#H809 Toolkits as Bridge between Learning Theory and Practice?

Conole et al. (2004) advocate the use of toolboxes as ways to bridge theory and practice.  Practitioners don’t have time to wade through wads of theoretical papers.  As a result many designs are based on ‘commonsense’ rather than theoretically informed.  The authors argue that theory-informed designs would improve quality and that toolkits are the ideal instrument to realize this:

They distinguish toolkits from wizards (which are black boxes, hiding the underlying decision process) and conceptual frameworks (which offer little practical use).

Some characteristics and key terms on toolkits in the article:

  • for non-expert users to engage with theories
  • elicit assumptions and theories
  • decision-making systems
  • reflect beliefs and assumptions of creator(s)
  • guiding framework
  • offer flexibility for local context
  • informed decisions
  • offer common language
  • provide examples (if linked database)
  • promote reflective practice

The toolkit presented in the paper is represented by a model


Learning activities such as brainstorming or presentation of materials can be mapped with the model, prompting reflection on the overall pedagogical balance and the types of learning supported.

The paper contains a welcome synthesis of learning theories.  I’m less convinced about the practical value of the toolkit.  Publishing the paper in a closed-access journal is not likely to contribute to its adoption by practitioners.


#H807 E-learning Models and their Implications for Activity Design

Copyright: Oliver Merkel

With the submission of TMA03 the focus in H807 shifts to the design of e-tivities (Salmon, 2000).  The ultimate block starts with a study of the theoretical foundations that underpin activity design explicitly or, more often, implicitly, as pedagogic assumptions.  The key text is a review of e-learning theories by Mayes and de Freitas (2004), complemented by e-books from Terry Anderson (2008) and Peter Goodyear (2001).

E-learning theories are not new theories, but rather e-enhancements of existing learning theories (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).  They form “sets of beliefs: about the nature of knowledge and competence, about the purposes of learning, about how learning occurs, about how people should and should not be treated, etc” (Goodyear, 2001, p.51)

Consecutive learning theories don’t replace, but rather complement each other, each contributing its legacy to learning.  Theories are situated at various levels of aggregation, with associative/behaviourist approaches addressing observable factors, cognitive approaches focusing on the ‘detailed structures and processes that underlie individual performance’ and situative approaches taking into account the social and cultural aspects of learning (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).

Activity designs are usually a blend of different learning theories.  Being aware of the main learning theories helps building a consistent design and clarifying what type of learning and interaction is intended. An example provided by Goodyear (2001):

It is not uncommon to find some members of a team believing that learners are poor at organizing themselves and learn best by being fed information in small amounts, while other members of the team want to promote active, student-managed learning.

The table below summarizes key concepts of different learning theories and their implications for online learning, taken from the publications from Anderson, Mayes and de Freitas and Goodyear.

Associative/ Behaviourist approaches Design principles
Looking for observable behaviour Explicitly mentioning course outcomes
Behavioural objectives Ability to test achievement of learning outcomes
Instructional Systems Design (ISD) Decomposing learning into small chunks
Routines of organised activity
Learning hierarchies (controversial!) Sequencing learning materials with increasing complexity
Giving direct feedback on learning
Individualized learning trajectories
Cognitive psychology (constructivism)
Types of memory (sensory – short term – long term) Maximize sensations: strategic screen layout
Research on memory, perception, reasoning, concept formation. Maximize sensations: well-paced information
Learning is active Maximize sensations: highlighting main elements
Learning is individual (knowledge construction) Relate difficulty level to cognitive level of learner: providing links to easier and more advanced resources
Use of comparative advance organizers
Use of conceptual models
Importance of prior knowledge structures Pre-instructional & prerequisite questions
Experimentation toward discovery of broad principles
Promote deep processing Use of information maps zooming in/ out
Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al, 1989) Interactive environments for construction of understanding
Metacognition (reflection, self-regulation) Relate to real-life (apply, analyse, synthesize)
Learning styles (controversial!) Address various learning styles
Cognitive styles Let students prepare a journal
Dual coding theory Use both visual information and text
Motivate learners (ARCS model) Use techniques to catch attention, explain relevance,  build confidence and increase satisfaction
Situated learning (constructivism)
Personal knowledge construction Personal meaning to learning
Situated learning: motivation Relate to real life (relevance)
Holistic/ Systemic approaches Conduct research on internet
Build confidence with learners
Identity development Use of first-hand information (not filtered by instructor)
Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger) Collaborative activities
Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) Fostering the growth of learning communities
Learning as act of participation Legitimate (peripheral) practice, apprenticeships
Lifelong learning Authentic learning and assessment tasks
Information explosion Digital literacies
Learning in network environment Keep up-to-date in field
Knowledge base Multi-channel learning
Distributed learning Build diversity, openness in learning (different opinions), autonomy
Personal Learning Environment  self-directed learning, just-in-time

