In theory...

Intuitive teachers generally have a reasonable understanding of the processes of learning and how humans acquire knowledge and skills. Any teacher training course worth its salt has a significant element of learning theory within its programme. Teachers who seek excellence should aspire to understanding how learning experiences can be optimised to promote good learning outcomes. There are many who are expert in learning and teaching though, who have scant appreciation that in technology mediated learning environments, things can be very different. A lot of teachers do have a working knowledge of how electronic media can be used to support learning, but how many know when to use them and how to optimise their effects?

There are many established theories and models we could use to explain learning and a few specialised theories about how learning can be enhanced and extended through electronic media. But many are theories that were relevant to education in the last century. Time has moved us on. We need to go further than a mere exploration of established learning theories if we want to gain a better understanding of learning within various e-learning contexts. We need to get our hands dirty at the interface of e-learning to begin to understand some of the complexities. In online learning modes for example, some of the rules of traditional learning no longer apply, or are changed or extended. Some new phenomena will be encountered, which can cause teachers to throw their hands up in confusion, force them to modify their expectations and opinions of how students learn within electronic environments, or cause students to behave in ways that would not be possible or even acceptable in traditional settings. George Siemens and Stephen Downes present us with connectivism - in their own words, a 'theory for the digital age'. It's not what you know, Siemens argues, but who you know that's important. Others like Scott Wilson say that Personal Learning Environments are a counter proposition to the institutional content management system (VLE), while still others are theorising about what PLEs can possibly look like (me included). Then there are those such as Marc Prensky, Dave White and Mark Bullen who lock horns and argue whether today's learners are respectively, digital natives and immigrants, residents and visitors, or none of the above. I could go on.... there's a lot of new theory about and we need all of it.

My own teaching experience has led me to theorise why certain things happen. I have seen several things happen that are departures from traditional learning behaviours. Students who previously collaborated willingly on a single piece of work for example, may decide to be more protective of their ideas and work when it's placed in a shared online space such as a wiki. Some students lose all their inhibitions when they post content onto Facebook or Myspace. People who are quite vocal in traditional classroom situations may suddenly have a crisis of confidence in an online setting. Drop-out rates for distance education programmes are as high as 50% in some universities. And yet the literature suggests that there are no significant differences between traditional and online forms of learning. e-Pedagogy is not an easy field to understand, but it is on the increase, and we need new theories to help us understand.

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Tara Alexander said…
Great post, Steve. I am mystified that those want to be the movers and the shakers in Higher-Ed are the ones who refuse to embrace technology. Theories of e-learning are important, but the focus should be on the faculty who have the power and are the ones gunking up the works.
Ed Webb said…
Effective research on this will require a lot of getting our hands dirty, as you say, Steve. I'm no educational theorist, rather a mere practitioner with a particular interest in digital technologies in and out of the classroom. So how can I, and others like me, effectively collaborate with theorists/researchers like you to build the body of theory we all need?
Anonymous said…
This is somewhat a question of academic navel gazing, but important still the same.

But, what is theory?

I've seen lots of arguments for and against different perspectives and eventually the debate gets in the way of what you want to achieve.

The view I take (at the moment) is summarised - very briefly - in this post

What's the accepted view in the learning technology (should that be ICT :) ) field?

A Type 1 Theory (i.e. taxonomy) of existing theories that are relevant to learning technology might be a useful start - map the existing landscape to identify holes etc.
daja said…
Surely the way human beings learn has not changed in the last fifty years because of the introduction of technology. I find it difficult to believe that a brain which has taken millions of years to evolve could undergo fundamental changes so quickly.

On the other hand they way we teach should change, has changed and will change due to technology.
Steve Wheeler said…
Daja, you are of course correct. We still construct knowledge in much the same way as we always have. This is why Prensky's digital natives theoey has come under such fire - there is no evidence for cognitive restructuring because of media or technology. You are also correct in arguing that teaching has to change.

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