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13 E-learning theories

E-learning theories are not new theories, but rather e-enhancements of existing learning theories (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).
They form “sets of beliefs: about the nature of knowledge and competence, about the purposes of learning, about how learning occurs, about how people should and should not be treated, etc” (Goodyear, 2001, p.51)
Consecutive learning theories don’t replace each other, but complement each other, each contributing its legacy to learning.  Theories can be considered as various levels of aggregation, with associative/behaviourist approaches addressing observable factors, cognitive approaches focusing on the ‘detailed structures and processes that underlie individual performance’ and situative approaches taking into account the social and cultural aspects of learning (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).
Activity designs are usually a blend of different learning theories.  Being aware of the main learning theories helps building a consistent design and clarifying what type of learning and interaction is intended.
An example provided by Goodyear (2001): It is not uncommon to find some members of a team believing that learners are poor at  organizing themselves and learn best by being fed information in small amounts, while other members of the team want to promote active, student-managed learning.
The table below summarizes key concepts of different learning theories and their implications for online learning, taken from the publications from Anderson, Mayes and de Freitas and Goodyear.
Associative/ Behaviourist approaches
Design principles
Looking for observable behaviour
Explicitly mentioning course outcomes
Behavioural objectives
Ability to test achievement of learning outcomes
Instructional Systems Design (ISD)
Decomposing learning into small chunks
Routines of organised activity
Learning hierarchies (controversial!)
Sequencing learning materials with increasing complexity
Giving direct feedback on learning
Individualized learning trajectories
Cognitive psychology (constructivism)
Types of memory (sensory – short term – long term)
Maximize sensations: strategic screen layout
Research on memory, perception, reasoning, concept formation.
Maximize sensations: well-paced information
Learning is active
Maximize sensations: highlighting main elements
Learning is individual (knowledge construction)
Relate difficulty level to cognitive level of learner: providing links to easier and more advanced resources
Use of comparative advance organizers
Use of conceptual models
Importance of prior knowledge structures
Pre-instructional & prerequisite questions
Experimentation toward discovery of broad principles
Promote deep processing
Use of information maps zooming in/ out
Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al, 1989)
Interactive environments for construction of understanding
Metacognition (reflection, self-regulation)
Relate to real-life (apply, analyse, synthesize)
Learning styles (controversial!)
Address various learning styles
Cognitive styles
Let students prepare a journal
Dual coding theory
Use both visual information and text
Motivate learners (ARCS model)
Use techniques to catch attention, explain relevance,  build confidence and increase satisfaction
Situated learning (constructivism)
Personal knowledge construction
Personal meaning to learning
Situated learning: motivation
Relate to real life (relevance)
Holistic/ Systemic approaches
Conduct research on internet
Build confidence with learners
Identity development
Use of first-hand information (not filtered by instructor)
Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger)
Collaborative activities
Fostering the growth of learning communities
Learning as act of participation
Legitimate (peripheral) practice, apprenticeships
Lifelong learning
Authentic learning and assessment tasks
Information explosion
Digital literacies
Learning in network environment
Keep up-to-date in field
Knowledge base
Multi-channel learning
Distributed learning
Build diversity, openness in learning (different opinions), autonomy
Personal Learning Environment
self-directed learning, just-in-time
Some comments on the table:
1. It’s difficult to draw sharp lines between these theories.  Some authors distinguish between cognitive constructivism (based on the work from Piaget) and social-cultural constructivism (based on the work from Vygotsky).  The work of Vygotsky formed the basis for the anthropological work from Jean Lave and the concept of ‘communities of practice’. The work of Engeström on activity theory forms a bridge between situative learning (with the activity system, it takes a more social unit of analysis than the individual) and constructivist approaches.
2 .Constructivism doesn’t really fit into the overview.  Goodyear (2001, p.75) mentions the following description of constructivism:
“…learning is a constructive process in which the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended….this view of knowledge does not necessarily deny the existence of the real world..but contends that all we know of the world are human interpretations of our experience of the world….learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts…” In other words, constructivism states that knowledge is relative and is different for every user.  Learning, in this position, means actively building a personal and contextualised interpretation of experience.

