It is the theory that decides what we can observe.

                                                                                    —Albert Einstein

Chapter One covers the following topics:

  • Introduction to Learning Theory in the Knowledge Age
  • What is Learning Theory?
    • Theory and Epistemology: the Nature of Knowledge
    • Theory and Scientific Method
    • Knowledge Communities

Introduction to Learning Theory in the Knowledge Age

Our personal, professional, social, and cultural lives have been affected and transformed by the computer networking revolution; email, cellphones, text messaging, tweeting, participating in social networks, blogging, and accessing powerful search engines using computers and/or mobile devices are common aspects of everyday life. Moreover, as aspiring or current members of the education profession (teachers, instructors, professors, trainers), the world in which we work and teach has been particularly impacted by networking technologies. The 21st century is referred to as the Knowledge Age, a time in which knowledge has key social and economic value. And today’s youth are described as the Net generation, raised in the culture of the Internet and viewing the Web as integral to socializing and work. Yet educational practice does not significantly reflect or address this new reality.

In such a technology-driven world, it is critical and timely to study the intersection of learning theory and technology. Opportunities for educators to reflect on the implications of how we might shape and apply new communication technologies within our practice have been limited. The field is characterized by training teachers in the use of specific online tools, but a theory-informed approach to transforming our educational practice remains elusive.

In our personal lives, we have embraced new technologies for social communication. New technologies are reshaping the way we function within our communities and how we form them. We use email, Twitter, texting, participate in online forums and social networks (such as Facebook, MySpace), search massive databases, access wikis, blogs, and user-generated content sites (YouTube, Flickr) or shop online with Amazon. But in our professional lives, despite our interest or need, there has been little opportunity to consider and explore new learning paradigms.

Rather than transform pedagogy by using opportunities afforded by new technologies and the changing socio-economic context of the 21st century, a common tendency of educators has been to merely integrate technology into traditional ways of teaching. Examples of traditional didactic approaches to the Web are common and include the use of email, wikis and web portals for:

  • transmission of course information and content to students;
  • communication between student and teacher/tutor;
  • transmission of lectures (powerpoint slides, videoconferences, podcasts)
  • administering quizzes, assessing quizzes, and posting grades.

Such use of the Web for traditional teaching methods represents the most common educational applications of the Web, and for many educators, the only way of using the Web. Adopting the new technologies to serve traditional practices may not be bad in itself, but educators who restrict their use of the Internet and the Web to making traditional didactic teaching easier or more efficient are missing opportunities to introduce better, different, or more advanced ways of learning.

While the Internet, Web and mobile communication technologies reshape the potential of both our professional and personal modes of communication, the challenge of how to transform how we think about learning and how we practice our profession confronts us. The transformative potential of the Internet for learning has thus far been largely limited to quantitative change; for example, improvement in educational efficiency. But qualitative change in how we perceive and practice teaching and learning remains in the early stages of development largely because it is not yet well understood by educators and researchers and the field lacks a theoretical framework to guide educational design, pedagogies and use of online technologies. There are few theory-based or research-based guidelines to assist educators to develop more effective pedagogies for online learning environments. Hence educators have adopted new technologies largely through trial and error methods and by adapting traditional didactic practices to online environments, both within formal (primary, secondary or tertiary) and nonformal (training, certification, professional development) educational settings.

Educators are challenged to respond to the Internet and the Web. There is a need to reflect on our theory of learning (even if it is implicit), and to rethink and reassess our teaching practices and pedagogical approaches in relation to the opportunities afforded by online technologies. Most professions are faced with this challenge; new technologies are transforming the world of work and the nature of the organizations in which we work. Educators are not alone in confronting the paradigmatic shift. But perhaps as educators we have the greatest responsibility and most powerful opportunity because this shift is, above all, one of learning: learning to function, survive, and to thrive in new contexts. For educators, learning new ways and new ways of learning is the nature of our profession.

What is Theory?

