An Analysis of Learning Theories for Online Learning

Theories of learning have been postulated, studied, and revised, giving way to new viewpoints about how people learn. Many of these theories overlap and one theory does not encompass how everyone learns, or even how one person learns. It often varies by subject matter to be learned. Theories are based on research, personal experience, and observation of others (Wang, 2012). Yet, theories dictate how information should be shared in an effort to “educate” the student.

In online learning we often call students  “learners” which emphasizes the disposition of those to be educated or taught. Traditional education has been built around the need to “teach” students. The knowledgeable teacher “instructs” the students; often with little regard to whether the students have a desire to learn. School has become mandatory and as such, students may not come ready to learn. Apathy in either teacher or student can negate the best of theories. This is even true at higher educational institutions, where students have the liberty to make choices in courses and instructors, but because degrees and grades stipulate success in careers, they may not have chosen to learn. Teachers are not always interested in helping their students understand and learn. However, there are always teachers who have become more of a mentor and facilitator of learning, reaching out to those wanting to learn.

Online learning has begun to center more on learning than teaching (Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011). A team of technologists, designers, and teachers work together to create successful online courses. Learning rests with the student.  Hence, any successful learning theory presupposes a desire to learn. Yet, even with a small desire, a teacher, as an artist of learning, is capable of opening up new vistas and desires or squelching them. Even with the best theories of learning, so much is dependent on the giver and the receiver – the teacher and the student. There are those who love to learn and share that excitement. Online learning should bring them together.

When the teacher becomes the mentor and the student a seeker of knowledge, a community of learning is created.  Many online learning theories subscribe to the theory of constructivism where students construct knowledge based on previous experience and learning (Koohang & Paliszkiewicz, 2013). It is an active dynamic process where knowledge is constructed through activities of sharing, generating, combining, creating, and internalizing (Koohang & Paliskiewicz, 2013). It is applicable to online learning where higher education addresses the needs of adult learners and embraces the classification of teaching called “andragogy” or the art of teaching adults, versus “pedagogy,” the art of teaching children. Andragogy is a term popularized by Knowles (2005), which stipulates that adults take responsibility to build knowledge upon need, ability, and desire (Knowles, 2005). The term “pedagogy” originates from the Greek “paidaggos” -- a male slave who was responsible for the education of children (Bradley, 2011). As such, the paidaggos was not considered a member of society with high rank or admiration. It's funny that this word is now used to describe the science of learning and teaching.

Because the desire to learn is so important to any successful learning theory, the constructivist theory seems to be a good framework for online instruction. It is based on the "learner" constructing knowledge through a process of actively selecting and transforming information (Dabbach & Bannan-Ritland, 2005). The role of the instructor is more of a mentor – providing information and encouraging students to make their own discoveries (Dabbach & Bannan-Ritland, 2005).  

While I believe that adults prefer constructing knowledge based upon previous learning and experience, I do not adhere to the concept of letting students discover solutions by themselves without first providing information. The amount of information I believe to be necessary might not fit into the constructivist model, as I agree with Sweller, Kirschner, & Clark (2007), that minimally guided teaching methods do not work. So, while an instructor should encourage discovery, he/she must also provide guidance during learning. I disagree with problem-based learning (PBL), inquiry or discovery learning and other forms that are in favor of reducing relevant information to students and rely solely on teaching them how to find information (Sweller, et al., 2007).  It is my belief that this constitutes a heavy cognitive working load that is not conducive to problem solving and learning, and as such can lead to discouragement. As Sweller, et al. (2007) states, there are limitations to working memory that should be addressed by providing information instead of “having learners spend unnecessary time and effort on extraneous search activites” (p. 116). 

I prefer “direct instructional guidance:  providing information that fully explains the concepts and procedures that students are required to learn as well as learning strategy support that is compatible with human cognitive architecture” (Kirschner et al., 2006, p. 75).  This strategy is applicable in the math and sciences, where problem solution procedure (a fully worked out problem with narrative) assists in lowering cognitive load and transferring knowledge to long-term memory, as well as language arts where an example (paper or other task) aids in reducing extraneous searching (Sweller, et al., 2007). In the absence of instructional guidance, students may turn to collaborative learning to find answers and examples (Sweller, et al., 2007). Sometimes this can be helpful if the information is correct, but online learning with access to the Internet can often lead students astray. Guidance is necessary to reduce errors and time. Therefore, the cognitive load theory of learning should be applied for the success of an online course.

Experiential learning as proposed by C. Rogers (1969) is a theory that seems to be on the opposite end of cognitive theory, but in my opinion utilizes aspects of cognitive learning such as memorization. Even in the most basic of experiential learning situations, cognitive theory has application. Experiential learning theory is based on the idea that people learn information that they need or want for growth, through experience (Culatta, 2011). This is applicable to adult learning where the instructor sets a positive atmosphere, clarifies the purpose, organizes resources, shares but does not dominate (Dabbach, et al., 2005). Even though this seems to apply to face-to-face learning, the concepts are applicable to online learning where learning is self-initiated and proceeds at an individual rate.

Information comes alive when dialogue is open and continual. Moore’s (1997) transactional distance theory stresses that there is more to online learning than the physical distance. It involves the three variables of dialogue, program structure, and learner autonomy (Haythornthwaite, et al., 2011).  The benefits of online learning are not just the geography factor, but that it supports multiple communities of learners – those wanting more active involvement via discussion boards, web conferencing and messaging and those wanting more distance. Transactional learning theory addresses the needs of a variety of learners.

Online learning is more than a site for learning, it affects the nature of learning (Haythornthwaite, et al., 2011).  Therefore, traditional teaching methods and theories used in brick and mortar classrooms must be evaluated for online learning. Technology and learning must work together to provide a rich and successful learning environment. Even with communal constructivism where individuals contribute and connect to each other via the Internet, guided instruction is important in lowering cognitive load and supplying information for constructing knowledge. The student of learning is not only those at school, but anyone who has a need and desire to learn something. This includes most people searching for answers through sources available at the touch of button through internet access. The difficult part for anyone searching, is to be able to shuffle through what is inaccurate information to find the truth. The instructor, teacher, mentor is the person that should guide the learner to find that information and construct knowledge.


Bannan-Ritland, B., & Dabbagh, N.  (2005).  Online learning: Concepts, strategies, and application Columbus, OH: Pearson.

Bradley, K. & Cartledge, P. (2011).  The Cambridge World History of Slavery: Volume 1, The Ancient Mediterranean. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Culatta, R.  (2011).  Instructional design:  Learning Theories.  Retrieved from http://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/index.html

Haythornthwaite, C., & Andrews, R. (2011) E-learning Theory & Practice. London: Sage.

Hiemstra, R., & Sisco, B. (1990). Individualizing instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Knowles, M. S., Holton III, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005).  The adult leaner.  The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development.  Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Koohang, A., & Palisszkiewicz, J. (2013). Knowledge construction in E-learning: An empirical validation of an active learning model. Journal of Computer Information Systems, 53(3), 109-114.

Moore, M. (1997). Theory of transactional distance in D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical Principles of distance Education. London: Routledge. pp 22-38.

Sweller, J., Kirschner, P. & Clark, R. (2007). Why minimally guided teaching techniques do not work:  A reply to commentaries. Educational Psychologist, 4(2), 115-121.

Wang, V. (2012). Understanding and promoting learning theories. International Forum of Teaching & Studies, 8(2), 5-11. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=82187857&site=eds-live

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