November 24, 2015

A short history of educational technology

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Charlton Heston as Moses: what language is used on the tablets?

Charlton Heston as Moses. Are the tablets of stone an educational technology? (See Selwood, 2014, for a discussion of the possible language of the Ten Commandments)

The first section of my chapter on ‘Understanding Technology in Education’ for my open textbook on Teaching in a Digital Age was a brief introduction to the challenge of choosing technologies in education. This section aims to provide a little historical background. This will not be anything new to most readers of this blog, but remember the the book is not aimed at educational technologists or instructional designers, but at regular classroom teachers, instructors and professors.

Particularly in recent years, technology has changed from being a peripheral factor to becoming more central in all forms of teaching. Nevertheless, arguments about the role of technology in education go back at least 2,500 years.  To understand better the role and influence of technology on teaching, we need a little history, because as always there are lessons to be learned from history. Paul Saettler’s ‘The Evolution of American Educational Technology’ (1990) is one of the most extensive historical accounts, but only goes up to 1989. A lot has happened since then. I’m giving you here the postage stamp version, and a personal one at that.

Technology has always been closely linked with teaching. According to the Bible, Moses used chiseled stone to convey the ten commandments, probably around the 7th century BC. But it may be more helpful to summarise educational technology developments in terms of the main modes of communication.

Oral communication

One of the earliest means of formal teaching was oral – though human speech – although over time, technology has been increasingly used to facilitate or ‘back-up’ oral communication. In ancient times, stories, folklore, histories and news were transmitted and maintained through oral communication, making accurate memorization a critical skill, and the oral tradition is still the case in many aboriginal cultures. For the ancient Greeks, oratory and speech were the means by which people learned and passed on learning. Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey were recitative poems, intended for public performance. To be learned, they had to be memorized by listening, not by reading, and transmitted by recitation, not by writing.

Nevertheless, by the fifth century B.C, written documents existed in considerable numbers in ancient Greece. If we believe Socrates, education has been on a downward spiral ever since. According to Plato, Socrates caught one of his students (Phaedrus) pretending to recite a speech from memory that in fact he had learned from a written version. Socrates then told Phaedrus the story of how the god Theuth offered the King of Egypt the gift of writing, which would be a ‘recipe for both memory and wisdom’. The king was not impressed. According to the king,

‘it [writing] will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they will rely on what is written, creating memory not from within themselves, but by means of external symbols. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow men.’

Phaedrus, 274c-275, translation adapted from Manguel, 1996

I can just hear some of my former colleagues saying the same thing about social media.

The term ‘lecture’, which comes from the Latin ‘to read’, is believed to originate from professors in medieval times reading from the scrolled manuscripts handwritten by monks (around 1200 AD). Because the process of writing on scrolls was so labour intensive, the library would usually have only one copy, so students were usually forbidden direct access to the manuscripts. Thus scarcity of one technology tends to drive the predominance of other technologies.

Slate boards were in use in India in the 12th century AD, and blackboards/chalkboards became used in schools around the turn of the 18th century. At the end of World War Two the U.S. Army started using overhead projectors for training, and their use became common for lecturing, until being largely replaced by electronic projectors and presentational software such as Powerpoint around 1990. This may be the place to point out that most technologies used in education were not developed specifically for education but for other purposes (mainly business.)

Although the telephone dates from the late 1870s, the standard telephone system never became a major educational tool, not even in distance education, because of the high cost of analogue telephone calls for multiple users, although audio-conferencing has been used to supplement other media since the 1970s.  Video-conferencing using dedicated cable systems and dedicated conferencing rooms have been in use since the 1980s. The development of video compression technology and relatively low cost video servers in the early 2000s led to the introduction of lecture capture systems for recording and streaming classroom lectures in 2008. Webinars now are used largely for delivering lectures over the Internet.

None of these technologies though changes the oral basis of communication for teaching.

Written communication

The role of text or writing in education also has a long history. Even though Socrates is reported to have railed against the use of writing, written forms of communication make analytic, lengthy chains of reasoning and argument much more accessible, reproducible without distortion, and thus more open to analysis and critique than the transient nature of speech. The invention of the printing press in Europe in the 15th century was a truly disruptive technology, making written knowledge much more freely available, very much in the same way as the Internet has done today. As a result of the explosion of written documents resulting from the mechanization of printing, many more people in government and business were required to become literate and analytical, which led to a rapid expansion of formal education in Europe. There were many reasons for the the development of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and triumph of reason and science over superstition and beliefs, but the technology of printing was a key agent of change.

Improvements in transport infrastructure in the 19th century, and in particular the creation of a cheap and reliable postal system in the 1840s, led to the development of the first formal correspondence education, with the University of London offering an external degree program by correspondence from 1858. This first formal distance degree program still exists today in the form of the University of London International Program. In the 1970s, the Open University transformed the use of print for teaching through specially designed, highly illustrated printed course units that integrated learning activities with the print medium, based on advanced instructional design.

With the development of web-based learning management systems in the mid-1990s, textual communication, although digitized, became, at least for a brief time, the main communication medium for Internet-based learning, although lecture capture is now changing that.

Broadcasting and video

BBC television studio and radio transmitter, Alexandra Palace, London  Image: © Copyright Oxyman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

BBC television studio and radio transmitter, Alexandra Palace, London
Image: © Copyright Oxyman and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began broadcasting educational radio programs for schools in the 1920s. The first adult education radio broadcast from the BBC in 1924 was a talk on Insects in Relation to Man, and in the same year, J.C. Stobart, the new Director of Education at the BBC, mused about ‘a broadcasting university’ in the journal Radio Times (Robinson, 1982).Television was first used in education in the 1960s, for schools and for general adult education (one of the six purposes in the current BBC’s Royal Charter is still ‘promoting education and learning’).

In 1969, the British government established the Open University (OU), which worked in partnership with the BBC to develop university programs open to all, using a combination originally of printed materials specially designed by OU staff, and television and radio programs made by the BBC but integrated with the courses. It should be noted that although the radio programs involved mainly oral communication, the television programs did not use lectures as such, but focused more on the common formats of general television, such as documentaries, demonstration of processes, and cases/case studies (see Bates, 1985). In other words, the BBC focused on the unique ‘affordances’ of television, a topic that will be discussed in much more detail later. Over time, as new technologies such as audio- and video-cassettes were introduced, live broadcasting, especially radio, was cut back for OU programs, although there are still some general educational channels broadcasting around the world (e.g. TVOntario in Canada; PBS, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel in the USA).