Constructivism – Jonassen et al 1999

Social Constructions – Vygotsky 1986

Activity Theory – Engeström et al 1999

Experiational Learning – Kolb 1984

Instructional Design – Gagné et al 2004

Networked and collaborative work – McConnell 2000

Learning Design Jochems et al 2004


Primary: presenting information

Secondary: active learning and feedback

Tertiary: dialogue and new learning.

Goodyear, P. (2001) Effective networked learning in higher education: notes and guidelines, Networked Learning in Higher Education Project (JCALT), Lancaster, CSALT, Lancaster University, [online] Available from:http://www.csalt.lancs.ac.uk/jisc/guidelines_final.doc(Accessed 28 May 2012)
Anderson, T. (ed.) (2008) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, 2nd ed. Athabasca University Press.
Mayes, T. and de Freitas, S. (2004) Review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models, Bristol, The Joint Information Systems Committee, [online] Available from:http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/Stage%202%20Learning%20Models%20%28Version%201%29.pdf(Accessed 28 May 2012).

70,000 years ago we were getting something right in relation to learning and responding to circumstances and left Africa.

We have been learning in communities ever since.

Perhaps population pressures or stability permitted reading and our inexorable desire to innovate led to the printing press and more since besides. Meanwhile populations and civilizations grew and society required or permitted the development of formal learning.

For me all the learning theories are observations of human behaviour as individuals or in groups.

Open learning is if anything taking us back to learning on the fly, in more vibrant less formal communities online. A response to the necessity of educating 7 billion and solving many of the human created problems on this dot in space called Earth.

I rather think the theories come AFTER the event to philosophise over what is taking place – in a commercial and entrepreneurial world you get on with it.

Take virtual worlds – they are commercial gaming and entertainment environments which educators would like to use and as they use them explain, position and justify.

  • All I want to know is, does it work?
  • Is it affordable?
  • Is it scaleable?
  • Is it going anywhere?
  • If not ditch it snd try something else.


Here’s how to improve retention in e-learning – scaffolding, mentors, interaction and community

Fig.1. For online learning to work you need scaffolding – Drawing by Simon Fieldhouse

Levels of interaction and support

  • Drop out rates from 20-50% for online courses … more than for traditional courses.

A full breakdown of the figures, how prepared, representing which institutions and student groups would be helpful. Anyone can use a statistic if they don’t identify its source.

Really this bad?

But if they’ve paid their fees the college has its cash and can free up resources. Do the bean counters recognise the contribution those quitting to make a course viable, let alone profitable?

Educational Institutions should go to extraordinary lengths to attract and retain the right people to courses and to keep them on board and fully engaged.

A major issue is the degree of academic integration.

  • Performance
  • Academic self-esteem
  • Identity as a student

Against sticking with a course are :

  • isolation
  • instructional ineffectiveness
  • failing academic achievement
  • negative attitudes
  • overall dissatisfaction with the learning experience

Self-directed skill set:

  • self-discipline
  • the ability to work alone
  • time management
  • learning independence
  • a plan for completing


Self-directed learning skills … that are developed in a social context through a variety of human-oriented interactions with peers and colleagues, teams, informal social networks, and communities of practice.

‘These challenges to the retention of distance learners, interestingly enough, have something in common, they seem to hinge on learners’ need for significant support in the distance learning environment through interaction with others (e.g. peers, instructors, and learner support services personnel).’  Tait (2000)

The central functions of learner support services for students in distance education settings are:

  • cognitive
  • affective
  • systemic

Scaffolding – ZPD (Vygotsky, 1934)

Scaffolding involves providing learners with more structure during the early stages of a learning activity and gradually turning responsibility over to learners as they internalize and master the skills needed to engage in higher cognitive functioning. (Palinscar, 1986; Rosenshine and Meister, 1992).

