Originally started as a course reflection for my Graduate Studies program at the University of Saskatchewan, this blog has shifted into a space where I share my ramblings and rumblings about education from my "lens" as an principal in a rural school division, as a colleague and a mother, and from my conversations with lots of great people who just don't happen to be educators in the formal sense. Meaningful discussion is always welcome.
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’sreview 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: http://www.jofde.ca/index.php/jde/article/view/729/1206. Date accessed: 08 Jul. 2011.