The use of television for education quickly spread around the world, being seen in the 1970s by some, particularly in international agencies such as the World Bank and UNESCO, as a panacea for education in developing countries, the hopes for which quickly faded when the realities of lack of electricity, cost, security of publicly available equipment, climate, resistance from local  teachers, and local language and cultural issues became apparent. Satellite broadcasting started to become available in the 1980s, and similar hopes were expressed of delivering ‘university lectures from the world’s leading universities to the world’s starving masses’, but these hopes too quickly faded for similar reasons. However, India, which had launched its own satellite, INSAT, in 1983, used it initially for delivering locally produced educational television programs throughout the country, in several indigenous languages, using Indian-designed receivers and television sets in local community centres as well as schools. India is still using satellites for tele-education into the poorest parts of the country at the time of writing (2014).

In the 1990s the cost of creating and distributing video dropped dramatically due to digital compression and high-speed Internet access.  This reduction in the costs of recording and distributing video also led to the development of lecture capture systems. The development of lecture capture technology allows students to view or review lectures at any time and place with an Internet connection. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started making its recorded lectures available to the public, free of charge, via its OpenCourseWare project, in 2002.  YouTube started in 2005 and was bought by Google in 2006. YouTube is increasingly being used for short educational clips that can be downloaded and integrated into online courses. The Khan Academy started using YouTube in 2006 for recorded voice-over lectures using a digital blackboard for equations and illustrations. Apple Inc. in 2007 created iTunesU to became a portal or a site where videos and other digital materials on university teaching could be collected and downloaded free of charge by end users.

Until lecture capture arrived, learning management systems had integrated basic educational design features, but this required instructors to redesign their classroom-based teaching to fit the LMS environment. Lecture capture on the other hand required no changes to the standard lecture model, and in a sense reverted back to primarily oral communication supported by Powerpoint or even writing on a chalkboard. Thus oral communication remains as strong today in education as ever, but has been incorporated into or accommodated by new technologies.

Computer technologies

Computer-based learning

In essence the development of programmed learning aims to computerize teaching, by structuring information, testing learners’ knowledge, and providing immediate feedback to learners, without human intervention other than in the design of the hardware and software and the selection and loading of content and assessment questions. B.F. Skinner started experimenting with teaching machines that made use of programmed learning in 1954, based on the theory of behaviourism (see Chapter 3, Section 3.2.). Skinner’s teaching machines were one of the first forms of computer-based learning. There has been a recent revival of programmed learning approaches as a result of MOOCs, since machine based testing scales much more easily than human-based assessment.

PLATO was a generalized computer assisted instruction system originally developed at the University of Illinois, and, by the late 1970s, comprised several thousand terminals worldwide on nearly a dozen different networked mainframe computers (Wikipedia). It was in fact a highly successful system, lasting almost 40 years, and incorporated key on-line concepts: forums, message boards, online testing, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multi-player games.

Attempts to replicate the teaching process through artificial intelligence (AI) began in the mid-1980s, with a focus initially on teaching arithmetic. Despite large investments of research in AI for teaching over the last 30 years, the results generally have been disappointing. It has proved difficult for machines to cope with the extraordinary variety of ways in which students learn (or fail to learn.) Recent developments in cognitive science and neuroscience are being watched closely but at the time of writing the gap is still great between the basic science, and analysing or predicting specific learning behaviours from the science.

More recently we have seen the development of adaptive learning, which analyses learners’ responses then re-directs them to the most appropriate content area, based on their performance. Learning analytics, which also collects data about learner activities and relates them to other data, such as student performance, is a related development. These developments will be discussed in further detail in Section 8.7.

Computer networking

Arpanet in the U.S.A was the first network to use the Internet protocol in 1982. In the late 1970s, Murray Turoff and Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology were experimenting with blended learning, using NJIT’s internal computer network. They combined classroom teaching with online discussion forums, and termed this ‘computer-mediated communication’ (CMC) (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). At the University of Guelph in Canada, an off-the-shelf software system called CoSy was developed in the 1980s that allowed for online threaded group discussion forums, a predecessor to today’s forums contained in learning management systems. In 1988, the Open University in the United Kingdom offered a course, DT200, that as well as the OU’s traditional media of printed texts, television programs and audio-cassettes, also included an online discussion component using CoSy. Since this course had 1,200 registered students, it was one of the earliest ‘mass’ open online courses. We see then the emerging division between the use of computers for automated or programmed learning, and the use of computer networks to enable students and instructors to communicate with each other.

The Word Wide Web was formally launched in 1991. The World Wide Web is basically an application running on the Internet that enables ‘end-users’ to create and link documents, videos or other digital media, without the need for the end-user to transcribe everything into some form of computer code. The first web browser, Mosaic, was made available in 1993. Before the Web, it required lengthy and time-consuming methods to load text, and to find material on the Internet. Several Internet search engines have been developed since 1993, with Google, created in 1999, emerging as one of the primary search engines.

Online learning environments

In 1995, the Web enabled the development of the first learning management systems (LMSs), such as WebCT (which later became Blackboard). LMSs provide an online teaching environment, where content can be loaded and organized, as well as providing ‘spaces’ for learning objectives, student activities, assignment questions, and discussion forums. The first fully online courses (for credit) started to appear in 1995, some using LMSs, others just loading text as PDFs or slides. The materials were mainly text and graphics. LMSs became the main means by which online learning was offered until lecture capture systems arrived around 2008.

By 2008, George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier in Canada were using web technology to create the first ‘connectivist’ Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), a community of practice that linked webinar presentations and/or blog posts by experts to participants’ blogs and tweets, with just over 2,000 enrollments. The courses were open to anyone and had no formal assessment. In 2012, two Stanford University professors launched a lecture-capture based MOOC on artificial intelligence, attracting more than 100,000 students, and since then MOOCs have expanded rapidly around the world.

Social media

Social media are really a sub-category of computer technology, but their development deserves a section of its own in the history of educational technology. Social media cover a wide range of different technologies, including blogs, wikis, You Tube videos, mobile devices such as phones and tablets, Twitter, Skype and Facebook. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein (2010) define social media as

a group of Internet-based applications that …allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content, based on interactions among people in which they create, share or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks.

Social media are strongly associated with young people and ‘millenials’ – in other words, many of the students in post-secondary education. At the time of writing social media are only just being integrated into formal education, and to date their main educational value has been in non-formal education, such as fostering online communities of practice, or around the edges of classroom teaching, such as ‘tweets’ during lectures or rating of instructors. It will be argued though that they have much greater potential for learning.

A paradigm shift

It can be seen that education has adopted and adapted technology over a long period of time. There are some useful lessons to be learned from past developments in the use of technology for education, in particular that many claims made for a newly emerging technology are likely to be neither true nor new. Also new technology rarely completely replaces an older technology. Usually the old technology remains, operating within a more specialised ‘niche’, such as radio, or integrated as part of a richer technology environment, such as video in the Internet.

