I have taught in a variety of educational environments in my teaching career, from the traditional lecture hall with a large number of students giving didactic lectures, to tutorials with small groups, to research methods workshops using computers to demonstrate statistical analysis, and finally to teaching in an online environment with webinars, tutorials and workshops.
However, it is only in recent years that I have explored the actual mechanics of teaching and learning. There is a burgeoning body of literature on the scholarship of teaching and learning. The relationship between teaching and learning is still something of a mystery. Philosophers, psychologists, physiologists, educationalists, sociologists and others have all contributed to understanding how people learn. The philosopher Hume (McDonnell 2010) believed there was no causal relationship between teaching and learning.
‘No matter how much one would like to believe that there is a causal link between what a teacher does and what a learner does, one will be hard-pressed to find, in reality, any discernible, or inherent, necessary connection between the activities of teaching and the activities of learning’ (McDonnell, 2010, p. 44).
In this paper, I will explore some of the dominant theories of learning and argue that these same theories can be applied to online learning and teaching and can be applied to the online modules I teach, namely Sociology of Education and Research Methods.
Pedagogy (science of teaching) is the term that is usually used to describe teaching however the etymological root is Greek (1575-1585) and means a child’s tutor; strictly speaking the term andragogy describes teaching to adults. Knowles (1980, cited in Bach, 2006, p. 49) used the term andragogy and argued that adults learn differently than children in that adults tended to be motivated to learn what to learn and when to learn it. Carlile and Jordan (2005, p. 11) suggest that there is ‘no agreed theory of learning’ only a range of theories to choose from. If teachers do not examine and reflect on their own beliefs about teaching and learning they risk emulating those who have gone before them and teaching ‘the way it has always been done’. Whilst some thinkers such as Plato put a priority on ideas over experience, other such as Locke (1690, cited in Carlile and Jordan 2005) claimed that experiences preceded learning. Kolb (cited in Carlile and Jordan 2005) posits a theory of active learning, conceptualised as a cycle of learning which begins as a concrete experience then a reflection on experience and then abstract conceptualisation and the gaining of new ideas. This leads to a new stage, which eventually develops into the acquisition of new knowledge, understanding and enhanced experience (Carlile & Jordan 2005).
Emanating from empiricism and experimental psychology the field of teaching and learning has been very influenced by behaviourism (Carlile & Jordan 2005). Behaviourism is based on the theory of ‘conditioning’ that asserts that you can condition or train any organism using a punishment or reward system. This was based on the pioneering work of Pavlov – a Russian physiologist – who discovered that dogs would salivate in response to a stimulus. Behaviourism informed curriculum design in the US and viewed the learner as passive with a huge responsibility placed on the shoulders of teachers. Applying it to higher education, students are rewarded with high grades for complying with academic standards and punished if their assignment does not reach the standard as set out in the learning outcomes. Carlile and Jordan, (2005) suggest that behaviourism has positive outcomes in that it uses effective teaching practices such as repetition, reinforcement, constantly seeking to stimulate learners, ensuring that lessons are carefully planned with written objectives and that learning outcomes are specified and achievable. Gagne’s (cited in Carlile and Jordan, 2005) nine key instructional events are still considered an important part of training programmes.
Anecdotally behaviourist methods of learning and teaching are referred to as the ‘mug and jug’ method whereby the teacher pours information into the brains of the student. Freire (Freire 1968) described this system as the banking system of education, where teachers lodge deposits. He believed that it dehumanises both teachers and learners and denies students’ creativity and the ability to think critically. Freire (1968) believed that the structure of education should be transformed to enable students to become independent learners. Although behaviourist theory may inform teaching and assessment in higher-level institutions its usefulness is questioned when considering originality, creativity, problem solving and higher order thinking. Attempts to explain how the brain and memory works arose from the field of Cognitivism.
Cognitivists posit the belief that knowledge is acquired and organised by the brain. The brain receives a stimulus (information), which is stored in the short-term memory. If this information is encoded it can be stored in the long-term memory and then is accessed and retrieved through cues. The way in which knowledge is presented (e.g. through different mediums) facilitates learning and the way in which students organise this knowledge is important such as through effective note taking, mind mapping etc. Piaget (cited in Carlile and Jordan, 2005) believed that children respond to experience and acquire knowledge through the natural development of their mental structures. Piaget’s theory of de-centring explains how learners can move beyond subjective knowledge to higher order thinking and abstract concepts. The critical thinking movement and neuro-linguistic processing (NLP) have build on cognitivism and have posited ways to accelerate learning. Research has focused on the idea of multiple intelligences, learning styles and learning preferences (Carlile & Jordan 2005). Gardner (1993) identified eight learning styles or preferences that take account of individual differences. These are verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual perceptual, spatial intelligence, musical-rhythmic intelligence, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal and naturalist (Gardner 1993). Others have added the concept of emotional intelligence (McPhillips 2011).
