It’s almost a month since the last post from the first draft of my thesis. So, after much time away here’s the next installment. It’s probably rougher than previous versions – which says something – I’m still getting back into the swing of things.

The following is meant to be a description of learning theory within the context of e-learning at universities. It’s not a complete or in-depth examination of learning theories. Instead, it tries to illustrate that what we know about learning theory (in the broadest possible definition) is hugely complicated, diverse and ever changing. The intent is to argue that this is in direct contrast to characteristics of the common approach taken by universities to support e-learning. That is, an approach that focuses on stability and inflexibility.

Learning theories

The previous section (Section 2.8.1) argued that the quality of student learning within a university context is heavily influenced by the thinking, planning and strategies adopted by the pedagogues responsible for individual courses. This section seeks to summarise the research, literature and theories that have arisen to guide the thinking of pedagogues around learning. The following section cannot do justice to complexity, diversity, breadth and depth of research into learning. Explanatory accounts of learning range across culture, biology and cognition providing a multitude of theoretical perspectives drawing on different methodological traditions and bringing different educational phenomena into focus (Bell 2004). The scientific literature on cognition, learning, development, culture and the brain are voluminous (Bransford, Brown et al. 2000). Education, like other branches of the social sciences, has no single, unifying mature theory, instead theories, ideas and approaches coexist in various states of cohesion and tension (Dillon and Ahlberg 2006). There are many schools of thought on learning, and no one school is used exclusively to design e-learning (Ally 2004).

Given the diversity of perspectives, methodologies and schools of research associated with a variety of perspectives of learning, it is beyond the scope of this thesis to give a complete accounting of the research around learning. Instead the aim of this section is to establish the diversity, complexity, uncertainty and contradictions inherent in this research as it applies to the practice of e-learning within universities. This starts with a description the four levels of learning “theory” before a brief discussion of technology and learning theory.

The four levels of learning “theory”

Given the diversity of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives related to learning even defining learning and learning theory can be difficult. Definitions of learning differ based on approach and intended purpose and often reveal more about the perspective from which the person offering the definition sees learning (Siemens 2006). Definitions of what a learning theory is will likely differ between psychologists, computer scientists, instructional designers and other disciplines. However, it is possible to extract from literature such as Ertmer and Newby (1993) four levels or perspectives on learning “theory” or research. These four levels are: epistemology, descriptive theories from science, learning theories, and instructional design theories. Each of these four levels is briefly examined below with particular emphasis on the diversity, complexity and ever-changing nature of views within each.

Epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge and how we come to know things (Driscoll 1994), what does it mean to know (Siemens 2006). Ertmer and Newby (1993) in examining the connection between epistemology and learning theory identify two fundamental perspectives of epistemology: empiricism – the view that experience is the primary source of knowledge – and rationalism – the view that knowledge derives from reason without the aid of the senses. Performing a similar task, Driscoll (2000) adds a third epistemological perspectives of nativism – the belief that knowledge is innate or present at birth. Pallas (2001) identifies the proliferation of epistemologies as one of the most confusing developments in educational research over the past quarter-century and goes on to list a “welter of names” – positivism, naturalism, postpositivism, empiricism, relativism, feminist standpoint epistemology, foundationalism, and postmodernism.

Descriptive theories from science arise from disciplines including, but not limited to, the various branches of psychology, neuroscience, and biology that seek to understand how various aspects of human learning function. Seidel, Perencevich and Allyson (2005) argue that psychology can provide descriptive laws that describe how cognitive development, learning, meta-cognition and other elements of learning actually occur. Driscoll (1994) illustrates the influence of disciplinary perspectives by illustrating how behavioural, cognitive and social psychologists develop different views of learning. The contribution of theories arising from science is not limited to learning theory. Goldman (1986) argues that an understanding of the architecture of the human mind-brain is essential for primary epistemology. He continues to argue that epistemology, the history of which has shown strong currents against being interdisciplinary, should be a multidisciplinary affair (Goldman 1986).

Learning theories seek to provide insight into the act of learning (Siemens 2006). A learning theory comprises a set of constructs linking observed changes in performance with what is though to bring about those changes (Driscoll 1994). Discussions of different learning theories (e.g. Ertmer and Newby 1993; Driscoll 1994) tend to focus on three distinct viewpoints: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. These learning theories link closely to the three different perspectives of behavioural, cognitive and social psychologists mentioned in the previous paragraph. Historically it can be seen that, the cognitive perspective overthrew behaviourism in the 1950s and 1960s and also underwent a major shift in the 1980s and 1990s towards constructivism (Mayer 1996).

The on-going historical development of learning theories has not stopped. Mayer (1996) suggests that a fourth metaphor is likely with possibilities arising from either an assimilation and accommodation between the existing metaphors, or from an entirely new approach. One such entirely new approach may be provided by connectivism, a theory describing how learning happens in a digital age (Siemens 2005; Siemens 2006) based on the epistemological foundation of connective knowledge (Downes 2006). Table 2.3 provides a summary of the three existing broadly accepted learning theories and connectivism.

