Monday, July 11, 2011

The difficulty in developing a learning theory around online learning

To start, let’s back this up a bit … and explore some questions that arise from this blog title:
1)      What exactly is a learning theory?
2)      What are the difficulties in developing a new learning theory?
3)      Are there really difficulties (or did someone just come up with that)?
According to Driscoll, a learning theory “is a set of laws or principles about learning” (p. 2) that begins when we ask questions about learners and learning.  That seems simple enough. Start with questions. In education, we all have questions … a lot of them so this isn’t a problem at all.
Then, researchers follow up with systematic observations to help formulate reasonable answers to these questions. Again, this seems pretty straightforward. Ask questions. Observe. Find some answers. Reasonable answers, that is. They need to make sense.
Following that … repeat observations to make sure the answers work. Repeat again … and again (just to make sure!). “A learning theory, then, should explain the results associated with learning and predict its occurrence in the future” (Driscoll, p. 4.). The results should happen again. Then a learning theory can start to form.
So, what seems to be the problem in developing a theory about online learning? Or, is there really even a problem?
Guri-Rosenblit seems to think so. Certainly, there have been gads of studies done in area of online learning. But Guri-Rosenblit’s review of research in this area reveals that the findings of many studies are contradictory and inconsistent with each other. This has led to some heated debates among researchers as they defend their own results.
This undoubtedly makes for some exciting conversations around the educational water cooler … but it begs the questions, “Why are the results different?” and “How does this affect the formulation of a theory for online learning?”
Guri-Rosenblit explored numerous studies and found discrepancies in the meaning of e-learning. Part of the problem, then, lies in the different types of e-learning definitions.
For some, e-learning is technology-driven and definitions include reference to electronic media and multi-media in playing a critical role in improving the learning experience for students.
Others view e-learning as a delivery method, using technology to deliver educational or training programs.
Still other researchers explore e-learning as an opportunity to provide communication and interaction (teacher-student, student-student, student-content). Through discussion and conversation, learning takes place.
Finally, e-learning is also viewed as an educational paradigm where student-centered learning takes place in a well-designed online environment. Openness, flexibility, and interactivity form the backbone of this view of e-learning interpretation.
This “Tower of Babel" syndrome results “from the fact that people refer to totally different roles and functions while using the same generic terms, and vice versa – use many different terms to describe the same phenomena.” (Guri-Rosenblit) Confusion over the definition of e-learning is a major hurdle when developing a common framework for understanding online learning. It’s sort of like comparing apples to oranges to kiwi! It’s pretty hard to replicate and/or compare research results when talking about different fruit!
And does this matter anyways? Does learning theory have “real-life” application for the regular classroom teacher??
It sure does! As an educator developing online learning courses, I am interested in how my students learn in this environment. I want to design the best possible online experience for my students, based on sound research. But how can I implement the most effective research-based practices when there is disagreement about those practices?
Where do we go from here in opening up dialogue among researchers? How do we get on the same page, so to speak?
Guri-Rosenblit’s recommendations for researchers seem like a good place to start. These include:
-          clearly explaining the exact roles of the technology
-          describing the environment where implementation takes place (e.g. campus-based, distance teaching or blended learning)
-          explaining if the technology is used to support or replace traditional practices.
Once we are all speaking the same “language”, perhaps we can move forward in constructing a common theory for online learning.  

Driscoll, Marcy P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction. (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.
Guri-Rosenblit S., GROS, B.. E-Learning: Confusing Terminology, Research Gaps and Inherent Challenges. The Journal of Distance Education / Revue de l'Éducation à Distance, North America, 25, mar. 2011.
Available at: Date accessed: 08 Jul. 2011.


  1. I feel your pain. In most research you will find contradictory results, but it seems to be particularly true of e-learning. If you get a chance, take a look at the work done by Phil Abrami and Bob Bernard (Concordia University), where they've been wrestling with extracting what we really know from research in distance learning. They did a massive meta-analysis ( of studies comparing traditional classroom and distance education instruction.

    I think one of the biggest challenges in this kind of research, and subsequently in the development and testing of theory in the area, is that the contexts of learning are complex and different...and probably should be. They aren't controlled, so we can't see clearly what happens when we juke around with a variable or two to find out what effect they might have. So it is difficult to come up with a reliable set of "laws" and "principles" as Driscoll requests.

    Maybe we're looking at the wrong things? Maybe instead of large, omnibus containers such as e-learning, or classroom instruction, which can take on so many different forms, we should be looking at the things happening inside those contexts. For example, Anderson, Garrison & Archer (good Albertans) have developed the community of inquiry model to try to capture how learners interact in distance learning systems. Have a look-- it's good stuff ( Using their model, it is possible to isolate some features, such as social presence, and look for ways it influences learning. This is good theory building, because we can take something like social presence and start examining how it plays out in different contexts (the same differing contexts that are so problematic in the first place).

    Just a couple of thoughts. You're off to a very fast start with this blog! I'm looking forward to seeing where you take it!

  2. Rick -
    I had a chance to look at Abrami and Bernard's meta-analysis comparing traditional classroom and distance education instruction.
    I like the point that the new technologies do not change the goals of education - one of which is to have students demonstrate mastery of content.
    The definition of distance learning as a course where we expect the student(s) and the instructor to be separated is simple, but effective. Other than that, the role of the instructor is still the same. It is the pedagogy and tools, in particular tools for communication, that change.
    I was interested to read that Allen's study (2002)found a 22% decrease in student satisfaction when comparing distance delivery to traditional classrooms. That seems quite significant and certinaly points to the importance of those "other" factors - like interaction - in online courses.
    Finally, an observation from the perspective of an online learner: through this grad program, I have "met" many classmates in a virtual setting and a handful f2f. It seems easy to jump into discussions online, whereas in f2f, the process of building relationships and perhaps a feeling of comfort and trust, takes more time. Is this just a product of my own learning style, or something that you find (generally speaking) to happen? Or is it a result of having taken a few classes at this point that my own comfort level is high in the online setting? hmmm ...
    - Jade

  3. Thanks for sharing, it's a nice job and really appriciated.
    Distance Learning