Advantages of Peer Interaction in Online Learning


One of the most important ways students learn in online courses is through peer-to-peer interaction.  In my experience with traditional classrooms, there were far more lectures and much student involvement.  The professors spoke “at us” in traditional courses. In online courses, there is more of a group discussion. Students receive the professor’s perspective as well as viewpoints from every student in the course.  In my opinion, this makes for a much more interesting and interactive classroom.

Not all students are fans of lecture-based learning.  MOOCs may experience high dropout rates due to their lecture-based format. According to the article MOOCs: Will Online Courses Help More Students Stay in School, “Critics of MOOCs are quick to point out their low completion rates (fewer than 7% of students complete the courses on average). They also note that the courses take the ineffective lecture format and make it the primary mode of learning.”

The types of online courses I have taught rely very little, if at all, on lectures.  The courses include more peer interaction and written assignments. The peer interaction revolves around discussion questions.  There are usually at least two discussion topics posted each week.  Students must respond to the initial question and respond to their peers’ postings as well.  This requires students to address the question, discover other students’ perspectives, and develop critical thinking skills.

Students’ responses to their peers must include substantive comments and well-constructed follow-up questions.  These questions often develop the conversation and create a dialogue.  Every student can see these discussions.  Every student can interject their comments.  It creates a pool of information that would not be provided to students in a lecture hall.  It allows for much more depth to the exploration of the topic.

In a traditional course, the professor may give their insight and opinions about a topic.  In an online course, this is possible as well. What is different is the amount of interaction required by the students.  Granted, things may have changed since I took traditional courses in the 80’s.  However, based on what I read and what I hear from my students, traditional college courses have not changed that much.  I believe that is why there is such an interest in MOOCs.  They add a new dimension that traditional courses have lacked.  However, MOOCs may not provide the peer interaction is the same way that regular online classes can.  The reason for this is due to the number of students in class.  MOOCs are massive.  Most online courses I teach include fewer than 20 students. When there are too many students, the discussions become overwhelming and no one takes the time to read all of the postings.

The best part of peer interaction is that students can learn from everyone’s experiences. Many online students have had decades of experience. This provides a wealth of knowledge that may be added to the professor’s perspective.  This allows everyone, including the professor, to garner important insight.

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