Theory explains why something occurs or how it occurs. Typically theory is generated by a question or by our curiosity, and offers a response to that question. A theory is an explanation that has been scientifically developed by scientists and scholars using state-of-the-art research methods and information of the day. A theory of learning aims to help us to understand how people learn. Many theories of learning were generated in the 20th century, and in this book we will examine the major theories and how each provides an overview and guide, or a lens, whereby education professionals (and others) gained a perspective on their field of work. As Albert Einstein stated, “theory provides the framework or lens for our observations.” The theory that we employ (consciously or not) determines what we see, what we consider to be important and thus how we will design and implement our practice. By understanding learning theory, educators can reflect on their practice, improve upon, reshape and refine their work, and contribute to advancing the discipline.

Theory should not be viewed as something divorced from how we work as educators or how we understand our professional activities. Theory is integral to practice and vice versa, although not all theoreticians or practitioners for that matter, have respected and addressed that relationship. Understanding the major theories of learning that emerged in the 20th and 21st centuries and how they were shaped by (and shaped) contemporary technologies and educational practice can help us understand how the field of education has developed and changed. As we will see, theories of learning reflect the times in which they emerged and gained precedence.

A theory is a historical construct and reflects what was possible and deemed necessary and valuable at that time. It is essential that educators understand the context of a learning theory, to understand it as a product of the discourse of that time.

Moreover, theory provides not only ways to see and understand what already has happened or is happening but is also a means to ‘envision’ new worlds and new ways to work. Theories establish a language and discourse whereby we can discuss, agree, disagree, and build new perspectives and ways to become knowledgeable, in this case, in the use of online technologies for learning. In his article “Thoughts on theory in educational technology” Brent Wilson writes, “Theory helps us formulate ideas; it informs the creative process. When we see the world differently, we act to make things different via the relationship between theory and design or between science and technology. Such relationships allow for new technology or conversely, ‘…a new technology spawns new theory'” (1997a, p. 23).

Theory is also a kind of modus operandi; it influences, shapes and determines our actions, even unknowingly. Whether or not we consciously intend to ‘operationalize’ a particular theory of learning, we are nonetheless operating according to some perspective on how to teach (and concomitantly, even if unconsciously, a perspective on how people learn). As Wilson noted, “Theories shape our world just as surely as physical forces do, albeit in a different way” (1997a, p. 23). Theories shape how we make sense of ideas and information and how we then act.

TABLE 1.1 What is a Theory?

The Role of Theory








A framework or lens

A guide for practice

A means to envision change








The theory we employ (even unknowingly) shapes how we design and implement our practice

Approaches to scientific theory are also competitive. By the 20th century, theoretical approaches became compartmentalized into what can be viewed as two polar opposites: the battle between what is called ‘scientific’ (hypothesis-driven or experimental) theory and ‘social’ or critical theory. Other related theoretical terms include ‘hard’ science versus ‘soft’ social science theories, pure science versus applied science, quantitative versus qualitative scientific research.

This polarization continues to exist but there are increasing attempts to diminish the divide. The growing use of interdisciplinary collaborations in research is reducing some of the separations. Researchers are increasingly employing both quantitative and qualitative methods, especially within online applications. Moreover, while there are differences in what constitutes scientific theory, there are also important commonalities. Theories intend to explain how or why phenomena are understood in a certain way. Moreover, theories are usually linked to observations and are governed by what can be deemed as constituting evidence and reasonable explanation. Theories can also be viewed as a historical snapshot of discussions and conversations contemporary among those committed to the discipline, its study and advancement at a particular time.

The history of theory development is relatively recent, the product of the scientific revolution that gained precedence in the 19th century. Understanding learning theories as part of this scientific ethos is critical and will form a key undercurrent of this book.

At the same time, theories of learning have an important philosophical component. Thoughts on learning are not new and did not emerge a mere hundred years ago. Reflection on human experience, behavior, causation, and implications, is part of human consciousness. Thousands of years of philosophical, social and religious perspectives on learning preceded the development of learning theories.

The ancient philosophers developed many important and illuminating insights into learning, and contributed to how we view ‘epistemology’ and ‘knowledge.’ The term ‘epistemology’ comes from the Greek word ‘episteme,’ meaning knowledge. In simple terms, epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge or of how we come to know.