For cognitivists and behaviourists the teacher is still centre stage and has the responsibility for ensuring that the learner learns; constructivists on the other hand believe that learners actively construct their own knowledge and build on prior experience and knowledge. Vgotsky believed that learning takes place in a social environment and precedes development (Horton, 2008). Learning is a social rather than a private individual activity and language is the primary intellectual learning tool. Learning takes place in the zone of proximal development, the area just outside or beyond what the learner can learn on her own. With guided participation and being scaffolded or supported by a teacher, the student can enter the higher zone of learning.
Horton argues that teachers already use Vygotsky’s methods in first and second level education in that they encourage children to work in groups and to have a study buddy. They use ‘modelling’ behaviour by reading out loud to children and encourage older children to teach younger children. Horton (2008) poses the question why are these methods not used in higher-level institutions? Perhaps, it is because third level institutions are hierarchical (Marais 2010). Typically, in third-level institutions the lecturer dispatches information and the student receives knowledge.
However, we do not know whether learning has taken place until an assessment is conducted. Proponents of constructivism emphasise that learning is based on the wish of the learner to find meaning (Carlile & Jordan 2005).
Learning takes place in the interaction between the learner, the teacher, the course material and the learning environment. Alexander et al. (2009, p. 176) argue that we cannot understand the true nature of human learning without embracing its interactional complexity. They present the metaphor of a river to describe the elements of learning and the complex interactions between them; through those very interactions the elements are transformed and changed. Their conceptual framework of learning is based on four dimensions of learning: what, where, who and when. They map nine principles of learning on to these four dimensions based on change: – inevitable, essential and ubiquitous; can be resisted; may be disadvantageous; tacit and incidental as well as conscious and intentional; framed by our humanness; refers to both a process and a product; different at different points in time; and finally learning is interactional. They provide a multi-dimensional approach to learning and argue against grand theory suggesting that their framework includes dimensions that have not been argued before (Alexander et al. 2009).
Changes in learning environments
Learning is interactional, contextual, social and changes at different points in time (Alexander et al. 2009); today social interaction takes place in a global context and in cyber space. We are in the midst of the technological revolution whose full effects are still unknown. Due to the naissance of the internet and world wide web communities of shared practice (Elwood & Klenowski 2002), learning has shifted beyond the walls of the universities, beyond the boundaries of the nation state and is now global. This offers infinitesimal opportunities for both learners and teachers. In Kuhn’s (2012) terms this represents a paradigmatic shift. Scientific knowledge depends not on a strict scientific method but rather on the historical period and culture in which the knowledge is created and produced (Kuhn 2012). The more recent the theory the better it is for solving the scientific problem at hand. Today more than 2.2 billion people or one third of the world population utilise the Internet for many purposes for both learning and teaching (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet.). This offers enormous possibilities for both educators and learners. According to Marais (2010: 174): Technology can no longer be seen as part of education, it should be regarded as a transformational force that changes the approaches and theories applied to facilitate teaching and learning in higher education. In 2004, over 2.35 million students were enrolled for online courses in the US (Kim & Bonk 2006). Although traditional campus based universities will continue to exist, the advent of online learning is a significant change that will push ‘the evolution of higher education towards a different future’ (Bach et al. 2007). The demand for mass education and globalisation combined with technological changes has far reaching implications for higher education. In the second section of this paper, aspects of online teaching and learning will be presented.
Connectivism and Online learning
The main tenets of pedogical theories (behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism) equally apply to learning in a virtual or online environment (Marais 2010). Technological innovations creates seamless interaction and knowledge transfer within omnipresent networks (Khoza, 2009, p. 30 cited in Marais, 2010, p. 173) transforming traditional learning into a ubiquitous activity. Since the Enlightenment, academic conferences and the publication of academic papers has facilitated the sharing of information and an international dialogue. But what has changed is the immediacy of the knowledge transfer; today it is instantaneous. Distance learning and correspondence courses existed in the past but they shade in comparison with the delivery of online courses and e-learning which take the best from the traditional universities and adds value to it. Marais (2010) posits a theory of connectivism to explain how technological advances are changing the way that teachers teach and students learn. By connectivism is meant the capacity of learners to make connections in the virtual world within specialised connection sets and derive new knowledge which is being constantly produced. This flow of knowledge relies on the learner’s ability to integrate their own learning environment with new social networks which they will create and which may create unexpected outcomes. This theory is based on chaos theory or the complexity zone; this is a situation of finding meaning or making sense out of a random and unpredicable set of variables (Marais 2010). This provides challenges for teachers as learners are now learning from diverse sources.
Challenges for online teachers
The challenge for online providers is: how can teachers adress the learning needs and styles of their students outside the traditional university campus? (Stavredes 2011). How can they motivate their students? How can they scaffold learning? Can they create on line communities in the same way that communities are built in traditional campuses? Stavredes (2011, p. 36) argues that Gagne’s (1985) nine events of learning easily transfer to the on-line environment. These are: gaining the learner’s attention; informing them of the learning objectives; stimulating recall of prior learning; presenting stimulus in the form of content to the learner; providing guidance; eliciting performance through instructional activities; providing feedback; assessing performance; enhancing retention and transfer.
