague brief could look like poor design.

(Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay)

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