Scaffolding has a number of important characteristics to consider when determining the types of learner support services distance students may need:

Academic course ‘scaffolding’:

  • Provides structure
  • Functions as a tool
  • Extends the range of the learner
  • Allows the learner to accomplish a task that would otherwise not be possible
  • Helps to ensure the learner’s success
  • Motivates the learner
  • Reduces learner frustration
  • Is used, when needed, to help the learner, and can be removed when the learner can take on more responsibility.

(Greenfield, 1984; McLoughlin and Mitchell, 2000; Wood et al., 1976)

‘Scaffolding is an inherently social process in which the interaction takes places in a collaborative context.’

In relation to learning with the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA)

  • Are people coming onto the Level II course who are not yet suitable? Do they submit a learning orientation questionnaire?
  • Is the candidate’s club or pool operator giving them ample assistant teaching opportunities and support?

Mentors utilise the items gathered during the admissions process – data from the intake interview, self-assessment, diagnostic pre-assessment, and Learning Orientation Questionnaire – to develop to Academic Action Plan, that provides a roadmap for the learner’s academic progress including information about learning resources and assessment dates.’ At WGU.

Learning is a function of the activity, context, and culture in which it occurs – i.e., it is situated (Wenger, 1998).

Successful completion of and satisfaction with an academic experience is directly related to students’ sense of belonging and connection to the program and courses (Tinto, 1975).

Social learning experiences, such as peer teaching, group projects, debates, discussion, and other activities that promote knowledge construction in a social context, allow learners to observe and subsequently emulate other students’ models of successful learning.’

‘A learning community can be defined as a group of people, connected via technology mediated communications, who actively engage one another in collaborative learner-centred activities to intentionally foster the creation of knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practices, including diversity, mutual appropriation, and progressive discourse.’

N.B. ‘Creating a positive psychological climate built upon trusting human relationships.’


Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaserm, 453-494.

Duguid, Paul (2005). “The Art of Knowing: Social and Tacit Dimensions of Knowledge and the Limits of the Community of Practice”. The Information Society (Taylor & Francis Inc.): 109–118.

Ludwig-Hardman & Dunlap. (2003) Learner Support Services for Online Students: Scaffolding for success  in The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 4, 10, 1 (2003)

Palincsar, A.S. (1986). Reciprocal teaching. In Teaching reading as thinking. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Rosenshine, B. & Meister, C. (1992) The use of scaffolds for teaching higher-level cognitive strategies. Educational leadership, 49(7), 26-33.

Seely Brown, John; Duguid, Paul (1991). “Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation”. Organization Science 2 (1).JSTOR 2634938.

Tait, J (2004) The tutor/facilitator role in retention. Open Learning, Volume 19, Number 1, February 2004 , pp. 97-109(13)

Tinto, V (1975) Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research. Review of
Educational Research Vol.45, No1, pp.89-125.

Vygotsky. L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of the higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press

Vygotsky, L. S. (1998a). Infancy (M. Hall, Trans.). In R. W. Rieber (Ed.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. 5. Child psychology (pp. 207-241). New York: Plenum Press. (Original work written 1933-1934)

Wenger, Etienne (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-66363-2.

‘Expansive learning is based on Vygotsky, though three times removed; it implies that we learn within activity pockets as individuals and groups. The interplay between these groups are the consequential objects of learning that in turn transmogrify in the presence of other objects. Solving problems, dealing with contradictions, may come about as these learning systems slide or shift’. Engeström (2001)

I’ve taken this, from Engestrom and considered this as the interplay between SIX people (or groups) – or a mix of the two. Six people who are bringing to the discussion their different backgrounds and ideas in order to address a topic. At arm’s length, the objects, the ideas, views or knowledge that they have begins to take on an identity of its own.

‘Expansive learning is based on Vygotsky, though three times removed; it implies that we learn within activity pockets as individuals and groups. The interplay between these groups are the consequential objects of learning that in turn transmogrify in the presence of other objects. Solving problems, dealing with contradictions, may come about as these learning systems slide or shift’.

