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Education Theory Response #1

The first week’s reading “Towards a Theory of Online Learning” by Terry Anderson focusses on
the ‘how’ of learning as opposed to the ‘why’ of learning, or even the most basic question: what
is learning?

In order for me to be able to begin considering the topic of Learning Theory generally, I had to
take a step back and first ask whether I had a working definition for what learning actually is? At
its most rudimentary level, I think ‘learning’ is a gaining of knowledge or skills through
experience and/or study.

This led me to wrestling with a second question; that is, whether we could separate ‘why’ and
‘how’ of learning? In other words, when we engage in learning does the purpose for learning
necessarily influence the constructs/strategies we choose/use for how we learn? Bransford,
Brown and Cocking (1999) argue that effective learning is centred around four elements:
knowledge, community, learners, assessment. But must these elements always be present? If so,
must they always be present in equal measures? I think these elements are necessary in order for
effective learning to take place.

For me knowledge lies at the core of the learning process. I would define knowledge as the
‘what’ of learning, which varies from discipline to discipline. And within each discipline,
whether that is Welding or Astro Physics, Brandon et al (1999) “argue that effective learning is
both defined and bounded by the epistemology, language, and context of disciplinary thought.
Each discipline or field of study contains a world view that provides unique ways of
understanding and talking about knowledge” (Anderson, p. 49). Thus, wrapped up in the content
of a discipline is the epistemology of that discipline. And this is learned through engaged
discourse within the discipline.

Discourse, I believe, is the vital ‘how’ of learning. It is the interaction process of learners within
a discipline in order to gain knowledge and skill in that unique area. This is viewed in different
ways by different theorists. For example, Brandon et al (1999) sees this engagement in a
discipline’s content as an act of community. Whereas, Vygotsky’s (2000) describes this as a
process of “social cognition”. Students work together around a discipline’s content in order to
make meaning and that collective exchange develops and extends individual knowledge, while at
the same time contributing to the extending of disciplinary content at large. Lipman (1991) calls
this process a “community of inquiry,” and Etienne Wenger (2002) describes learners engaged in
disciplinary discourse as a “community of practice”. How this looks in a learning context can
certainly vary and will also need to vary depending on the unique needs of individual learners in
order for learning to be effective for these learners. For example, reading and writing about the
research of scholars within a discipline is a form of discourse. Similarly, learners discussing
extant research face to face, or via a discussion board are forms of community based discourse.
Effective learning, I think happens when there is a sweet nexus between the content and the
opportunity for learners to engage individually and collectively with that content in order to
make meaning.
Obviously at the centre of any discipline of study is the community of learners. When we talk
about learner centred pedagogy, I think we are really focusing on creating learning contructs that
maximize learner engagement outlined above. This requires that instructors and curriculum
designers assess their learners to understand their learning styles, needs, as well as assess the
affordances of the learning context to meet these needs.

There is no doubt today’s technology imbedded learning contexts provide rich opportunities for
engaging and effective learning to occur. The challenge for designers is to draw on digital tools
in a way that provides powerful access, ease of use, and interactivity for learners to engage with
content, instructors and one another in ways that maximizes learning, while at the same time
ensuring the learning medium is manageable for the instructor!

Anderson, T. (2004). Student services in a networked world. In J. Brindley, C. Walti, & O.
Zawacki-Richter (Eds.), Learner support in open, distance and online learning environments.
Oldenburg, Germany: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind experience and
school. Washington, DC: National Research
Council. Retrieved August 27, 2007, from http://www.nap.edu/html/howpeople1/Byrne, M.,

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. McCool,

R. (2006).

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E., R. McDermott, R. & and W. Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of

practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.