However, what distinguishes the digital age from all previous ages is the rapid pace of technology development and our immersion in technology-based activities in our daily lives. Thus it is fair to describe the impact of the Internet on education as a paradigm shift, at least in terms of educational technology. We are still in the process of absorbing and applying the implications. The next section attempts to pin down more closely the educational significance of different media and technologies.

Over to you

1. Given the target audience, is this section necessary or useful?

2. Given also the need to brief, what would you add, change, or leave out?


We start getting to the meat of the chapter in the next section, which examines more closely differences between media and technologies and the concept of educational affordances of technology.


Hiltz, R. and Turoff, M. (1978) The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer Reading MA: Addison-Wesley

Kaplan, A. and Haenlein, M. (2010), Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media, Business Horizons, Vol.  53, No. 1, pp. 59-68

Manguel, A. (1996) A History of Reading London: Harper Collins

Robinson, J. (1982) Broadcasting Over the Air London: BBC

Saettler, P. (1990) The Evolution of American Educational Technology Englewood CO: Libraries Unlimited

Selwood, D. (2014) What does the Rosetta Stone tell us about the Bible? Did Moses read hieroglyphs? The Telegraph, July 15

Why MOOCs are only part of the answer for higher education

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Formal education is the necessary launchpad for successful MOOCs

Formal education is the necessary launchpad for successful MOOCs

OK, except for the next post, which will be a list of publications on MOOCs for graduate students studying the topic, and a scenario for a ‘good’ MOOC, this will be my last post on MOOCs for a while.

This is the conclusion to my chapter on MOOCs for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘. This whole chapter is now published here. There will be a scenario illustrating what I define as a ‘good’ MOOC to go with this conclusion. Here is the extract:

The importance of context and design

I am frequently categorised as a major critic of MOOCs, which is somewhat surprising since I have been a longtime advocate of online learning. In fact I do believe MOOCs are an important development, and under certain circumstances they can be of tremendous value in education.

But as always in education, context is important. There is not one but many different markets and needs for education. A student leaving high school at eighteen has very different needs and will want to learn in a very different context from a 35 year old employed engineer with a family who needs some management education. Similarly a 65 year old man struggling to cope with his wife’s early onset of Alzheimers and desperate for help is in a totally different situation to either the high school student or the engineer. When designing educational programs, it has to be horses for courses. There is no single silver bullet or solution for every one of these various contexts.

Secondly, as with all forms of education, how MOOCs are designed matters a great deal. If they are designed inappropriately, in the sense of not developing the knowledge and skills needed by a particular learner in a particular context, then they have little or no value for that learner. However, designed differently and a MOOC may well meet that learner’s needs.

The potential of cMOOCs

So let me be more specific. cMOOCs have the most potential, because lifelong learning will become increasingly important, and the power of bringing a mix of already well educated and knowledgeable people from around the world to work with other committed and enthusiastic learners on common problems or areas of interest could truly revolutionise not just education, but the world in general.

However, cMOOCs at present are unable to do this, because they lack organisation and do not apply what is already known about how online groups work best. Once we learn these lessons and apply them, though, cMOOCs can be a tremendous tool for tackling some of the great challenges we face in the areas of global health, climate change, civil rights, and other ‘good civil ventures.’  The beauty of a cMOOC is that they involve not just the people who have the will and the power to make changes, but cMOOCs give every participant the power to define and solve the problems being tackled.

But socially transformative MOOCs will almost certainly benefit from the resources of strong institutions to provide initial impetus, simple to use software, overall structure, organization and co-ordination within the MOOC, and some essential human resources for supporting the MOOC when running. At the same time, it does not have to be an educational institution. It could be a Public Health Authority, or a broadcasting organization, or an international charity, or a consortium of organisations with a common interest. Also, of course, we need to recognise the danger that even cMOOCs  could be manipulated by corporate or government  interests. Finally, I don’t see cMOOCs as being a replacement for formal education, but as a rocket that needs formal education as its launch pad.

The limitations of xMOOCs

The real threat of xMOOCs is to the very large face-to-face lecture classes found in many universities at the undergraduate level. MOOCs, at a cost of around $20-$50 a student, are a more effective way of replacing such lectures. They are more interactive and permanent so students can go over the materials many times. I have heard MOOC instructors argue that their MOOCs are better than their classroom lectures. They put more care and effort into them.

However, we should question why we are teaching in this way on campus. Content is now freely available anywhere on the Internet – including MOOCs. What is needed is information management: how to identify the knowledge you need, how to evaluate it, how to apply it. MOOCs do not do that. They pre-select and package the information. My big concern with xMOOCs is their limitation, as currently designed, for developing the higher order intellectual skills needed in a digital world. Unfortunately, xMOOCs are taking the least appropriate design model for developing 21st century skills from on-campus teaching,  and moving this inappropriate design model online. Just because the lectures come from elite universities does not necessarily mean that learners will develop high level intellectual skills, even though the content is of the highest quality. More importantly, with MOOCs, relatively few students succeed, in terms of assessment, and those that do are tested mainly on comprehension and limited application of knowledge.

We can and have done much better in terms of skills for a digital age with other pedagogical approaches on campus, such as problem- or inquiry-based learning, and with online learning using more constructivist approaches in online credit courses, but these alternative methods to lectures do not scale so easily. The interaction between an expert and a novice still remains critical for developing deep understanding, transformative learning resulting in the learner seeing the world differently, and for developing high levels of evidence-based critical thinking, evaluation of complex alternatives, and high level decision-making. Computer technology to date is extremely poor at enabling this kind of learning to develop. This is why credit-based classroom and online learning still aim to have a relatively low instructor:student ratio and still need to focus a great deal on interaction between instructor and students.

I have no problem however with xMOOCs as a form of continuing education or as a source of open educational materials that can be part of a broader educational offering. They can be a valuable supplement to campus-based education. It is when the claim is made that they can replace both conventional education or the current design of online credit programs when I become really concerned. As a form of continuing education, low completion rates and the lack of formal credit is not of great significance. However, completion rates and quality assessment DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education, even classroom lectures.

Undermining the public higher education system?

The real danger is that if we are not vigilant, MOOCs will undermine what is admittedly an expensive public higher education system. If elite universities can deliver MOOCs for free, why do we need crappy state universities? The risk is a sharply divided two tier system, with a relatively small number of elite universities catering to the rich and privileged, and developing the knowledge and skills that will provide rich rewards, and the masses going to MOOC-delivered courses with state universities providing minimal and low cost learner support for such courses. This would be both a social and economic disaster, because it would fail to produce enough learners with the high-level skills that are going to be needed for good jobs in the the coming years – unless you believe that automation will remove all decently paid jobs except for a tiny elite (bring on the Hunger Games).