Amyone care to comment?

This is my take on a topic that has taken me through the briar-bush and out the other side. Has the struggle been worth it. The challenge I feel I face when reading papers such is this is how to make the subject matter comprehensible to the non-academic, I challenge I throw down to every academic: it is possible to make yourselves understood by the majority, rather than a minority.


Engeström (2001) article, Expansive learning at work: toward an activity theoretical reconceptualisation

The creation of Kindle Knowledge

Unable to sleep I do this.

A mini-reflection on building a profile in Linked In.

Then get on with reflecting on my notes on Vygotsky (1997/1926).

The more I read, the greater my fascination. Vygotsky (translated in 1997 from the 1926 original in Russian) I find like H.G.Wells, also of the era, extraordinarily readable and current. A considerable amount of ‘Educational Psychology rings true.

There is then at the confluence of a thought regarding Vygotsky as uploaded this image above; I am only saved from tears by what I was reading about Educational Psychology – understanding does this to you.

This screen image on a Kindle reminds me of my late father, a conservationist, who would have been 80 last week.

The thought produced a physical response.

(James, 1929)

Have we all had an encounter with a thief? If the image of the birds has me thinking about my father (conservationist, ornothologist, rubbish dad … ) then the mention of the word ‘thief’ has me visualising a large screw-diver, the weapon of choice I picked up in the garage as someone tried to break in.

(By now we’re living in a studio flat on Hamilton Terrace, though chronologically we’ve slid back a few years).

The text from Vygotsky has a resonance, and as I keep reading, a convincing argument in relation to education.

Work with these kinds of responses of the individual = success

My concern in relation to e-learning is how easy it is to duplicate what is inappropriate for a class of 30, but the authors (and their sponsors) believe is appropriate for 10,000.

Which in turn brings me to the week 2 activity in H800 of the MAODE

Online through the participation and collaboration of others in your immediate circle, which includes your tutor group, module cohort, wide MAODE colleagues and like-minded OU friends identified here, can your learning experience be personalised.

Ergo, we have a duty to comment, and only through writing ourselves, might we enable (or expose) our selves to comment in turn.

It does strike me that there is a ‘layer’ to the OU blogs-cum-threads that is missing: the MAODE or ‘Education’ blog platform.

As I’ve commented some thousand entries back, writing here is perhaps like doodling on a scroll of toilet paper in a public convenience.

Not the image or sentiment I wanted to conjure up, but a scroll, with perforations top and bottom comes to mind. What you do with this script if you’ve even read it is for your mind to decide.

Kindle doesn’t give you a page number, presumable all e-Reader follow a similar convention. To cite do I give Location 1874?

Without knowing what I am doing or what it will achieve I search ‘James’ in the Kindle PC version, am about to click when a drop down offers me not a reference at the back of the ‘book’ but a link to Google or Wikipedia. I click Wikipedia and seamlessly, find myself here.


(Wikipedia, accessed 17 FEB 2011)

And as we’re talking about physical responses to things then this brought a shiver down my spine and matching the cliched ‘reflexive’ action my draw dropped.

I don’t know what planet I’m living on any more.

No wonder I can’t sleep, Kindle content isn’t a soporific book, rather it’s wired into your cerebellum where in an action not dissimilar to Ken Dodd’s tickling stick, your mind is suitably agitated.

Ken Dodd and his tickling stick 😦

(I saw him live as a 10 year old, insanity. About as funny as my Granny sitting on a bowl of peaches).

P.S. Whether for personal, OU or the wider world, this demonstrates a value of blogging … just start to write and let your mind unravel. And if you’ll only get quiet for 90 minutes in the dead of night, that’s what you’ll have to do.


Vygotsky.L.S. (1978) Mind in Society. The development of higher psychological process. Cambridge. MA.

Williams, J (1929) Quoted in Educational Psychology, Vygotsky. Chapter 6.


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