Learning Theory and Online Course Design

This presentation was developed by Martha
Schwer and Jennifer Lewis. The of this presentation is to define the role of cognition and learning
to help you determine the most appropriate instructional strategies for your online learners.
The information in this presentation draws on presentations from the 2012 Conference
on Distance Education held in Madison, WI. This presentation will:
Describe these learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism.
The goal of this presentation is to help you select the best learning theory for designing
the structure and the learning activities in your online course. Learning is a complex process involving mental
processes that are influenced by emotional and environment factors that can support or
hinder learning. Learning theories have evolved over time to take into consideration these
complex factors in an effort to explain how learning occurs and prescribe instructional
strategies to facilitate learning. Behaviorism was dominant from the early 20th century through
the 1950s and 1960s. Cognitivism grew in popularity in the 1960s and 70s. Here at Madison College,
Dave Apple came to campus in the 80s to spread information about Constructivist methods.
And most recently constructivism emerged as a prominent theory of learning, influencing
the active learning classrooms we’re installing today. Connectivism is the new kid on the block;
it is most closely associated with online learning. It’s also the least widely known
here at the college. As you go through this presentation and listen
to information of various formats, keep in mind that there is no “best” theory; some
learning theories can be more or less useful to your content area. Let’s take a look at
each of these individually. Behaviorism is grounded in the study of observable
behavior, physical skills, and does not take into consideration the functions of the mind. According to behaviorism, knowledge exists
outside of a person and is gained through behavior modification. The theory views learning
as a change in behavior that can be conditioned using positive and negative reinforcements
such as rewards and punishment. Behaviorism considers learners more passive
in the learning process. The learners’ role is simply to respond to the learning content
provided by the instructor and demonstrate a level of performance on specific goals and
objectives. The classroom is instructor-centered; that
doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, though! Behavior is modified and conditioned by the instructor
through rewards or punishment to attain the desired learning outcomes. According to behaviorists, the types of reinforcement
are a critical component to learning because individual learners respond to different reinforcement
based on their personal motivations. For instance, if the learner is motivated by good grades,
a great reinforcement is the use of grades. Poor grades are a negative reinforcement,
which provides motivation for the learner to put in more effort in order to receive
a better grade. According to the behaviorist view of learning,
objectives should be developed that focus on the level of learning desired as well as
the type of task. The role of the instructor is to provide learners with information about
the appropriateness of the behavior through frequent feedback. This feedback either reinforces
their behavior or determines consequences in the form of corrective actions required
for the learner to achieve the desired outcome. Learning that involves recalling facts, defining
concepts and explanations, or performing procedures are often most readily taught by behaviorist
learning strategies that focus on attainment of specific goals or performance of physical
skills. Behaviorists often focus on drill and practice
activities, and by identifying small, incremental tasks, or sub-skills that the learner needed
to acquire, designed specific objectives that would lead to the achievement of these goals. According to cognitivism, knowledge is still
considered to exist outside of the person; however, this learning theory’s focus is on
understanding how human memory works to acquire knowledge and promote learning. The focus is on how learners acquire specific
types of strategies for learning, including: planning, monitoring, and evaluating and the
influence of prior knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and values on learning (Tennyson & Schott,
1997). This theory developed a clearer understanding of how information is processed and stored,
as well as how prior knowledge is stored in memory structures called schema for retrieval
in an appropriate context. According to cognitivism, the transfer of
knowledge to new situations is influenced by the way information is presented and the
relevance of information presented. If information is presented poorly or too much irrelevant
information is associated with relevant information, it may be difficult for the learner to sort
and organize the information. This, in turn, can have an impact on storage, retrieval,
and transfer. This can be critical for adult learners who
have specific professional needs that require them to be able to transfer knowledge to real-world
applications in their professional environments. Robert Gagne (1985) proposed nine events of
learning that corresponded with specific cognitive processes. Madison College uses various versions
of this series of learning events to structure and scaffold learning in a variety of learning
formats, such as accelerated and active learning. Gagne proposed these nine events provide the
conditions of learning, which define the intellectual skills to be learned as well as the sequence
of instruction. He believed lessons should be organized according to these events so
learners could associate new knowledge with existing structures. He also thought it could
provide the appropriate level of scaffolding to support learning. Learners play an active role in learning by
actively organizing information for successful processing into long-term memory for later
recall. The instructor continues to determine learning outcomes and direct the learning
with the additional application of specific information processing strategies to assist
the learner in acquiring knowledge. To facilitate learning, the learning environment should
be arranged to maximize learners’ ability to retrieve prior knowledge relevant to the
learning outcomes and organize the content to maximize information processing. If information is presented poorly or too
much irrelevant information is associated with relevant information, it may be difficult
for the learner to sort and organize the information. This, in turn, can have an impact on storage,
retrieval, and transfer. Scaffolding is critical to adult learners who have specific professional
needs that require them to be able to transfer knowledge to real-world applications in their
professional environments. Instructors play a role in scaffolding the learning environment
by monitoring learning and providing instructional support. Learning outcomes that are focused on complex
higher levels of learning such as problem solving are best explained by cognitivism
because the focus is on breaking down complex problems into component parts and relating
the content to be learned with prior knowledge to build higher levels of understanding.