The discussion of learning theories in this book has an epistemological and a scientific component, and emphasizes as well the role of knowledge communities. Knowledge communities are the forums or processes of discourse and debate, whereby scholars advance the state of the art in that discipline. These three terms are discussed below as providing the cornerstones of theory. Deciding what to study when we seek to explain how people learn or deciding how to teach, depends upon our disciplinary beliefs and perspectives: theories of learning are based on epistemologies, scientific methods, and the views of knowledge communities of the time.

The term ‘epistemology’, when we first encounter it, may seem complex and daunting. Not user-friendly. But it is worth befriending this term since it illuminates important concepts we educators need to understand. Epistemology asks: what is knowledge? How do we know? These questions are important because 20th and 21st century learning theories are based on epistemologies that began to nudge the concept of knowledge beyond the view of knowledge as divine that was dominant up until the 19th century. The two major epistemologies of the 20th and 21st centuries are objectivist epistemology (reflected in behaviorist and cognitivist theories of learning) and constructivist epistemology (reflected in constructivist and the online collaborative learning theories).

Until recently, epistemology in the Western world had a relatively simple foundation: we know because God told us. Kenneth Bruffee (1999), in his book Collaborative Learning: Higher Education, Interdependence, and the Authority of Knowledge, writes that up until the time of Descartes (what is called the pre-Cartesian world), “people tended to believe that the authority of knowledge lodged in one place, the mind of God. Most teachers were priests—or priestly. They derived their authority from what they and their students regarded as their godliness, their nearness to the mind of God” (p. 151). Formal education was ‘authorized’ by the church, the temple, the synagogue or the mosque. The teachers in ancient civilizations such as Persia and Athenian Greece were to some degree exceptions given their focus on civic laws and virtues. But even civic knowledge was viewed as having a divine origin.

“Post-Cartesian assumptions emerge in roughly the seventeenth century. They remain potent and unquestioned today in the ‘cognitive sciences’ and implicitly in the persuasion of most members of every other disciplinary community, professional and academic” (Bruffee, 1999, p. 151). These assumptions posit knowledge as existing objectively beyond our own minds, as a kind of finite truth. The implication for education and learning is the search for knowledge and truth, and imparting it to others. “One kind of knowledge that traditional college and university education especially values because it is long-lasting is knowledge of the conventions of traditional education themselves. Professors are responsible not only for imparting knowledge that was imparted to them, but also imparting knowledge as it was imparted to them” (Bruffee, 1999, p. 152-3).

Eric Mazur, well-known professor of physics, illustrates this view as part of his own teaching experiences.

Discussions of education are generally predicted on the assumption that we know what education is… When I started teaching introductory physics to undergraduates at Harvard University, I never asked myself how I would educate my students. I did what my teachers had done—I lectured. I thought that was how one learns. Look around anywhere in the world and you’ll find lecture halls filled with students and, at the front, an instructor. This approach to education has not changed since before the Renaissance and the birth of scientific inquiry. Early in my career I received the first hints that something was wrong with teaching in this manner, but I had ignored it. Sometimes it hard to face reality. (Mazur, 2009, p. 50)

Didactic methods of teaching are the accepted and traditional way of imparting knowledge. Didactic teaching involves transmitting knowledge from the teacher to the student, just as it was earlier transmitted to the teacher when she or he was a student. This is imperative if the view of knowledge is objectivist, foundational and absolute according to Bruffee, who writes that the objectivist view holds that “knowledge is a kind of substance contained in and given form by the vessel we call the mind. Professors’ mental vessels are full, or almost full. Students’ mental vessels are less full. The purpose of teaching is to transfer knowledge from the fuller vessels to the less full” (Bruffee, 1999, p.152).

In contrast to the objectivist version of the authority of knowledge is the more recent constructivist epistemology, which holds that knowledge about the world is constructed through our perceptions and interaction and discussion with various communities of knowledgeable peers. Bruffee writes: “The nonfoundational social constructionist understanding of knowledge denies that it lodges in any of the places I have mentioned: the mind of God, touchstones of truth and value, genius, or the grounds of thought, the human mind and reality. If it lodges anywhere, it is in the conversation that goes on among the members of a community of knowledgeable peers and in the ‘conversation of mankind.'” (Bruffee, 1999, p. 153).

