Online learning theory

Terry Anderson (2008) has edited a book on The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Most chapter authors are by staff at Athabascau university, or are paired with other authors, sharing insights and best practices most likely from their experience with delivering online learning.

Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism,
and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism
(Elias and Merriam as cited by Hanuka, p.90)


Here is a summary of some of the chapters that focus on theory of online learning:

Introduction by Terry Anderson

  • the 5th generation of distance education brings with it Web 2.0 ideas but does not stand along. It blends with the other generations. 
  • the Net has changed formal education

Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning by M. Ally.

  • in order for instructors to develop and teach online, they must know the principles of learning and how students learn
  • online learning draws on a combination of theories such as behaviouralism (what/facts), cognitive psychology (how/process), constructivism (why/self interpretation), and connectivism (learning through networks).
  • teaching strategies should “motivate learners, facilitate deep processing, build the whole person, cater to individual differences, promote meaningful learning, encourage interaction, provide relevant feedback, facilitate contextual learning, and provide support during the learning process” (pp.18-19).
  • the design of individual learning objects will become prevalent and be designed/redesigned for online learning

 Towards a Theory of Learning by T. Anderson

  • Four concepts contribute to a good learning environment per Bransford, Brown & Cocking (1999): it is learner-centered (includes learner, institution, instructor, society); knowledge-centred;  assessment-centred; and community-centred (collaboration)
  • Terry has found a “wide variation in expectations of learners towards participation in a community of learners” (p.51)
  • this might be due to “the higher and richer the form of communication, the more restrictions are placed on independence” (p.56); as well, community can bind time for learners as with group work (p. 61)
  • “the flexibility of virtual communities allows for more universal participation, but a single environment that responds to all students’ needs does not exist. Thus, the need for variations that accommodate the diverse needs of learners and teachers at different stages of their life cycles is necessary” (and I would add: stage of online experience, and time since last in a formal program)
  • the affordances of the web includes communication and information management tools that aid flexible time and space, access, different types of exchanges, constructive learning, learner control, peer tutoring and support, customization, learner vs teacher participation, tagging, social software, self-organizing capacities, and the Semantic web (user and agent driven)
  • knowledge can be created through many networks (Dron, 2007)
  • consider the interactions between students – content – instructor and between themselves; whereas, “sufficient levels of deep and meaningful learning can be developed as long as one of the three forms of interaction is at very high levels” (p.66)
  • Thus, rich interaction and engagement can be established through diverse teaching and learning strategies that focus on the learner, the community, flexibility, and intentional construction that considers the needs of learners, the role of the instructor, the use of content, meaningful uses of technology, and the networked world.

Understanding E-Learning Technologies-in-Practice through Philosophies-in-Practice, by H. Kanuka

  • how we perceive teaching and learning (our philosophy-in-practice) will determine if and how we choose e-learning technologies
  • are technologies neutral? (ie. McLuhan, Clark)
  • philosophies of technology: user determinism (tech is neutral and users determine/control their effect; instrumentalism); social determinism (tech uses are affected by social structures); technological determinism (tech determines our uses and changes society – good/bad effects, disruptive tech catalyst of change, influences postmodernism) 
  • philosophies of teaching: liberal (search for truth, develop moral people, lecture, teacher-driven); progressive (personal growth, democratic cooperation, pragmatic, learner-driven);  behaviourist (observable changes, mastery learning, content-driven); humanist (self-actualization, freedom, autonomy, self-directed learning, affective vs cognitive); radical (invoke change with action; ideal speech, collective dialogue); analytical (develop rationality, content focus)
  • considering one’s philosophy of teaching influences how technology is used. The matching of these philosophies is unique and gives a clearer view of the diversity of teaching with technology. It also gives permission for those instructors that do not see the medium as the message as with technological determinism. Can we not continue to teach in rich ways online that do not take into account the semantic network, networked learning, Web 2.0 and the other evolving ways to create and interact online?

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