Instructional strategies consider the organization of content for learning, including the use
of advance organizers, like blank outline notes for lectures or reading, and Gagne’s
nine events of instruction. Constructivism describes learning as a process
where learners socially construct knowledge and meaning. According to this theory, knowledge
does not exist outside of the person, but is constructed based on how a person interacts
with the environment and experiences the world (Tennyson & Schott, 1997). There are two types of constructivism: cognitive
constructivism and social constructivism. Cognitive constructivism focuses on individual
characteristics or attributes of the learner and their impact on learning. Social constructivism
focuses on how meaning and understanding are created through social interactions. Together,
they view learning as the construction of knowledge and meaning as the interpretation
of incoming information through an individual’s unique lens that includes their personality,
beliefs, cultures, and experiences. From the constructivist perspective, learners
are not merely passive receivers of knowledge, but active participants in the learning process
and construct knowledge socially with peers. Instructors who base their pedagogy on constructivism
take on a new role of facilitator rather than sage on the stage by actively observing and
assessing the current state of individual learners and providing learning strategies
to help individuals interpret and understand the content. Instructors provide relevant
real-world context to help learners understand the relevance of the learning goals for them
personally. The instructor supports learning by providing
scaffolding to support learners in their zone of proximal development. This requires the
instructor to develop skills at assessing the current state of learners and adapt the
learning experience to support their attainment of goals. Learning is context specific and emphasizes
the whole rather than components or individual skills. Rather than focusing on small skills
and building up to a larger job, constructivists present a complex situation, and let learners
figure out where to start based on their current knowledge, preferences, and motivations. Instruction should situate the learning in
authentic tasks that allow learners to understand why it is important to learn as well as its
relevance to them personally or professionally. Meaningful contexts allow learning to be transferred
to a novel situation when students move into the real world. The use of active learning strategies support
learning using real-world examples or opportunities to solve real-world problems allow for the
greatest opportunity for transfer. Critical thinking strategies help learners develop
their skills at thinking through problems and issues. Self-Reflection and Self-Assessments
help learners continuously improve their learning by actively reflecting on the processes they
use as they engage in learning activities. The latest major learning theory comes from
the rise of online learning itself, and is quite recent. Connectivism is a form of experiential
learning which prioritizes the set of connections formed by actions and experience over the
idea that knowledge is propositional. It questions that there is any such thing as knowledge
at all; instead, knowledge is just the connections we have access to. Crowd-sourcing is closely related to connectivism;
the idea that we are all together smarter than any one person is the basis of almost
all networked learning. In 2004, the first Massive Open Online Course
was launched, which quickly led to courses with thousands of students enrolled from major
Ivy League institutions. In connectivism, the more people are connected, the smarter
we all are. However, because traditional assessment methods are largely absent from these courses,
the only assessment method that can be used is self-assessment. This type of learning is obviously not suitable
for most degree-seeking students at Madison College, who need credentials to enter professional
fields. However, our continuing education division is currently developing a relationship
with this theory, and are awarding Mozilla “Badges” for completing professional development
activities. Students, who are already working in their fields, take self-paced, open enrollment
learning modules to develop a portfolio of documentation. They then pay a small fee,
equivalent to continuing ed tuition, to earn a “badge.” The documentation is then stored
online, for employers and others to review themselves. From the connectivist perspective, learners
should choose courses and information tailored to their own goals and abilities. Instructors of connectivist classrooms do
not have direct relationships with individuals (of any depth). Instead, they create information
ahead of time and students engage with it or not, as students wish to do. The instructor still supports learning by
providing scaffolding to support learners to make connections with other students and
with resources in the virtual world. Like Constructivism, Self-Reflection and Self-Assessments
help learners continuously improve their learning by actively reflecting on the processes they
use as they engage in learning activities. The difference is that there are no instructor-controlled
assessments at all. The only assessments available during the course are peer-review and computer
feedback. During the course, the instructor does not provide individual guidance, but
is merely another participant. Instructors are mainly responsible for technical issues
and wrangling behavior. The success or failure of the course largely depends upon the mix
of students who show up and participate. Thinking about your content area, which of
these major approaches do you think will be most helpful in teaching your course’s content? I hope you have enjoyed this presentation.
If you are interested in learning theories, you can check books out of the CETL library,
which will help you learn more about these topics.

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