Learning Theories for Online Education

Learning Theories for Online Education


The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has examined the engagement experiences of hundreds of thousands of students from over 1600 colleges and universities since 2000. The consistent results of these data show that hands-on, integrative, and collaborative active learning experiences lead to high levels of student achievement and personal development (Kuh, O’Donnell, and Schneider, 2017).

However, in an online context, it is difficult for students to have a hands-on, integrative, and collaborative learning experience. In contrast, they typically suffer feelings of loneliness, perplexity, and frustration, particularly among those who are new to the online environment, which prevents them from engaging in active learning (Wehler, 2018). Online instructors must strive deliberately, consistently, and relentlessly to create an online learning community in order to boost students' sense of belonging. 

The heart and soul of the online learning community is an online discussion (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016), as a pedagogical strategy, which can trigger students interest in exploring, integrating, and excitement to share their thoughts and stimulate their curiosity, sense of creativity, and application of novel ideas to addressing issues.

Mintz (2020) highlighted the importance of active learning online in discussing the future of online education. As a result, with online and blended learning becoming the trend of education, educators need to keep exploring strategies for improving students' learning using online learning approaches (2020). As reported in the literature, technology-augmented pedagogy offers opportunities to strengthen the teaching and learning process (Aderibigbe, 2020; Magyar et al., 2020). It is also explained that young people are intrinsically motivated to use technology, and educators can exploit the situation to help strengthen students' engagement and learning (Troussas et al., 2020).


Learning Theories for Online Education 

Learning theories were created as a basis to explain, describe, analyze and predict how learning should take place. It is important for educators to understand how learning takes place because they are in the business of helping people learn (Sengupta, D. August 25, 2019). This article draws on the theory of community of inquiry (COI), connectivism theory, and online collaborative learning theory (OCL) to discuss how educators leverage discussion tools to facilitate students’ online active, reflection, collaborative, equitable participation, and experiential learning for students.

Community of Inquiry (COI) 

An educational community of inquiry is a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding. The Community of Inquiry theoretical framework represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive, and teaching presence (CoI Framework | CoI, 2021). In ensuring cognitive presence to promote students' deep and meaningful learning, they were given time to critically analyze questions and reflect on their reading and personal experiences. this process triggers their interest in exploring, integrating, and excitement to share their thoughts. With the feelings of interest and knowledge of cases under exploration, students transition into the social presence mode, willing to learn with colleagues as a cohesive team and express themselves freely. Doing this allowed them to tap into their emotions on how they feel about concepts explored while making connections to their experience and collaborating with colleagues with shared interests. In maintaining teaching presence, online discussion tasks are assigned to engage and enhance students' learning in an asynchronous mode (Aderibigbe, 2021). 

Figure 1. The Community of Inquiry (COI) Model. 

Adapted from ‘Online educators’ recommendations for teaching online: crowdsourcing inaction’, by Dunlap, C, J. & Lowenthal, R, P., 2018, Open Praxis, 10(1), pp. 79-89, 10.5944/openpraxis.10.1.721


Connectivism is a learning theory that explains how Internet technologies have created new opportunities for people to learn and share information. Learning is actionable knowledge that connects information learned and maintains those connections. A classroom activity the incorporates the Connectivism theory is to have group collaborations and discussions to allow different viewpoints and make connections.  This will help with their problem-solving, decision-making, and making sense of the information presented.  Students need to be allowed to make choices about their learning so that connections can be made and maintained (Connectivism Theory, 2021).

Figure 2. Connectivism Theory Model
Adapted from ‘Connectivism Theory’, 2021, EducatorPages, https://educatorpages.com/site/mccorklee/pages/connectivism-theory

Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) 

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 doing so, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. 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.OCL builds on and integrates theories of cognitive development that focus on conversational learning (Pask, 1975), conditions for deep learning (Marton and Saljø, 1997; Entwistle, 2000), development of academic knowledge (Laurillard, 2001), and knowledge construction (Scardamalia and Bereiter, 2006). For a learner, once started, the process of generating, organizing, and converging on ideas continues at an ever deeper or more advanced level. Harasim emphasizes the importance of three key phases of knowledge construction through discourse (William, A., 2019):

  • idea generating: this is literally brainstorming, to collect the divergent thinking within a group;
  • idea organizing: this is where learners compare, analyze and categorize the different ideas previously generated, again through discussion and argument;
  • intellectual convergence: the aim here is to reach a level of intellectual synthesis, understanding, and consensus (including agreeing to disagree), usually through the joint construction of some artifact or piece of work, such as an essay or assignment.

The role of the teacher or instructor in this process is seen as critical, not only in facilitating the process and providing appropriate resources and learner activities that encourage this kind of learning, but also, as a representative of a knowledge community or subject domain, in ensuring that the core concepts, practices, standards, and principles of the subject domain are fully integrated into the learning cycle (Bates, 2021).

Figure 3. Harasim’s pedagogy of group discussion 
from Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge,p. 95

Author: Mengran Tao

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