Theory of Online Learning

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This is a new page created by Kerry-Ann Henry, February 2011.


Theories represent a set of assumptions, which says why something occurs and how it occurs. Educators consider the means, the end, the tools, activities, environment and relevance/context of learning (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Dick & Carey, 1990; Jonassen, 1999). Online learning shows some unique qualities in that it crosses several of these considerations: it is a process (through activities), a tool and is the environment itself in which learning takes place.

Increasing number of courses are being situated and studied online, whether for convenience or for the affordances offered by online learning. Major goals and uses of online dialogue include promoting critical inquiry and engaging in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (Xin & Feenberg, 2005). Xin and Feenberg suggest further investigation into the understanding of the dynamics of learning and participating in asynchronous forums.

Although there is no set theory of Online Learning educators and researchers (Anderson, 2008; Xin & Feenberg, 2005) highlight essential elements that create the foundations of such a theory. Online Learning has also been referred to as E-Learning.



A theory of online learning can be seen in the concept that the computer and internet are used to deliver course content in Technology Enhanced Learning Environments and to facilitate communication and assessment using Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication:Tools for Collaboration, primarily asynchronous methods. It is largely student-centred requiring personal engagement, high level of authorship, peer review and mediation. Teachers act as mediators and facilitators in a somewhat shared role in an environment that is based on i) Knowledge Building/construction, through critical inquiry; ii) Collaborative Learning and problem solving involving discussion, clarification and debate; and iii) a knowledge forum that is open and decentralized but also directed at times. Persons interact with the same content at different times and locations (distance) and are able to track thoughts or ideas and how they develop and change, based on what/ why that change was made. Tasks need to be open enough to facilitate personal constructive engagement; provide a narrative vs propositional support structure; and place the locus of control in the hands of the user. Learners thus become more intrinsically motivated, indepenent and critical thinkers.



Activities and related Theories

A theory of online learning embraces online learning as a subset of learning and as such is reflective of a number of other learning theories: Distributed and Embodied Cognition (group assignments, sharing and questioning of concepts and experiences); Communities of Practice (area of study); cognition through social interactions (via discussions and posts); discovery learning and accommodation, assimilation and equilibrium processes (investigating questions, personal reflections and comparing what we think we know against others’ experiences or positions) (Scarmaldia & Beireter, 1996). Also, general interaction with the material, and each other, reflect theories of Connectivism (Siemens, 2004).

Divergences/challenges and opportunities


Learning occurs primarily in asynchronous environments (Anderson, 2008; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2006). The primarily asynchronous nature of online learning means that visual and verbal clues are not readily apparent hence areas of misunderstanding and associated prompt response to correct are not necessarily readily apparent. “Repair”, elaborating/clarifying areas of dissonance and misunderstandings are more challenging in online learning (Xin & Feenberg, 2005).

Evidence of engagement and comprehension are more difficult, acknowledgement and using a contributor’s words are inadequate, rather there must be authorship and critical analysis and improvised responses based on individual reactions to contributions while relating and applying concepts and principles (Xin & Feenberg, 2005).

e-learning summary
Information Management

In online learning learners filter knowledge/choose relevant information, use the information and move to the next task/aspect. The computer and technology process the information while the learner organizes the information based on what supports thoughts/needs, emphasizing application of material and Knowledge Building rather than cognitive processes. This contrasts with Driscoll (2005) and Schunk (2008), who highlight separate processes for accessing, interacting with, processing and retention of information.

Information is vast and constantly changing. It is saved online for recall therefore must be accessible anytime, anywhere in a cycle of constant reference. As such information has to be presented in smaller chunks. Students are guided to further sources/to interact with material through hyperlinking. Sites and links are assessed for relevance and continuity in the chunking of information related to the task or exploration. Knowledge of the computer and navigating the Internet are vital and the system should facilitate linking to concrete examples and seamless switching between sites and materials.

