Darrell A. Dromgoole, Associate Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Scott Cummings, Associate Department Head and Program Leader; Professor and Extension Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Last week we discussed social costructivism, derivatives of the major learning theories, community of inquiry, and connectivism theories. In this installment of Next Step to Success we will discuss additional theoretical frameworks relevant to the pedagogical aspects of online education.
Just as no single learning theory has emerged for instruction in general, the same is true for online education. A number of theories have evolved, most of which derive from the major learning theories previously discussed. In this installment, several theories will be examined in terms of their appropriateness for the online environment.
Online collaborative learning (OCL) is a theory proposed by Linda Harasim (2012) that focuses on the accommodations of the Internet to provide learning environments that foster collaboration and knowledge building. Harasim describes OCL as: a new theory of learning that focuses on collaborative learning, knowledge building, and Internet use as a means to reshape formal, non-formal, and informal education for the Knowledge Age” (Harasim, 2012, p. 81). Like Siemens, Harasim (2012) recognizes the benefits of moving teaching and learning to the Internet and largescale networked education. In some respects, Harasim utilizes Alberto Barabasi’s opinion on the power of networks. In OCL, there exist three phases of knowledge construction through discourse in a group:
OCL also derives from social constructivism, since students are encouraged to collaboratively solve problems through discourse and where the educator plays the role of facilitator as well as learning community member (Picciano,2017). This is a major aspect of OCL but also of other constructivist theories where the educator is not necessarily separate and apart but rather, an active facilitator of, knowledge building (Picciano, 2017). Because of the importance of the role of the educator, OCL is not easy to scale up (Picciano, 2017). Unlike connectivism, which is suited for large-scale instruction, OCL is best situated in smaller instructional environments (Picciano, 2017).
Many other theories can be associated with online education but, rather than present more theories and in keeping with one of the major purposes of this article, it is appropriate to ask whether an integrated or unified theory of online education is possible.
As noted, Terry Anderson (2011) examined the possibility of building a theory of online education, starting with the assumption that it would be a difficult, and perhaps impossible, task. He approached this undertaking from a distance education perspective, having spent much of his career at Athabasca University, the major higher education distance education provider in Canada. While he acknowledged that many theorists and practitioners consider online learning as “a subset of learning in general” (Anderson, 2011, p. 46-47), he also stated:
online learning as a subset of distance education has always been concerned with provision of access to educational experience that is, at least more flexible in time and in space as campus-based education (Anderson, 2011, p. 53).
These two perspectives (subset of learning in general and subset of distance education) complicate any attempt to build a common theory of online education. Blended learning models, for instance, do not easily fit into the distance education schema, even though they are evolving as a prevalent component of traditional face-to-face and online education environments (Picciano, 2017).
Anderson considered a number of theories and models but focused on the well-respected work of Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) who posited that effective learning environments are framed within the convergence of four overlapping lenses: community-centeredness, knowledge-centeredness, learner-centeredness, and assessment centeredness. These lenses provided the foundational framework for Anderson’s approach to building an online education theory, as he examined in detail the characteristics and facilities that the Internet provides with regards to each of the four lenses (Picciano, 2017). Second, he noted that the Internet had evolved from a text-based environment to one in which all forms of media are supported and readily available (Picciano, 2017). He also accurately commented that the Internet’s hyperlink capacity is most compatible with the way human knowledge is stored and accessed (Picciano, 2017). In this regard, he referred to the work of Jonassen (1992) and Shank (1993) who associated hyperlinking with constructivism. Finally, Anderson extensively examined the importance of interaction in all forms of learning and referred to a number of mostly distance education theorists such as Holmberg (1989), Moore (1989), Moore and Kearsley (1996), and Garrison and Shale (1990). The essence of interaction among students, educators, and content is well understood and is referenced in many theories of education, especially constructivism. Anderson’s evaluation of interaction concludes that interactions are critical components of a theory.
With these three elements in mind (the Bransford, Brown, and Cocking lenses, the affordances and conveniences of the Internet, and interaction), Anderson then proceeded to construct a model (see Figure 1). He did add one important element by distinguishing community/collaborative models from self-paced instructional models, commenting that community/collaborative models and self-paced instructional models are inherently incompatible (Picciano, 2017). The community/collaborative models do not scale up easily because of the extensive interactions among educators and students (Picciano, 2017). On the other hand, the self-paced instructional models are designed for independent learning with much less interaction among students and educators (Picciano, 2017).
Figure 1. Anderson’s Online Learning Model as adapted for Extension education.
Figure 1 illustrates:
the two major human actors, learners and teachers, and their interactions with each other and with content. Learners can of course interact directly with content that they find in multiple formats, and especially on the Web; however, many choose to have their learning sequenced, directed, and evaluated with the assistance of a teacher. This interaction can take place within a community of inquiry, using a variety of Net-based synchronous and asynchronous activities…These environments are particularly rich, and allow for the learning of social skills, the collaborative learning of content, and the development of personal relationships among participants. However, the community binds learners in time, forcing regular sessions or at least group-paced learning. The second model of learning (on the right) illustrates the structured learning tools associated with independent learning. Common tools used in this mode include computer-assisted tutorials, drills, and simulations (Anderson, 2011, p. 61-62).
Figure 1 demonstrates the instructional flow within the two sides and represents the beginnings of a theory or model from the distance education perspective (Picciano, 2017). Anderson concluded that his model “will help us to deepen our understanding of this complex educational context” (Anderson, 2011, p. 68), which he noted needs to measure more fully the direction and magnitude of each input variable on relevant outcome variables.
Anderson also commented about the potential of the Internet for education delivery, and that an online learning-based theory or model could incorporate all other modes with the exception of the “rich face-to-face interaction in formal classrooms” (Anderson, 2011, p. 67). This becomes a dilemma for Anderson in trying to develop a common theory of online education in that it does not provide for in-person, face-to-face activity and is problematic for those who see online education as a subset of education in general (Picciano, 2017).
In the next installment of Next Step to Success blog we will continue to discuss more integrated theoretical frameworks relevant to the pedagogical aspects of online education in Extension.
Anderson, T. (2011). The theory and practice of online learning (2nd Edition). Edmonton, AB: AU Press.
Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind experience and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press/National Research Council. Retrieved from: http://www.colorado.edu/MCDB/LearningBiology/readings/Howpeople-learn.pdf.
Garrison, D.R. & Shale, D. (1990). Education at a distance: From issues to practice. Malabar: FL: Robert E. Krieger.
Harasim, L. (2012). Learning theory and online technologies. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
Holmberg, B. (1989). Theory and practice of distance education. London: Routledge.
Jonassen, D. (1992). Designing hypertext for learning. In E. Scanlon & T. O’Shea (Eds.), New directions in educational technology (pp. 123-130). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Moore, M. (1989). Three types of interaction. American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.
Moore, M. & Kearsley, G. (1996). Distance education: A systems view. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Picciano, A. (2017). Theories and frameworks for online education: Seeking an integrated model. Online Learning, 21(3), 166-190. doi: 10.24059/olj.v21i3.1225.
Shank, G. (1993). Abductive multiloguing: The semiotic dynamics of navigating the Net. The Arachnet Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture, 1(1). Retrieved from: http://serials.infomotions.com/aejvc/aejvc-v1n01-shank-abductive.txt.