New Learning Theories for a New Educational Approach?

With the advance of e-learning as a viable educational route, there continues to be more research done on the relationship between learning theory and technology, however this work is still in its infancy. Education, “like other branches of the social sciences, has no single, unifying mature theory, instead theories, ideas and approaches coexist in various states of cohesion and tension” (Jones, 2009, in Learning Theories section, para 1).  This extends to education done from a distance, and online forums are no different than traditional classrooms according to this research. Even before online learning, there were a number of different schools of thought on learning, and “no one school is used exclusively to design e-learning” (Jones, 2009, in Learning Theories section, para 1).


Connectivism, for example, is one theory that can be effectively transferred to e-learning and can describe how learning happens in the digital age (Siemens 2005; Siemens 2006) based on the epistemological foundation of connective knowledge (Downes 2006). It is argued by Bates (2004), that e-learning does not change the fundamental process of learning, however, “research into how people learn online is in its infancy and further research is needed to provide insight into how to develop engaging and effective online learning environments in higher education [in particular]” (Jones, 2009, in Technology and Learning Theory section, para 1).


The table below describes the theories of behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism and their relationships to learning. All of these theories can be used to design online instruction, and “any given pedagogical tool may incorporate perspectives from any of these intellectual positions (Jones 2009, in Technology and Learning Theory section, para 2).



Table 2.3 – Learning theories (adapted from Siemens, 2006)






How does learning occur?

Black box—observable behaviour main focus

Structured, computational

Social, meaning created by each learner (personal)

Distributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns

Influencing factors

Nature of reward, punishment, stimuli

Existing schema, previous experiences

Engagement, participation, social, cultural

Diversity of network

What is the role of memory?

Memory is the hardwiring of repeated experiences—where reward and punishment are most influential

Encoding, storage, retrieval

Prior knowledge remixed to current context

Adaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks

How does transfer occur?

Stimulus, response

Duplicating knowledge constructs of “knower”


Connecting to (adding) nodes

Types of learning best explained

Task-based learning

Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving

Social, vague (“ill defined”)

Complex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources





Bates, T. (2004). The promise and myths of e-learning in post-secondary education. The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective. M. Castells. Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar: 271-292.


Downes, S. (2006, 3rd October 2009). “Learning networks and connective knowledge.” Instructional Technology Forum, from

Jones, David. (2009). The Weblog of (a) David Jones. Retrieved from


Siemens, G. (2005). “Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age.” International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2(1).

Siemens, G. (2006, November 12, 2006). “Connectivism: Learning theory or pasttime for the self-amused.”   Retrieved 9 September, 2009, from

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing Knowledge,


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