It should be noted that even for credit-based online programs, content accounts for less than 15 per cent of the total cost over five years; the main costs required to ensure high quality outcomes and high rates of completion are spent on learner support, providing the learning that matters most. The kind of MOOCs being promoted by politicians and the media fail spectacularly to do this. We do need to be careful that the open education movement in general, and MOOCs in particular, are not used as a stick by those in the United States and elsewhere who are deliberately trying to undermine public education for ideological and commercial reasons. Open content, OERs and MOOCs do not automatically lead to open access to high quality credentials for everyone. In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population.

Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. MOOCs, open education and new media offer promising ways to bring about some much needed improvements. However, that means building on what we already know from the use of credit based online learning, from prior experience in open and distance learning, and designing courses and programs in a variety of ways appropriate to the wide range of learning needs. MOOCs can be one important part of that environment, but not a replacement for other forms of educational provision that meet different needs.

Key Takeaways

1. MOOCs are forcing every higher education institution to think carefully both about its strategy for online teaching and its approach to open education.

2. MOOCs are not the only form of online learning or of open educational resources. It is important to look at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs within the overall context of online learning and open-ness.

3. There are considerable differences in the design of MOOCs, reflecting different purposes and philosophies.

4. MOOCs are at still a relatively early stage of maturity. As their strengths and weaknesses become clearer, and as experience in improving their design grows, they are likely to occupy a significant niche within the higher education learning environment.

5. There are still major structural limitations in MOOCs for developing deep or transformative learning, or for developing the high level knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.

6. MOOCs could well replace some forms of traditional teaching (such as large lecture classes). However, MOOCs are more likely to remain an important supplement or alternative to other conventional education methods. They are not on their own a solution to the high cost of higher education, although MOOCs are and will continue to be an important factor in forcing change.

7. Perhaps the greatest value of MOOCs in the future will be for providing a means for tackling large global problems through community action.


I am now trying to finish Chapter 6, on design models. I will be writing about (a) personal learning environments and (b) flexible design models based on sound educational design principles.

As always, I welcome comments on either this final section on MOOCs, or on the Chapter as a whole. You can use either the comment page here or the one at the end of the Chapter.

The dissemination of research in online learning: a lesson from the EDEN Research Workshop

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The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The EDEN Research Workshop

I’m afraid I have sadly neglected my blog over the last two weeks, as I was heavily engaged as the rapporteur for the EDEN 8th Research Workshop on challenges for research on open and distance learning, which took place in Oxford, England last week, with the UK Open University as the host and sponsor. I was also there to receive a Senior Fellowship from EDEN, awarded at the Sheldonian Theatre, the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford.

There were at the workshop almost 150 participants from more than 30 countries, in the main part European, with over 40 selected research papers/presentations. The workshop was highly interactive, with lots of opportunity for discussion and dialogue, and formal presentations were kept to a minimum. Together with some very stimulating keynotes, the workshop provided a good overview of the current state of online, open and distance learning in Europe. From my perspective it was a very successful workshop.

My full, factual report on the workshop will be published next week as a series of three blog posts by Antonio Moreira Texeira, the President of EDEN, and I will provide a link when these are available, but in the meantime I would like to reflect more personally on one of the issues that came out of the workshop, as this issue is more broadly applicable.

Houston, we have a problem: no-one reads our research

Well, not no-one, but no-one outside the close group of those doing research in the area. Indeed, although in general the papers for the workshop were of high quality, there were still far too many papers that suggested the authors were unaware of key prior research in the area.

But the real problem is that most practitioners – instructors and teachers – are blissfully unaware of the major research findings about teaching and learning online and at a distance. The same applies to the many computer scientists who are now moving into online learning with new products, new software and new designs. MOOCs are the most obvious example. Andrew Ng, Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller – all computer scientists – designed their MOOCs without any consideration about what was already known about online learning – or indeed teaching or learning in general, other than their experience as lecturers at Stanford University. The same applies to MIT’s and Harvards’s courses on edX, although MIT/Harvard are at least  starting to do their own research, but again ignoring or pretending that nothing else has been done before. This results in mistakes being made (unmonitored student discussion), the re-invention of the wheel hyped as innovation or major breakthroughs (online courses for the masses), and surprised delight at discovering what has already been known for many years (e.g. students like immediate feedback).

Perhaps of more concern though is that as more and more instructors move into blended and hybrid learning, they too are unaware of best practices based on research and evaluation of online learning, and knowledge about online learners and their behaviour. This applies not only to online course design in general, but also particularly to the management of online discussions.

It will of course be argued that MOOCs and hybrid learning are somehow different from previous online and distance courses and therefore the research does not apply. These are revolutionary innovations and therefore the rules of the game have changed. What was known before is therefore no longer relevant. This kind of thinking though misunderstands the nature of sustainable innovation, which usually builds on past knowledge – in other words, successful innovation is more cumulative than a leap into the dark. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any field other than education where innovators would blithely ignore previous knowledge. (‘I don’t know anything about civil engineering, but I have a great idea for a bridge.’ Let’s see how far that will get you.)

Who’s to blame?

Well, no-one really. There are several reasons why research in online learning is not better disseminated:

  • research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. This has several consequences:
    • it is difficult to generalize, because learning contexts vary so much
    • clearly significant results are difficult to find when so many other variables are likely to affect learning outcomes
    • thus results are usually hedged with so many reservations that any clear message gets lost
  • because research into online learning is out of the mainstream of educational research it has been poorly funded by the research councils. Thus most studies are small scale, qualitative and practitioner-driven. This means interventions are small scale and therefore do not identify major changes in learning, and the results are mainly of use to the practitioner who did the research, so don’t get more widely disseminated
  • most research in online learning is published in journals that are not read by either practitioners or computer scientists (who publish in their own journals that no-one else reads). Furthermore, there are a large number of journals in the field, so integration of research findings is difficult, although Anderson and Zawacki-Richter (2104) have done a good job in bringing a lot of the research together in one publication – but which unfortunately is nearly 500 pages long, and hence unlikely to reach many practitioners, at least in a digestible form
  • online learning is still a relatively new field, less than 20 years old, so it is taking time to build a solid foundation of verifiable research in which people can have confidence
  • most instructors at a post-secondary level have no formal training in any form of teaching and learning, so there are difficulties in bringing research and best practices to their attention.

What can be done?

First let me state clearly that I believe there is a growing and significant body of evidence about best practices in online learning that is evidence-based and research-driven. These best practices are general enough to be applied in a wide variety of contexts. In fact I will shortly write a post called ‘Ten things we know from research in online learning’ that will set out some of the most important results and their implications for teaching and learning online. However, we need more attempts to pull together the scattered research into more generalizable conclusions and more widely distributed forms of communication.