Some comments on the table:

1. It’s difficult to draw sharp lines between these theories.  Some authors distinguish between cognitive constructivism (based on the work from Piaget) and social-cultural constructivism (based on the work from Vygotsky).  The work of Vygotsky formed the basis for the anthropological work from Jean Lave and the concept of ‘communities of practice’. The work of Engeström on activity theory forms a bridge between situative learning (with the activity system, it takes a more social unit of analysis than the individual) and constructivist approaches.

2 .Constructivism doesn’t really fit into the overview.  Goodyear (2001, p.75) mentions the following description of constructivism:

“…learning is a constructive process in which the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended….this view of knowledge does not necessarily deny the existence of the real world..but contends that all we know of the world are human interpretations of our experience of the world….learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts…” In other words, constructivism states that knowledge is relative and is different for every user.  Learning, in this position, means actively building a personal and contextualised interpretation of experience.



#H800 What is Learning?

Courtesy Marc Kjerland

There is a lot of research on how people learn, and it’s a central objective of the course to investigate how technology can enhance learning.  This assumes that we know what learning is.  However, learning is not a scientific process or unit that you can define unambiguously. Therefore it seems a good idea to discuss in Week 3 what learning actually is. By lack of a clear definition, we use (without realizing) metaphors to describe what we mean by learning.

Core of the discussion is a paper by Anna Sfard (1998), in which she describes two main metaphors that are used when talking about learning: the acquisition metaphor (AM) and the participatory metaphor (PM). The idea at the heart of Anna Sfard’s article is that metaphors are basic units of conceptual development. The metaphor you choose, determines how you see learning and also how you will see the potential of technology in learning. Two extracts explain the main point.

The language of “knowledge acquisition” and “concept development” makes us think about the human mind as a container to be filled with certain materials and about the learner as becoming an owner of these materials.(p.1)

“Participation” is almost synonymous with “taking part” and “being a part,” and both of these expressions signalize that learning should be viewed as a process of becoming a part of a greater whole (p. 4-5).

The metaphors basically refer to the objective of learning.  In the AM it is gaining knowledge as an individual, whereas in the PM, it is actively being part of a community of practice.  Learning is an ongoing process, that is embedded in a particular context, embedded in a  culture, and influenced by a particular community and idiom.  This relates to the “learning to be” idea, put forward by John Seely Brown the previous week.  He referred to the open source movement as an example of learning by being amidst experts. Students are observing or contributing in the periphery, and gradually, as they become experts, move on to the core of the community.

Both metaphors don’t refer to how learning occurs.  In both metaphors this can be in group or individual, and based on various learning theories, such as learning by transmission or learning or the constructivist models stressing development of knowledge and the construction of meaning.

Sfard warns against the exclusive use of one metaphor in learning, or what she calls “theoretical excesses”.  Educational practice should be based on  different recipes, catering for various study preferences.

Dominance of the AM was present in most geography courses at the K.U.Leuven.  Course material consists of a tome of hundreds of pages, studying entails transferring the information from the manual to the brain as good as possible and assessment is based on recollection of  knowledge elements from the manual. Group tutorials aim at a better understanding of the course material.  In this kind of course, the use of technology aims at a better “storage” of information.  Examples are concept maps, databases and text processing.

Dominance of the PM was very strong in the recent LAK11 course.  A wide range of learning materials was made available, learners were invited to select resources most interesting to them and to engage with the material through contribution (active or passive) in the forums and during the lectures.  Here, technology supports the active involvement in the community, examples are online Moodle forums, Eluminate and possibly Twitter and Facebook.

However, as more information is stored online and is abundantly available, finding, selecting, assessing and retrieving it becomes a matter of participating in a network of people, rather than using your network of neurons.  In this way technology is used to “acquire” information through “participation” with a community, confusing or blurring the boundaries between the metaphors.


Sfard, A. (1998 ) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, 27(2), March 1998, American Educational Research Association