TABLE 1.2 Metaphysical vs. Scientific Perspectives on Knowledge

Bates and Poole (2003) note that the two dominant epistemological positions in North American higher education today are objectivism and constructivism. “Objectivists believe that there exists an objective and reliable set of facts, principles, and theories that either have been or will be discovered and delineated over the course of time. This position is linked to the belief that truth exists outside the human mind, or independently of what an individual may or may not believe” (p. 27-28).

On the other hand, constructivist epistemologies hold “that knowledge is essentially subjective in nature, constructed from our perceptions and usually agreed upon conventions. According to this view, we construct new knowledge rather than simply acquire it via memorization or through transmission of those who know to those who did not” (Bates & Poole, 2003, p. 28).

Epistemologies of knowledge are key to how we view and how we practice teaching and learning. An educator operating from an objectivist epistemology is “far more likely to believe that a course must present a body of knowledge to be learned” (Bates and Poole, 2003, p. 28). The objectivist epistemology underlies the didactic approach to teaching, based on the belief that students learn passively by receiving and assimilating knowledge from others. The student is required to generate the correct answer, reflecting back the information first transmitted by the teacher. The teacher must ensure that the information to be transmitted is structured, authoritative, and organized in particular ways to enable the student to acquire and repeat it “correctly”. Objectivist epistemology underlies two of the major learning theories of the 20th century, behaviorism and cognitivism, discussed in Chapters Three and Four.

The term ‘constructivism’ refers to both an epistemology and a theory of learning. Constructivist epistemology holds that knowledge is constructed from our perceptions and our interpretations based upon contemporary conventions. Our perceptions are shaped through interactions with others, in particular with more knowledgeable peers and/or the appropriate knowledge community. The constructivist epistemology is reflected in both the constructivist and the online collaborative learning theories, discussed in Chapters Five and Six.

Theory and Scientific Method

While philosophies of learning have been a recurrent theme and concern since the time of ancient civilizations, theory and scientific methods first emerged in the nineteenth century under the influence of positivism, a term coined in 1847 by the French philosopher, Auguste Comte. Auguste Comte (1798-1857) was the first intellectual to systematically articulate positivism and to present empirical method as a replacement for metaphysics or theism in the history of thought. Until then, metaphysics was the dominant view, which emphasized that a divine world lies beyond experience, and transcends the physical or natural world. Theism refers to the belief in the existence of one or several gods who intervene in the lives of men. Comte rejected metaphysics and theism, arguing that a rational assertion should be scientifically verifiable, that is, demonstrated by empirical evidence or mathematical proof. Theory was an assertion or observation linked to science; the purpose of science, Comte argued, is to observe and measure phenomena that we experience and can directly manipulate. Comte believed that empiricism should be at the core of scientific endeavor and that formal experiment was the key to scientific method. Since emotions and thoughts were not directly observable, they were not accepted as legitimate areas of study and were viewed as irrelevant by positivist science. Positivism holds that theology and metaphysics are imperfect modes of knowledge, whereas positive knowledge is based on natural phenomena with properties and relations verified by empirical science. Theory must therefore be verifiable by empirical science.

The first theories of learning can be traced to the late 19th century, related to the emergence of positivism and scientific inquiry. Whereas ‘philosophies’ of learning deal with values and worldviews, ‘theories’ of learning emphasize an empirical element and a formalized way of study, analysis and conclusion. It is this distinguishing quality of theory, its empirical nature, that remains relevant today, while the rigid aspect of positivism that restricted the study of learning to observable behavior is less accepted by educational researchers.

Theory and Knowledge Communities

Knowledge communities refer to scholarly groups associated with a particular field or related to a discipline. It is the work of the members of a knowledge community to define the state of the art and to advance that state in a particular discipline or field of work. Scholarly or knowledge communities are associated with all scientific, cultural and artistic fields of endeavor. Other terms used to describe this concept are knowledge societies, scientific communities, invisible colleges, and schools of thought. The concept itself, however, is key because theory building is typically conducted by and within the context of a particular knowledge community. Members collaborate and argue, agree and disagree, and introduce new information and empirical data to contribute to and advance knowledge in the field. Scardamalia and Bereiter (2006) write: “In every progressive discipline one finds periodic reviews of the state of knowledge or the “state of the art” in the field. Different reviewers will offer different descriptions of the state of knowledge; however, their disagreements are open to argument that may itself contribute to advancing the state of knowledge” (p. 100). Knowledge creation is a deliberate process of advancing the frontiers in a particular discipline. Knowledge, thus, is viewed as constructed through informed dialogue and conversations conducted among members of a knowledge community.