At the same time, we need also to get out the message about the complexity of teaching and learning, without which it will be difficult to evaluate or appreciate fully the findings from research in online learning. It is understanding that:

  • learning is a process, not a product,
  • there are different epistemological positions about what constitutes knowledge and how to teach it,
  • above all, identifying desirable learning outcomes is a value-driven decision; and acceptance of a diversity of values about what constitutes knowledge is to be welcomed, not restricted, in education, so long as there is genuine choice for teachers and learners.
  • however, if we want to develop the skills needed in a digital age, the traditional lecture-based model, whether offered face-to-face or online, is inadequate
  • academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge; academic knowledge means transforming understanding of the world through evidence, theory and rational argument/dialogue, and effective teachers/instructors are essential for this
  • learning is heavily influenced by the context in which it takes place: one critical variable is the quality of course design; another is the role of an expert instructor. These variables are likely to be more important than any choice of technology or delivery mode.

There are therefore multiple audiences for the dissemination of research in online learning:

  • practitioners: teachers and instructors
  • senior managers and administrators in educational institutions
  • computer scientists and entrepreneurs interested in educational services or products
  • government and other funding agencies.

I can suggest a number of ways in which research dissemination can be done, but what is needed is a conversation about

(a) how best to identify the key research findings on online learning around which most experienced practitioners and researchers can agree

(b) the best means to get these messages out to the various stakeholders.

I believe that this is an important role for organizations such as EDEN, EDUCAUSE, ICDE, but it is also a responsibility for every one of us who works in the field and believes passionately about the value of online learning.

Transforming university teaching and learning: UBC’s strategy for flexible learning

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UBC campus, Vancouver BC

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

Flexible Learning Implementation Team (2014) Flexible Learning – Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC (Vancouver Campus. Vancouver BC: Office of the Provost, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s premier research universities with almost 60,000 students. It usually features within the top 30 universities worldwide in university rankings.

For the last 18 months, UBC has been developing a comprehensive strategy for teaching and learning for the future, and last week issued a report on its vision and how it plans to implement that vision. Although Flexible Learning is the term UBC has chosen to describe this strategy, it is in fact far more comprehensive and wide ranging than just blended or fully online learning. It is really about the transformation of teaching and learning in response to local, regional and global changes and challenges, based on a substantial amount of prior research, internal discussion, and input from external consultants (declaration of interest: I played a very small part in some of the early discussions of strategy).

First, the breaking news, then a summary of the main points from the strategy document.

Breaking news

This really represents the first concrete actions resulting from this strategic initiative.

  1. Research report published on UBC’s first four MOOCs: These MOOCs were delivered through the Coursera platform. I will cover this report in a separate blog post.
  2. Moving from Coursera to edX: UBC has now joined edX as a Charter Member, giving it a seat on edX’s Academic Advisory Board. UBC will develop four new MOOCs for delivery on edX in 2014-2015.
  3. Revamping Continuing and Professional Education: UBC has established, within the Provost’s Office, a new unit to work in close partnership with Faculties in developing both applied and access programs. More on this and how it affects the current Division of Continuing Studies later in this post.
  4. Improving the learning technology ecosystem: basically a response to widespread faculty disenchantment with the implementation of the latest version of UBC’s LMS, Blackboard Connect.

However, these four developments are literally the tip of an iceberg, which is much larger and more significant.

The strategic vision

As always, I recommend a careful reading of the whole 22 page document, even though it is not the easiest of reads. Any summary diminishes the complexity of the discussion, because there are so many inter-related themes and developments to which the university is attempting to respond. I provide this summary though in the hope that it will spike your interest enough to make the effort, as I see this document as one of the most significant for the future of public higher education in Canada – and elsewhere.

What does the university mean by flexible learning?

From the document (p.2)

We define Flexible Learning as UBC’s response to the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid advances in information and communication technologies, informed by the results of learning research and motivated by the objectives of improving student learning, extending access to UBC and strengthening university operating effectiveness.

See below for more detail on what that actually means.

What’s driving the change?

  • learner and employer expectations: need for a flexible workforce, greater flexibility in delivery and offerings, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes
  • demographics: increased global demand, with the local population of students older and often working
  • policy of governments (generally): growing reliance on tuition revenue; a belief that online learning is cheaper
  • disruptive technologies: MOOCs, cloud, mobile, adaptive learning, automated assessment, learning analytics…..

Market segmentation

Different categories of learners:

  • traditional university students (65% of the market), younger, mainly ‘commuting’: want rich campus-based learning experiences
  • convenience-driven degree-seekers: older, working, want blended/online learning
  • practitioners: seeking credentials for professional development; able to pay; under-represented to date at UBC
  • growth learners: seeking non-credentialed learning; a large and growing market segment.

All segments want more flexibility, both in delivery and range of content offerings.

Main objectives (for flexible learning)

  1. improved student learning
  2. expanded access to UBC content
  3. greater operating effectiveness

Main strategies

1. Strengthening UBC’s traditional role: through:

  • blended learning (including integration of MOOC content)
  • improving the campus experience and more personalization of learning through more modular programming
  • strategic academic program transformation

2. Revenue growth: through:

  • strategic expansion of continuing/professional education, especially applied master’s programs, certificates, badges
  • expanding access through ‘bridging’, e.g. PLA, MOOCs, summer programs

3. Academic partnerships (joining edX is one example)

Governance and management

The UBC Board and Executive approved the outline plan in 2013. Two teams were established within the Provost’s Office:

  • a leadership team, responsible for developing vision, strategy and policies, chaired by the Provost, with eight members
  • an implementation team, with another eight members, chaired by a Vice Provost.

Support is also provided by staff from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and from the IT Division, as well as designated contact people within each Faculty.

UBC has committed a total of $5 million ($1 million already spent) to support this initiative. (The total UBC annual operating budget is over $1 billion).


I’m watching this as someone completely outside the university. UBC is a very large and complex organization, once described by one former Provost as being managed by 12 barons all plotting to become king (although the climate is very different today). I cannot judge how far the reality of what’s happening on the ground differs from the vision, and in any case it is still very early days.

However, it is important to stress that this is a university-wide initiative (at least for the main Vancouver campus – UBC also has a semi-autonomous and much smaller campus in the interior of the province.) The strategy seems to have widespread support at the senior executive level, and a lot of momentum resulting from an infusion of significant money but more importantly as a result of widespread discussion and consultation within the university. Certainly the blended learning component is already getting a lot of traction, with some major re-designs of large undergraduate classes already in progress. How all this affects though the main body of the faculty and students at the hard edge of teaching and learning is impossible for me to judge.

