Ally’s chapter “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning” in Athabasca University’s free web book Theory and Practice of Online Learning provides a very useful summary of the three major theoretical frameworks of learning and shows how they can all be used to offer effective online learning. It is impressive to see how the author concisely reviews the theories, along with supporting paradigms for the theories, into cohesive guidelines for online learning.
I have these comments to add:
1) Ally says that “online learning knows no time zones, and location and distance are not an issue.” I disagree. I believe this is a common misconception about online learning that creates unrealistic expectations for learners and facilitators. Even asynchronous learning is highly dependent on a certain flow of discussions, activities, group collaboration and feedback. These components can be affected by disparate time zones and locations. Is it more flexible than a face-to-face classroom? Yes. But time and space are still factors.
2) Ally offers three diagrams for basic information mapping. Here are some great resources for making concept maps (for instructors and learners):
3) Ally says that “information should be placed in the center of the screen for reading.” I’m surprised by this comment, and there’s no support cited for it. I have done extensive research on visual communications and reading from computer screens, and this is not a principle I have ever seen supported or espoused. Eye-tracking studies on web users show varied results for predicting where users’ eyes will travel across a screen and for what types of information. Yes, centered text will attract attention in some contexts, but this advice needs more context than provided in his bulleted list. My research and experience would lead me to advise attention to font size before page placement.
4) Ally addresses learning styles in this overview, a controversial topic because the data around this concept is complex. First, it’s difficult to find evidence to support any of the current ed psych models of learning styles; second, it’s difficult to predict what approaches would or would not enhance learning for those styles if they do exist. Yet, most K-12 and Higher Ed professional development and best practices include advice or requirements to address learning styles.
I think this is because we all get the sense that something like this is at work in how we learn and that people do learn differently. After a lifetime of being a whiz at all standardized tests, verbal or quantitative, but a total doofus in a laboratory setting (what is it that you people are seeing through that microscope???), I was faced with my first real learning challenge when trying to learn my husband’s family’s language: Kannada. There’s no Rosetta stone, and they don’t use our alphabet. Since my only path to learning it seemed to be through my ears, I came to realize- I don’t learn well that way. I learn through reading and understanding written symbols. Lucky for me our entire education system has been heavily weighted towards learners like me. If we were still in the days of Socrates’ preferred oral tradition, I may have been labeled a slow learner early on.
I am highly conscious of this as an instructional designer and look for ways to make sure that information is presented in a variety of ways. However, looking at the specific inventories and models presented by Ally in this article is not too helpful since these models have not been well-supported in research.
5) Ally presents some additional information on motivating learners by including the two stalwarts of this body of research: intrinsic v extrinsic and Keller’s ARCS model. I want to add a caveat to the C, for Confidence, in Keller’s model. Yes, success helps build learners’ confidence, but how many of you remember with absolute clarity every answer you got wrong in your learning endeavors? I know for me, getting it wrong or feeling conflicted about new information tends to increase my chances of storing information in my long term memory. I like to build in ways for learners to be surprised by something they hadn’t considered or to even feel irritated or annoyed at points. Our competitive sides can often be motivated from a sense of failure as well as success.
6) I was surprised by Ally’s comment that lectures are only instructor-centered in traditional classrooms and that this is no longer an issue in online classrooms because learners encounter content “first-hand.” Yes, many online facilitators have moved away from lectures, but many still include them. In my experience of reviewing 200+ faculty-developed online courses at a state university over the last 5 years, I’d estimate at least 50% are still including recorded lectures. Plus, even those faculty who become more like “curators” of outside content instead of presenting their own lectures, are still choosing and framing information through their perspectives and expertise. This is a primary role of the faculty. It is also a responsibility of faculty to design ways for students to personalize the information in both traditional and online classrooms. I think Ally’s comparison is false here.
All in all this was an impressive feat of compiling the dense learning theory basis for current online learning guidelines and best practices.