Table 2.3 – Learning theories (adapted from Siemens, 2006)
Property Behaviourism Cognitivism Constructivism Connectivism
How does learning occur? Black box—observable behaviour main focus Structured, computational Social, meaning created by each learner (personal) Distributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns
Influencing factors Nature of reward, punishment, stimuli Existing schema, previous experiences Engagement, participation, social, cultural Diversity of network
What is the role of memory? Memory is the hardwiring of repeated experiences—where reward and punishment are most influential Encoding, storage, retrieval Prior knowledge remixed to current context Adaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks
How does transfer occur? Stimulus, response Duplicating knowledge constructs of “knower” Socialization Connecting to (adding) nodes
Types of learning best explained Task-based learning Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving Social, vague (“ill defined”) Complex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources

Table 2.3 does not capture the full diversity of learning theories. Mayer (1996) describes the six versions of constructivism identified by Steffe and Gale (1995) as “social constructivism, radical constructivism, social constructionism, information-processing constructivism, cybernetic systems, and sociocultural approaches”. Further, when the three main theories are closely analysed it becomes apparent that there are many overlaps in the ideas and principles (Ally 2004). Classifications of learning theories and theorists are contradictory (Siemens 2006) and confusing due to the use of different labels for categories, the grouping of major models and theorists in different categories and the use of vague concepts. Identifying where within the basic learning paradigms a particular theorists fits can be confusing due to theorists and their ideas evolving over time and subsequent changes to their ideas (Sackney and Mergel 2007). Rather than three competing theories, these can be though of as a taxonomony of learning with behaviourism being used to teach the “what”, cognitivism the “how” and constructivism the “why” (Ertmer and Newby 1993).

Instructional design theories are prescriptive theories that offer explicit guidance on how to better help people learn and develop (Reigeluth 1999). The origins of formal instructional design procedures have been traced back to the development of military training materials during the Second World War (Reiser 2001). Interest grew strongly during the 1970s and 1980s with a large increase in the number of instructional design models (Reiser 2001). Perhaps forming the basis for Postman (1995) claiming that while educators were once famous for providing reasons for learning, they had now become famous for inventing a method. Leading to a situation where the initial impression of these theories is one of diversity, followed by being perplexed by so many theories being at odds with one another (Duchastel 1998).

As a source of further complication, Shulman (1986) introduces the idea of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) that argues that treating a pedagogue’s content knowledge and the pedagogue’s knowledge of pedagogy as mutually exclusive domains resulted in teacher education that emphasised one over the other. PCK is the blending of knowledge about content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular aspects of content knowledge are best organised, adapted and represented within instruction (Mishra and Koehler 2006). Treating this knowledge as separate is not sufficient for capturing the knowledge good teachers require (Shulman 1986). Numerous research studies such that no optimal pedagogy is effective regardless of the subject matter (Dede 2008).

The above has sought to illustrate that “learning theory” consists of theoretical perspectives from at least four different levels. Each of those levels is characterised by significant diversity and in some cases confusion. In addition, some of the levels impact upon other levels in unexpected ways. The next section briefly discusses what happens when technology is added to pedagogy.

Technology and learning theory

There exist many different conceptual frameworks for describing the relationships among learning theories, pedagogical strategies, instructional designs and information and communication technologies (Dede 2008). E-learning, in general, does not change the fundamental process of learning (Bates 2004). However, research into how people learn online is in its infancy and further research is needed to provide insight into how to develop engaging and effective online learning environments in higher education (Herrington, Reeves et al. 2005). Writing in 2004, Bates (2004) suggested that since the use of the web for learning and teaching is less than ten years old, its application of learning and teaching was still evolving.

What research had been done suggested that the three established learning theories (behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism) all provide principles that can be used to design online instruction (Ally 2004). Any given pedagogical tool may incorporate perspectives from any of these three intellectual positions (Dede 2008). The actual applications of e-learning are highly dependent on the teacher’s epistemological preferences and their chosen pedagogy (Bates 2004).

In extending Shulman’s (1986) work on pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) into the concept of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK), Mischa and Koehler (2006) argue that

there is no single technological solution that applies for every teacher, every course, or every view of teaching”. Quality teaching requires developing a nuanced understanding of the complex relationships between technology, content, and pedagogy, and using this understanding to develop appropriate, context-specific strategies and representations. Productive technology integration in teaching needs to consider all three issues not in isolation, but rather within the complex relationships in the system defined by the three key elements.

Dede (2008) makes a similar point that no application of technology to learning and teaching is universally good. Instead the best approach is to analyse the nature of the curriculum, students, and teachers in order to select the appropriate tools, applications, media and environments (Dede 2008).


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