Musings on Learning Theory

Ally’s article provided “implications for online learning” related to each theory. Discuss whether there are distinct needs in an online learning environment that aren’t equally necessary in the classroom; provide examples to validate your conclusion.

Truly, any of these questions could be addressed as a thesis so I apologize in advance for my lack of brevity!  

I was drawn to review Ally’s article on the foundations of educational theory for online learning.  I profess to not have a lot of experience with the various theories of learning presented here.   As a novice in this space, I think it’s best to start with some key concepts.  

As Ally stated, “Behaviorists’ strategies can be used to teach the what (facts); cognitive strategies can be used to teach the how (processes and principles); and constructivist strategies can be used to teach the why (higher-level thinking that promotes personal meaning, and situated and contextual learning).”   

While I can see elements of how I learn in each of these, it was Siemen’s definition of connectivism as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories” was the one that resonated with me the most. I find the greatest opportunity for synthesis in these words.  What is learning, if not a synthesis of the various materials that have been provided to us, especially in an environment that fosters the use of different materials to support different learning styles?

I wasn’t convinced that any of these constructs overtly connected with the biological mechanisms of learning which is one of the many reasons why I think this paper topic could be a thesis.   I started to go down the rabbit hole of the neurochemistry of learning and memory.  What is learning if it fails to incorporate the dynamic neuroscientific elements of the ‘aha’ moment?  What is the difference between having the ability to hear and actually hearing?  Having the ability to see and actually seeing.  Not having the ability to see and actually ‘seeing’ using a different set of senses altogether.   Everyone’s experience is going to be different and so I find that the foundations of educational theory, may, in fact, be only one of the bricks in the foundation. 

I return to the question posed –  whether there are distinct needs in an online environment that aren’t equally necessary in the classroom.  And although Ally’s article spoke to both synchronous and asynchronous learning, my focus will be on asynchronous and the challenges of not having the instructor immediately present.   

I start by leveraging an article by Muilenburg and Berge (2005) which completed a quantitative analysis on the student barriers to online learning.  In this instance, I am equating needs with barriers, which only reflects the downside of online learning.  Their factors are listed in the order in which their study ranked them from greatest to least impact:

  1. Social interaction
  2. Administrative issues
  3. Time and support for studies
  4. Learner motivation
  5. Technical problems
  6. Cost and access to the internet,
  7. Technical skills
  8. Academic skills

As I look at the list today, I wonder if the study would yield a different result based on the sheer number of courses that people are now taking online.  And none of these address the instructor’s mastery of both platforms, the knowledge of their material, their emotional intelligence, or their ability to engage their students, among other factors.  That must be a discussion for another day.  

Some examples of how these factors apply and not listed in the order presented include:

  • Access to the ability to use a computer and the technology that supports it (e.g., internet) and the very real conversation that is happening today with respect to online learning for K-12 and the concern that students will lose out on key elements of their education.  Higher education students living in rural areas may certainly struggle with access and I have had several students using equipment as old as 10 years old.  I have personally experienced that not all students are familiar with Microsoft Word and that despite my best efforts, Google applications are not always kind to my templates. 
  • Not all my students are comfortable with learning new technology.  It seems mostly to be associated with a lack of time to learn new platforms.  I think about some of my students who have told me they would prefer all of their assignments to be in Blackboard since it’s the devil they know and they feel flummoxed by having some of their coursework outside of that shell.  This semester, I’ve incorporated some assignments that require them to access the UAF Rasmussen Library.   One student just told me that he’s a distance learner so he couldn’t possibly get to the library and this after I had provided the link!  That may go to Owen’s comment about how the library is more a vestigial part of his PLN.  I sometimes wonder if this is akin to teaching someone how to use a typewriter.  And yet, I feel the need to ensure that students know how to find peer-reviewed articles.  When I think of this particular barrier to entry, I think of the science fiction book I read many years ago (Neuromancer, perhaps?) spoke to a specific segment of society that was nonfunctional since they had never mastered any technology and were subsequently left behind.  I also wonder how many students we will leave behind if we decide technology is the only vehicle in which to learn?
  • Our learning might be constrained by the Learning Management Systems (LMS) we use.  If, for example, we want to use games as a means to motivate students, and the LMS doesn’t support games, then we have identified a lost opportunity. 
  • Siemen’s observation that technology is driving the half-life of education to be shorter is occurring at the same time that life is creating more disruptors and lifequakes – people are having to manage change at a much faster pace than before.  Things that were evolutionary before are now revolutionary.  Under the category of “time and support for studies”, I had 5 students in one semester alone who were moving mid-semester and they wondered why they weren’t keeping up!

And yet, if I think about the positives of online learning, this could include many things such as the ability to take courses that one is interested from far away (perhaps even the moon!), to build a community with like-minded people, to take classes without having to build in the commute time, to continue to be an adult learner, and perhaps many more not listed here. 

Ultimately, this module was focused on looking at the historical perspectives of learning.  I think they are all interesting constructs, but they don’t fully answer the question of how we learn or even when we learn best.  I suppose it’s because “learning” to me is such a broad word.

Other thoughts as I bring this reflection to a close…

  • How would I feel after I had a chance to evaluate this image?
  • I wonder if and how the objectives would be different for each of the theories.
  • How might these theories change at different scales – 23 students vice 2.3M in computer science?  
  • What learning theory applies when we are healing from trauma?  In this instance, I’m thinking about the neurobiology of learning and somatic learning. 
  • What learning theory applies when we are learning a physical skill such as skiing?
  • Which learning theory best incorporates lessons learned?  For example, many of us had heard and even read about the 1918 Spanish Flu, but few of us learned what that meant until COVID arrived on the scene.  How will that learning change our thinking on future pandemics?  Will we use this as the 9/11 experience of rebuilding our public health infrastructure?

Perhaps the real opportunity is to ensure that we as instructors give our students the tools they need to be life long learners.    They may never resonate with the content we teach, but if we have given them confidence that they have the knowledge, skills, and confidence to learn what they need, given the ongoing chaos in the world, maybe that will be enough.  

It was time to end this reflection at least a page ago, maybe more.  And sadly, I’m not even sure if I met the intent of the assignment.  But at any rate, If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for your resilience. 

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