The establishment of a new ‘hub’ within the Provost’s office for continuing and professional education (CPE) is particularly interesting since UBC has long had a strong and extensive Division of Continuing Studies, which offers a wide range of non-credit programming. However,

  • the ability to re-purpose existing content from credit courses into certificates, badges and non-credentialed offerings such as MOOCs,
  • the growing market for professional masters programs, especially online,
  • the increasing reconfiguration of higher education as a continuous lifelong learning escalator rather than a series of different, discrete floors (bachelors, masters, doctorates, non-credit),
  • the opportunities for revenue generation flowing directly back to the faculties,

all make essential a rethinking of the whole CPE activities of a university.

At the same time, the Division of Continuing Studies at UBC, as elsewhere, has many staff with a range of special skills and knowledge, such as

  • marketing,
  • direct access to employers and industry (often through the hiring of working professionals as part-time instructors),
  • the ability to identify and take risks with emerging content areas,
  • experience in operating in a highly market-driven, competitive cost-recovery/profit environment.

These are not attributes currently within the capacity or even interest of most academic departments. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the knowledge and experience of the Division of Continuing Studies can best be integrated with the new initiative, and how the new development in the Provost’s Office affects the operation of the Division of Continuing Studies.

Another critical factor is the appointment of a new President, who has pledged support for the strategy. However, he also said on his inauguration that the university will increase its base funding for research by at least $100-million. He did not specify though where the money would come from. I leave you to compare that to the $5 million allocated to this initiative and to judge how much impact finding another $100 million base funding for research might have on teaching and learning at UBC. I know, it’s not a zero sum game, but….

Overall, though, I find it heartening that UBC is showing such leadership and initiative in grappling with the major forces now impacting on public universities. It has a vision and a plan for teaching and learning in the future, that looks at teaching, technology, students and the changing external environment in an integrated and thoughtful manner, which in itself is a major accomplishment. It will be fascinating to see how all this actually plays out over time.

Learning theories and online learning

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Figure 3.3. Adults learning in groups in a constructivist manner - and assisted by technology

Figure 3.3. Adults learning in groups in a constructivist manner – and assisted by technology


Chapter 3 of my open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ is about theory and practice in teaching for a digital age, which I am still in the process of writing. I have to admit that I approached writing about learning theories with some dread. In particular I was concerned (in order of dread) that:

  • this will appear incredibly boring/lack originality, because it has been done so many times before by other, more qualified authors (but then those that already know this stuff can easily skip it)
  • I’m not sure that theories of learning actually drive teaching (although surely an understanding of how students learn should do so)
  • I would have to deal with connectivism somehow, and I am certainly not an expert on that topic – but maybe that might be an advantage in bringing it to the attention of people who have previously shown no interest in it, and how it differs from previous theories
  • it could be argued that past learning theories are made irrelevant by digital technologies (and I certainly don’t agree with that point of view.)

In the end, I can’t see how a discussion of learning theories can be avoided. Unless readers of the book have this basic understanding of the different views of learning, they will not be in a good position to make choices, especially regarding the use of technology for teaching and learning. In particular, I see a danger of becoming dogmatic and blinkered by unchallenged assumptions about the nature of learning that results from not exploring alternative theories. But lastly, as Kurt Lewin said, there is nothing more practical than a good theory. A good theory helps us make informed decisions in areas of uncertainty. So, I am sharing here my first draft with you. Please note this is just part of the whole chapter, which also includes the following:

  • Teaching and learning styles
  • Deep vs surface learning.
  • Learner-centered teaching, learner engagement.
  • What we know about skills development
  • Competency based learning.
  • Learning design models
  • learner characteristics: digital natives and digital literacy
  • are we right to fear the use of computers for teaching?
  • Summary of research on teaching.

Also, Chapter 2 discusses the nature of knowledge, and in particular different epistemologies that underpin different theories of learning. However, theories of learning are more than enough to chew on for the moment.

Theories of learning

…there is an impressive body of evidence on how teaching methods and curriculum design affect deep, autonomous, and reflective learning. Yet most faculty are largely ignorant of this scholarship, and instructional practices and curriculum planning are dominated by tradition rather than research evidence. As a result, teaching remains largely didactic, assessment of student work is often trivial, and curricula are more likely to emphasize content coverage than acquisition of lifelong and life-wide learning skills.”

Knapper, 2010, p. 229

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” Kurt Lewin, 1951, p. 169

Why an understanding of theories of learning is important

Most teachers in the k-12 sector will be familiar with the main theories of learning, but because instructors in post-secondary education are hired primarily for their subject experience, or research or vocational skills, it is essential to introduce and discuss, if only briefly, these main theories. In practice, even without formal training or knowledge of different theories of learning, all teachers and instructors will approach teaching within one of these main theoretical approaches, whether or not they are aware of the educational jargon surrounding these approaches. Also, as online learning, technology-based teaching, and informal digital networks of learners have evolved, new theories of learning are emerging.

With a knowledge of alternative theoretical approaches, teachers and instructors are in a better position to make choices about how to approach their teaching in ways that will best fit the perceived needs of their students, within the very many different learning contexts that teachers and instructors face. This is particularly important when addressing many of the requirements of learners in a digital age. Furthermore, the choice of or preference for one particular theoretical approach will have major implications for the way that technology is used to support teaching.

In fact, there is a huge amount of literature on theories of learning, and I am aware that the treatment here is cursory, to say the least. Those who would prefer a more detailed introduction to theories of learning could, for an obscene price, purchase Schunk (2011), or for a more reasonable price Harasim (2012). The aim of my book though is not to be comprehensive in terms of in-depth coverage of all learning theories, but to provide a basis on which to suggest and evaluate different ways of teaching to meet the diverse needs of learners in a digital age.


Although initially developed in the 1920s, behaviourism still dominates approaches to teaching and learning in many places, particularly in the USA.

Behaviourist psychology is an attempt to model the study of human behaviour on the methods of the physical sciences, and therefore concentrates attention on those aspects of behaviour that are capable of direct observation and measurement. At the heart of behaviourism is the idea that certain behavioural responses become associated in a mechanistic and invariant way with specific stimuli. Thus a certain stimulus will evoke a particular response. At its simplest, it may be a purely physiological reflex action, like the contraction of an iris in the eye when stimulated by bright light.

However, most human behaviour is more complex. Nevertheless behaviourists have demonstrated in labs that it is possible to reinforce through reward or punishment the association between any particular stimulus or event and a particular behavioural response. The bond formed between a stimulus and response will depend on the existence of an appropriate means of reinforcement at the time of association between stimulus and response.  This depends on random behaviour (trial and error) being appropriately reinforced as it occurs.

