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Center for Innovation in Teaching & Research
Member, Texas Tech University System The Princeton Review - 373 Best Colleges, 2011 Edition

Section 1.3 Theories of Education and the Online Environment

Theories about learning are mostly derived from psychology. While psychology describes how people act, educational theory describes how people learn (O’Neil et al., p. 17). An understanding of educational theories can assist us in the design and implementation of an effective online learning environment. Three prevalent theories are described below (O’Neil et al., pp. 17-20):

  • Behaviorism –  Behavior theorist  focus on observable behaviors, thus discounting independent activities of the mind. Behaviorism defines learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behavior based on environmental conditions.

The psychological theory of behaviorism is used as an educational theory when the learning experience is based on a stimulus and a response and by rewarding behavior that will meet the educational goal and ignoring (or correcting) behavior that is not goal directed. Large tasks are broken down into smaller tasks, and each task is learned in successive order. The process is called successive approximations. The traditional learning lab in which proper procedures are learned for a task is an example of behaviorist theory (p. 17).

  • Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) – In SCT, information is stored in schema. As new information is internalized, it is compared with existing information and knowledge. The schemas are then reorganized to accommodate the new information and thought patterns are altered. Sensory input is stored for several seconds, and the information disappears unless it is deemed important. If deemed important, the information will be stored in short-term memory. If the information continues to be important, it will be moved into long-term memory.

    Cognitive theory is used in the traditional classroom to impart information from the teacher to the student. The responsibility for learning lies with the student. A weakness of cognitive theory is its inability to explain human thought and learning (p. 19)
  • Constructivism – learning focuses on interpreting the world and in constructing meaning. Learning is active and reflective which means there is doing, then reflecting about the doing and then rethinking about the doing. Action and reflection enables the student to integrate new knowledge with existing knowledge and experiences so that complex mental models can form. Learning is authentic, complex, and contextualized, resembling real-life experiences. Constructivist learning is process oriented and emphasizes collaboration and conversation among learners and teachers.

In the constructivist approach, instruction is inductive and from the bottom, up. The instructor is a model and a coach who encourages exploration of ideas in learner-centered and learner-generated environment. Constructivism engages learners in an active learning process.

Although lectures may be well-written and well-delivered, they often pass from the ear to the hand leaving the mind untouched. The active learning process places responsibility on the learner and lends itself to a wider range of learning styles. If the student is to construct meaning from content, faculty, activities, and peers, then learning environments must be rich with strategies and resources (pp. 19-20).

The way an online learning environment is designed is largely affected by the teacher’s philosophy of learning and understanding of educational learning theories. As educators, it is important we reflect upon the nature of how people learn and consciously utilize educational theory as the foundation to construct meaningful learning experiences in our online classrooms.

In order for meaningful learning to occur according to Jonassen, Howland, Marra and Crismond (2008), the task that students pursue should engage active, constructive, intentional, authentic, and cooperative activities. Rather than testing inert knowledge, educators should help students to learn to recognize and solve problems, comprehend new phenomena, construct mental models of those phenomena, and given a new situation, set goals and regulate their own learning (learn how to learn) (p. 2).

Incorporating a constructivist approach to designing and implementing online learning can provide the instructor and student with a variety of learning opportunities achieving the objective of  meaningful learning. Figure 1.1 below is a representation of Jonassen’s characteristics of meaningful learning (Jonassen et al., p. 3).

Characteristics Meaningful Learning
Figure 1.1 Characteristics of Meaningful Learning