Academic, cultural, scientific and professional knowledge communities share commonalities or integrative beliefs. Kuhn (1970), whose writings on the structure of scientific revolutions (also called paradigm shifts) are considered to be intellectual landmarks explaining the process of discovery, examined the nature and role of scientific communities. Kuhn asked: “What do its members share that accounts for the relative fullness of their professional communication and the relative unanimity of their professional judgments?… Scientists themselves would say they share a theory or set of theories….” (1970, p.182).

Knowledge communities are scientists or leading thinkers gathered or clustered around a theory and represent the state of the art in that discipline. A particular knowledge community represents the theory of the discipline, how it is defined and articulated in practice, and how it is substantiated.

The concept of knowledge communities is key in this book. The four major learning theories discussed here represent the state of the art as articulated by particular knowledge communities, which flourished at particular points in time. Theories exist in context, and both reflect and illuminate that context. Theories change and improve over time. Knowledge in a field does not merely accumulate, it advances.


Learning Theory for the 21st Century

Online Collaborative Learning Theory

….In considering education for the 21st century, Calfee (2006) asks: “What should we be doing?” He identifies what he calls RIPs: Really Important Problems, one of which centers around “how best to provide effective and efficient teaching and learning for all children” (p. 35). A corollary topic, he writes, is the role of technology in schooling, given the incredible impact of technologies elsewhere in society. He writes:

Other than electrification, today’s classroom is remarkably unchanged from the end of the 19th century. The cast of characters and the activities remain virtually unchanged, along with the length of the school day and year and several other parameters. Schools have thwarted numerous innovations; radio, television, and even telephones have minimal presence in today’s classrooms. Systems that we take for granted outside the school walls—computers, the Internet, PDAs, handhelds—are either somnolent or prohibited. (Calfee, 2006, p. 35)

These are important issues that call for new learning theories to be linked to practice and to real world contexts and technologies.

Behaviorist, cognitivist and developmental constructivist theories of learning emphasized learning as an individualistic pursuit. Moreover, the epistemological basis of behaviorism and cognitivism was objectivism: objectivist epistemology holds that knowledge is fixed, finite, and ultimately, knowledge is truth. Knowledge is something that the teacher has mastered, and which students must now similarly master by replicating the knowledge of the teacher. The pedagogies emphasized ‘transmitting information’ by the teacher as a way to ‘acquire knowledge’ by the student, reflected in such didactic approaches as lectures or their mechanized versions in the form of teaching machines, computer-assisted instruction (CAI), intelligent tutoring systems (ITS), and courseware. This was the ethos of the Industrial age, an era that emphasized the learner’s ability to acquire and retain information and associated skills. An implicit educational goal was that the student learn to follow instructions accurately to achieve the desired result.

The 21st century Knowledge Age has introduced a very new mindset in society. Whereas the Industrial revolution extended and leveraged our physical capabilities to manipulate objects far beyond muscle power alone, the Internet revolution and ensuing Knowledge Age emphasizes, extends and leverages our mental capabilities. Online Collaborative Learning (OCL) is proposed as a framework to guide understanding and practice of education in the Knowledge Age. Unlike the behaviorist and cognitivist emphasis on instructions for replicating a textbook answer, OCL focuses on knowledge building processes. OCL is distinct from constructivist learning theory, because it emphasizes active learning within a deeper process of conceptual development thru collaborative engagement in knowledge building discourse. “One important advantage of knowledge building as an educational approach is that it provides a straightforward way to address the contemporary emphasis on knowledge creation and innovation. These lie outside the scope of most constructivist approaches, whereas they are at the heart of knowledge building” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006 p. 99).….


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