Vicarious Interaction in an Online Learning Environment

What is vicarious interaction?

Typically, in a traditional classroom, a teacher asks a question, and a student answers it. This interaction takes place on a single student at a time, and is a highly interactive and important part of the educational experience for students. Within this type of interaction, the understanding of a concept, or the correct of a misconception or help to clarify an idea occurs. This interaction can be defined as vicarious interaction, or the proper definition, interaction that occurs when a learner observes and processes direct interactions among other learners and the instructor.

Leah Sutton, author of “The Principle of Vicarious Interaction in Computer-Mediated Communications” suggests that, even though online discussions are different from face-to-face discussions, the same principles can apply to asynchronous discussion online, and that direct participation in online discussion is not necessary for all students all of the time. The students that actively observe and process both sides of direct interactions among others will benefit from vicarious interaction.

In Sutton’ study of students behaviors in online discussion, four different type of interactors emerged:

1. Direct Interactors – students who directly interacted with other students and/or the instructor.

2. Vicarious Interactors – interaction that processes reciprocity between interactors.

3. Actors – students who provided unilateral input regardless of the reactions or comments of others.

4. Non-Actors – students who did not participate in the communication process.

The study determined that students learn almost as much from vicarious interaction as from direct interaction, and more from vicarious interaction than from either action or non-action. Vicarious interactors attend to and process their classmates messages, as well as anticipate reinforcement. Actors only produce without attending or processing, which prevents them from learning in online discussions. And of course. non-actors, ultimately learn nothing.

In conclusion, Sutton says that direct interaction in online discussion is not necessary for all students as long as they observe and actively process the interactions of others.  She recommends vicarious interaction for students who are passive or reluctant to participate in overt interaction. Overall, vicarious interaction in online environments support similar learning outcomes found in those from traditional face-to-face interaction.