Democratic roles of Mediation – The teacher as moderator

There has been a demand for a shift from less teacher-centered to more student-centered learning. This shift has seen changes from “a sage on the stage.” to the teacher as “a guide on the side”. Constructivist strategies and theories further propose shifting roles of the teacher from transmitter of knowledge to facilitator (Reigeluth, 1999). Online learning environments promote student-centred learning and further extends the role of the teacher from facilitator to moderator (Xin & Feenberg, 2005).

Summary of Moderating Functions (Xin & Feenberg, 2005, p.23)
Contextualizing functions
1. Opening Discussions.
2. Setting the norms: suggesting rules of procedure for the discussion.
3. Setting the agenda
4. Referring: The conference may be contextualized by referring to materials available on the Internet, for example, by hyperlinking, or offline materials such as textbooks.
Monitoring functions
5. Recognition: refer to participants’ comments, assure value of contribution and correct misapprehensions.
6. Prompting: addressing requests for comments to individuals or the group.
7. Assessing: Participant accomplishment may be assessed by tests, review sessions, or other formal procedures.
Meta functions
8. Meta-commenting: remarks directed at such things as the context, norms or agenda of the forum; or at solving problems such as lack of clarity, irrelevance, and information overload. Meta-comments play an important role in maintaining the conditions of successful communication.
9. Weaving: summarizing the state of the discussion and finding threads of unity in the comments of participants. Weaving recognizes the authors of the comments it weaves together, and often implicitly prompts them to continue along lines that advance the conference agenda.
10. Delegating. Certain moderating functions such as weaving can be assigned to individual participants to perform for a shorter or longer period.

Collaborative Discourse in Online Learning

Gunawardena, Lowe, and Anderson (1997) present five typical phases of negotiation and knowledge co-construction in an online debate:

Five typical phases of negotiation and knowledge co-construction in an online debate (Gunawardena, Lowe, & Anderson, 1997 in Xin & Feenberg, 2005, pp.8-9)
In phase 1, participants identify problems, state agreement and disagreement, provide supporting examples, and clarify statements through question and answer
In phase 2, areas of disagreement are identified, clarified, and further argued
In phase 3, participants negotiate weights assigned to types of argument, negotiate agreement and compromise, and propose integration of metaphors
In phase 4, participants test a proposed synthesis against existing cognitive schemas, data collected, testimony in the literature, and personal experience and reasoning
In phase 5, participants summarize agreement, apply knowledge, and illustrate change through metacognitive statements

Useful Links

Research into Online Communities of Inquiry

Sun, Y, et al. (2005) Online Asynchronous Discussion in Teaching and Learning: A Bibliography.

Facilitating educational synchronous online -

Key concepts in Online learning -

Benefits, Affordances and Suitability of Online learning -


Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0: A new wave of innovation for teaching and learning? Educause Review, 41(2), 32-44.

Anderson, T. (2008). Toward a theory of online learning. In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.) Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Chapter 2 (pp. 45-74). Available online at:

Barab, S., & Duffy, T. (2000). From practice fields to communities of practice. In D. Jonassen and S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments. Mahweh, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dick, W., & Carey, L. (1990). The systematic design of instruction. New York: Harper Collins. Chapter 1: Introduction to instructional design (pp. 2-11).

Driscoll. M.P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (pp. 384-407; Ch. 11 – Constructivism). Toronto, ON: Pearson.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Reigeluth, C.M. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Vol.2 ,. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge-building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283.

Schunk, D. H. (2008). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (pp. 130-181; ch. 4 – Information Processing). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved November 22, 2010, from

Xin, C., & Feenberg, A. (inpress.2005). Pedagogy in Cyberspace: The Dynamics of Online Discussion.

Additional Reading

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). The “twoness” of learn 2.0: Challenges and prospects of a would-be new learning paradigm. Closing keynote presented at the Learning 2.0: From Preschool to Beyond, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ

Lax, L., Taylor, I., Wilson-Pauwels, L., & Scardamalia, M. (2004). Dynamic curriculum design in Biomedical Communications: Integrating a knowledge building approach and a Knowledge Forum learning environment in a medical legal visualization course. The Journal of Biocommunication, 30(1), 1-10.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review. 66 (1), 60-92.