This is essentially the concept of operant conditioning, a principle most clearly developed by Skinner (1968). He showed that pigeons could be trained in quite complex behaviour by rewarding particular, desired responses that might initially occur at random, with appropriate stimuli, such as the provision of food pellets. He also found that a chain of responses could be developed, without the need for intervening stimuli to be present, thus linking an initially remote stimulus with a more complex behaviour. Furthermore, inappropriate or previously learned behaviour could be extinguished by withdrawing reinforcement. Reinforcement in humans can be quite simple, such as immediate feedback for an activity or getting a correct answer to a multiple-choice test.

Skinner and his machine 2

Figure 3.1 YouTube video/film of B.F. Skinner demonstrating his teaching machine, 1954

You can see a fascinating five minute film of B.F. Skinner describing his teaching machine in a 1954 YouTube video, either by clicking on the picture above or at:

Underlying a behaviourist approach to teaching is the belief that learning is governed by invariant principles, and these principles are independent of conscious control on the part of the learner. Behaviourists attempt to maintain a high degree of objectivity in the way they view human activity, and they generally reject reference to unmeasurable states, such as feelings, attitudes, and consciousness. Human behaviour is above all seen as predictable and controllable. Behaviourism thus stems from a strongly objectivist epistemological position.

Skinner’s theory of learning provides the underlying theoretical basis for the development of teaching machines, measurable learning objectives, computer-assisted instruction, and multiple choice tests. Behaviourism’s influence is still strong in corporate and military training, and in some areas of science, engineering, and medical training. It can be of particular value for rote learning of facts or standard procedures such as multiplication tables, for dealing with children or adults with limited cognitive ability due to brain disorders, or for compliance with industrial or business standards or processes that are invariant and do not require individual judgement.

Finally, it should be noted that behaviourism, with its emphasis on rewards and punishment as drivers of learning, and on pre-defined and measurable outcomes, is the basis of populist conceptions of learning among many parents, politicians, and, it should be noted, computer scientists interested in automating learning. It is not surprising then that there has also been a tendency until recently to see technology, and in particular computer-aided instruction, as being closely associated with behaviourist approaches to learning, although we shall see that this does not necessarily follow.


An obvious criticism of behaviourism is that it treats humans as a black box, where inputs into the black box, and outputs from the black box, are known and measurable, but what goes on inside the black box is ignored or not considered of interest. However, humans have the ability for conscious thought, decision-making, emotions, and the ability to express ideas through social discourse, all of which may be highly significant for learning. Thus we will likely get a better understanding of learning if we try to find out what goes on inside the black box. Cognitivists therefore have focused on identifying mental processes – internal and conscious representations of the world – that they consider are essential for human learning. Fontana (1981) summarises the cognitive approach to learning as follows:

The cognitive approach … holds that if we are to understand learning we cannot confine ourselves to observable behaviour, but must also concern ourselves with the learner’s ability mentally to re-organize his psychological field (i.e. his inner world of concepts, memories, etc.) in response to experience. This latter approach therefore lays stress not only on the environment, but upon the way in which the individual interprets and tries to make sense of the environment. It sees the individual not as the somewhat mechanical product of his environment, but as an active agent in the learning process, deliberately trying to process and categorize the stream of information fed into him by the external world.’ (p. 148)

Thus the search for rules, principles or relationships in processing new information, and the search for meaning and consistency in reconciling new information with previous knowledge, are key concepts in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is concerned with identifying and describing mental processes that affect learning, thinking and behaviour, and the conditions that influence those mental processes.

© Agile Development Blog, 2013

© Agile Development Blog, 2013

Figure 3.2: Some of the areas covered by cognitivism, based on Bloom’s taxonomy (1956). Note that this becomes a reductionist exercise, as psychologists delve deeper into each of these cognitive activities to understand the underlying mental processes.

Cognitive approaches to learning cover a very wide range. At one end, the objectivist end, cognitivists consider basic mental processes to be genetic or hard-wired, but can be programmed or modified by external factors, such as new experiences. Early cognitivists in particular were interested in the concept of mind as computer, and more recently brain research has led to a search for linking learning to the development and reinforcement of neural networks in the brain. In terms of practice this concept of mind as computer has led to several technology-based developments in teaching, including:

  • intelligent tutoring systems, a more refined version of teaching machines, based on analysing student responses to questions and redirecting them to the appropriate next steps in learning. Adaptive learning is the latest extension of such developments;
  • artificial intelligence, which seeks to represent in computer software the mental processes used in human learning (which of course if successful would result in computers replacing many human activities – such as teaching, if learning is considered in an objectivist framework.)
  • pre-determined learning outcomes, based on an analysis and development of different kinds of cognitive activities, such as comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation
  • certain instructional design approaches that attempt to manage the design of teaching to ensure successful achievement of pre-determined learning outcomes or objectives.

On the other hand, many other cognitivists, coming from a more constructivist epistemological perspective, would argue that mental states or even processes are not fixed but constantly evolving as new information is integrated with prior knowledge, and new strategies for seeking meaning are developed by the individual. Thus teachers who place a strong emphasis on learners developing personal meaning through reflection, analysis and construction of knowledge through conscious mental processing would represent much more of a constructivist epistemological position. It is here that the boundaries between cognitivist and constructivist learning begin to break down.

Cognitive approaches to learning, with a focus on comprehension, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, generalization, evaluation, decision-making and creative thinking, seem to fit much better with higher education than behaviourism,  but even in k-12 education, a cognitivist approach would mean for instance focusing on teaching learners how to learn, on developing stronger or new mental processes for future learning, and on developing deeper and constantly changing understanding of concepts and ideas.

Put simply, brains have more plasticity, adaptability and complexity than current computer software programs, and other factors, such as emotion, motivation, self-determination, values, and a wider range of senses, make human learning very different from the way computers operate, at least at the moment. Education would be much better served if computer scientists tried to make software to support learning more reflective of the way human learning operates, rather than trying to fit human learning into the current restrictions of behaviourist computer programming.

Nevertheless, cognitivists have increased our understanding of how humans process and make sense of new information, how we access, interpret, integrate, process, organize and manage knowledge, and have given us a better understanding of the conditions that affect learners’ mental states.


Both behaviourist and some elements of cognitive theories of learning are deterministic, in the sense that behaviour and learning are believed to be rule-based and operate under predictable and constant conditions over which the individual learner has no or little control. However, constructivists emphasise the importance of consciousness, free will and social influences on learning. Carl Rogers (1969) stated that: ‘every individual exists in a continually changing world of experience in which he is the center.’ The external world is interpreted within the context of that private world. The belief that humans are essentially active, free and strive for meaning in personal terms has been around for a long time.