Online learning is mediated by computers and the internet but the focus is on the learner rather than the teacher. Online courses should be designed using constructivist principles and should be relevant, project based, and should provide learners with control or choice over their learning (Kim & Bonk 2006). Keeton (cited in Kim & Bonk 2006) interviewed lecturers in higher education and rated the effectiveness of online teaching strategies. Higher ratings were given to such issues as “create an environment that supports and encourages inquiry’, broaden the learner’s experience of subject matter,’ and “elicit active and critical reflection by learners on their growing experience base” (Kim & Bonk 2006: page 23).
What does online learning look like? Typically it involves blended learning (Bach et al. 2007) providing a mixture of learning experiences such as an online lecture, interaction with a tutor and an onsite experience in a laboratory or another setting for specific learning experiences. Online learning has different dimensions, it involves content or material, a task which the student has to carry out, collaboration and participation on the forum and engagement with the task (active learning and engagement), finally students and tutors come together in real time discussion. Onlearning is mediated by computers and uses the internet. Online learning provides challenges for tutor, they have to consider how they will build on learning, design a task where learners can work with their colleagues, and facilitate the learners to share their thoughts and learning experiences with colleagues.
Typically lessons are recorded by qualified teachers in a recording studio and high quality slides and interactive educational videos are embedded in the presentation. The delivery is asynchronous (Bach et al. 2007) but usually incorporates reflection and also a multiple choice test at the end of the lesson which is not graded (thus fulfilling a formative assessment function). This is similar to a lecture in a traditional university but students can listen to the lessons at their convenience but they must have access to a computer and internet.
Like the traditional university, and in line with the module learning outcomes, students are provided with a reading list and are typically asked to prepare a reading for the online synchronous tutorial (Bach et al. 2007). The tutorial is much like an online conference with the learners and the tutor present. This provides the learner with an opportunity to ask questions and revise the lesson. Students can communicate through speech and through sending notes and the tutor will address these notes. Activities typically engaged in the tutorial are brainstorming, discussions, questions and inquiry, debates and problem based discussion. There is also a poll where the tutor can ask a question and learners provide a yes or no answer. The tutorial provides learners with the opportunity to voice concerns say about upcoming assessments. In sum, the only difference between an online tutorial and a face to face tutorial is that you cannot judge body language or facial expressions.
On the online forum students post questions and engage in interactive communication with their colleagues. The tutor can answer all learners simultaneously and unlike the traditional university where students may not have access to a tutor, students have 24/7 access to a forum. These forums can create a ‘virtual’ online community. The tutor plays a role in creating and maintaining these virtual communities by ensuring that students introduce each other, by posting questions and by responding. These ‘managed learning communites’ (Allan 2005 cited in Bach et al. (2007) p. 99) include collaborative approaches to problem-solving.
Blogs, Podcasts, Wikis
Blogs, podcasts and wikis are also used. The Blog is short for a web log and is much like a diary where the teacher posts new entries, these are interactive and allow others to post comments. There are pedagogical benefits to blogging including that they allow and encourage learners to reflect on what they have learned, thereby embedding new knowledge. Podcasting enables teachers to create multimedia files such as audio and video which learners can download and use in their own time (Bach et al. 2007).
Benefits of online learning
According to Bach et al. (2007) there are many benefits of online learning. It offers a new creative and innovative medium and a new way of learning. It provides asynchronous learning which can help learners to juggle paid employment while studying. It can promote enhanced interaction between shy, quiet or socially withdrawn students by allowing them to engage in reflections on a forum. It offers the benefit of traditional education also in interactions with tutors in real time synchronous tutorials. Travel time and accomodation are not issues as students can access the material from their homes from any part of the world. Student autonomy is enhanced and self-directed learning is encouraged. There is added value to the learning experience as student’s computer competances and skills improve. Typically materials are made available on line in an e-brary so there is no competition for books.
There are also advantages relating to assessments. Lesson design builds in formative assessment. Summative assessments may simply emulate the traditional university with assessments based on essays and exams, or more creative methods of assessment may be utilised such as asking students to make a youtube video, or assessing their contributions to the forum. Does this mean that the traditional university will die? It seems very unlikely because there are too many interests at stake. Neither will we see the demise of the role of the teacher. Students still need guidance from teachers to steer them through misinformation published on the internet and students will also need scaffolding in critically evaluating and processing the information.
In conclusion, this paper has presented a number of theories about teaching and learning. It argues that these theories can also apply to on-line learning. One thing is certain if there is anything that history can teach us it is that humans are thinkers and doers. The vast strides that homo sapiens has made in relation to living conditions, food production, transport (cars, planes, boat, trains and rockets to the moon); information, communications, technology; provides extensive evidence of the intelligence of the species and their capacity to learn and shape their environment. Sadly knowledge is also used to the detriment of society, mankind has amassed enough knowledge and equipment to destroy the human race and our planet.
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