Constructivists argue that individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state. It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, to resolve incongruities, and to reconcile external realities with prior experience. The means by which this is done are complex and multi-faceted, from personal reflection, seeking new information, to testing ideas through social contact with others. Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses or assumptions. Reality is always tentative and dynamic.

For many educators, the social context of learning is critical. Ideas are tested not just on the teacher, but with fellow students, friends and colleagues. Furthermore, knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed: schools, universities, and increasingly these days, online communities. Thus what is taken to be ‘valued’ knowledge is also socially constructed. Thus knowledge is not just about content, but also values. One set of values are those around the concept of a liberal education. According to this ideology, one of the principal aims of education is that it should develop a critical awareness of the values and ideologies that shape the form of received knowledge. This then suggests a constant probing and criticism of received knowledge.

One consequence of constructivist theory is that each individual is unique, because the interaction of their different experiences, and their search for personal meaning, results in each person being different from anyone else. Thus behaviour is not predictable or deterministic, at least not at the individual level. The key point here is that learning is seen as essentially a social process, requiring communication between learner, teacher and others. This social process cannot effectively be replaced by technology, although technology may facilitate it.

It can be seen that although constructivist approaches can be and have been applied to all fields of knowledge, it is more commonly found in approaches to teaching in the humanities, social sciences, education, and other less quantitative subject areas.

Online collaborative learning

The concurrence of both constructivist approaches to learning and the development of the Internet has led to the development of a particular form of constructivist teaching, originally called computer-mediated communication (CMC), but which has developed into what Harasim (2012) now calls online collaborative learning theory (OCL). She describes OCL as follows (p. 90):

OCL theory provides a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. While OCL theory does encourage the learner to be active and engaged, this is not considered to be sufficient for learning or knowledge construction……In the OCL theory, the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline. Learning is defined as conceptual change and is key to building knowledge. Learning activity needs to be informed and guided by the norms of the discipline and a discourse process that emphasises conceptual learning and builds knowledge.

This approach to the use of technology for teaching is very different from the more objectivist approaches found in computer-assisted learning, teaching machines, and artificial intelligence applications to education, which primarily aim to use computing to replace at least some of the activities traditionally done by human teachers. With online collaborative learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse. This social discourse furthermore is not random in OCL, but managed in such a way as to ‘scaffold’ learning, by assisting with the construction of knowledge in ways that are guided by the instructor, that reflect the norms or values of the discipline, and that also respect or take into consideration the prior knowledge within the discipline.


Connectivism is a relatively new theory of learning or epistemology (there’s not even agreement about which it is), it is still being refined and developed, and it is currently highly controversial, with many critics. Siemens, Downes and Cormier constructed the first massive open online course (MOOC), Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2011, partly to explain and partly to model a connectivist approach to learning. More recently, Downes (2014) has spelled out, in a presentation called The MOOC of One, some of the relationships between individual learning, the contribution of individuals to knowledge and its flow, and networks of learners, within a broad interpretation of connectivist theory. In this presentation Downes sets out some design principles for  connectivist ‘courses’ or cMOOCs, such as:

  • learner autonomy, in terms of choice of content and how they choose to learn
  • openness, in terms of  access to the course, content, activities and methods of assessment
  • diversity: varied content, individual perspectives and multiple tools, especially for networking learners and creating opportunities for dialogue and discussio
  • interactivity: ‘massive’ communication between learners and co-operative learning, resulting in emergent knowledge
Figure 2.1: A map of connectivism, © Stephen Downes, 2011 (accessed via

Figure 2.1: A map of connectivism, © Stephen Downes, 2011 (accessed via

Connectivists such as Siemens and Downes tend to be somewhat vague about the role of teachers or instructors, as the focus of connectivism is more on individual participants, networks and the flow of information and the new forms of knowledge that result.. The main purpose of a teacher appears to be to provide the initial learning environment and context that brings learners together, and  to help learners construct their own personal learning environments to enable them to connect to ‘successful’ networks, with the assumption that learning will automatically occur as a result, through exposure to the flow of information and the individual’s autonomous reflection on its meaning. There is no need for formal institutions to support this kind of learning, especially since such learning often depends heavily on social media readily available to all participants.

There are numerous criticisms of the connectivist approach to teaching and learning, which include:

  • there is no control on the quality of content, or on contributions from participants;
  • assessment strategies, such as peer assessment, are primitive and unreliable, thus making reliable or valid recognition of achievement more difficult;
  • the kinds of learning that take place in connectivist MOOCs or courses are not necessarily academic, in the sense of meeting the requirements for academic knowledge, as defined in Chapter 2;
  • many participants struggle with the lack of structure and are overwhelmed by the volume of content generated by other learners;
  • most students need a high level of explicit support in learning from an ‘expert’ teacher and this is lacking in connectivist courses
  • this kind of learning requires learners already to have at least some level of more formal or traditional education before they participate if they are to fully benefit from this kind of learning experience (and there is substantial evidence that MOOC participants tend to have an already high level of post-secondary education).
  • thus this kind of learning is more appropriate for non-formal learning or communities of practice than for formal education.

Some of these criticisms may be overcome as practice improves, as new tools for assessment, and for organizing co-operative and collaborative work with massive numbers, are developed, and as more experience is gained. More importantly, connectivism is really the first theoretical attempt to radically re-examine the implications for learning of the Internet and the explosion of new communications technologies.


Different theories of learning reflect different positions on the nature of knowledge. With the possible exception of connectivism, there is some form of empirical evidence to support each of the theories of learning outlined here.

However, while the theories suggest different ways in which all people learn, they do not automatically tell teachers or instructors how to teach. Indeed, theories of behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism were all developed outside of education, in experimental labs, psychology , neuroscience, and psychotherapy respectively. Educators have had to work out how to move from the theoretical position to the practical one of applying these theories within an educational experience. In other words, they have had to develop teaching methods that build on such learning theories. The next section of the book examines a range of teaching methods that have been developed, their epistemological roots, and their implications for teaching in a digital age.

Over to you

Your feedback on this will be invaluable. In particular:

  • are theories of learning still relevant in a digital age? Is it important to discuss these?
  • is the description of the various theories accurate and useful; if not, what should be changed?
  • are there important theories or theoretical positions that have been missed?


Bloom, B., Englehart, M., Furst, E., Hill, W. and Krathwohl, D. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain, Longmans Green, New York, 1956

Downes, S. (2014) The MOOC of One, Stephen’s Web, March 10

Fontana, D. (1981) Psychology for Teachers London: Macmillan/British Psychological Society

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Knapper, C. (2010) ‘Changing Teaching Practice: Barriers and Strategies’ in Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. eds. Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Toronto ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press

Lewin, K. (1951) Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Rogers, C. (1969) Freedom to Learn Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.

Schunk, D. (2011) Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (6th edition) New York: Pearson