Week 3: Learning Theories and the Online Environment (Winter 2022 Cope-Watson)


When transitioning to the online environment, it is useful for educators to reflect on how people learn and to consider the various learning theories that underpin the field of education. Learning theories provide a foundation for teaching and learning, and influence course design and teaching practices within the online environment. According to Ally (2008), “The development of effective online learning materials should be based on proven and sound learning theories” (p. 18). The same learning theories that are relevant within the traditional classroom such as Behaviourism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism, are also applicable to the online classroom, and the newer theory of Connectivism is well-aligned to the online environment. In this module, we will examine relevant learning theories that have shaped the field of education, and we will consider how they are being used to guide the design and development of online teaching and learning.

Learning Outcomes

When you have completed this module, you should be able to:

  • Identify the key characteristics of the Behaviourist, Cognitivist, Constructivist, and Connectivist learning theories.
  • Discuss how learning theories can inform online design and teaching practice.
  • Describe examples of design and teaching practices that are based on learning theory.

Topic 1 – What are Learning Theories?


A theory is a set of ideas, assumptions, and concepts that tells us something about the world, about ourselves, or about an aspect of reality (Darling-Hammond, Rosso, Austin, Orcutt, & Martin, 2003). Theories are typically developed from research as well as practical experience and are modified over time on the basis of practitioners’ insights as well as the work of researchers. Learning theories typically consists of statements about where knowledge originates and about how people learn. We tend to distinguish between theory (what we think and know about something) and practice (what we actually do). The reason for this is that teaching practice is specific to a particular context, whereas theories of learning are general. The events in both face-to-face and online classrooms are influenced by many variables, and no single theory explains how they will all come together under different circumstances. For this reason, there is no one-to-one correspondence between theory and practice. As educators, it is helpful to have an understanding of alternative theoretical approaches so that we can determine when and how various theories can inform our practice both face-to-face and in the online classroom.

Please read the following chapters:

Please watch:

Topic 2 – Behaviourism and the Online Environment


The theory of Behaviourism owes its origins to theorists including Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike, and John B. Watson. Behaviourists focus solely on observable actions and contend that learning takes place when there is an observable change in behaviour, brought about by the connection between stimuli and observable responses. Responses to stimuli can be reinforced with positive or negative feedback to condition desired behaviours. Behaviourism treats the mind as a “black box,” and suggests that only observable behaviour can be used to indicate whether the learner has learned something as it is not possible to observe the inner processes of the mind. Behaviourism is not concerned with how or why knowledge is obtained, but rather if the correct response is given. This school of thought sees learners as starting out with a clean slate where they passively absorb information, which is transmitted to them by the educator. The educator’s role from a Behaviourist perspective is to provide an environment that elicits the desired behaviours by providing appropriate stimuli and continual positive reinforcement. This type of learning environment typically models repetition, memorization, question-and-response, and external motivators such as grading and praise. Behaviourism tends to be critiqued for taking a didactic, instructor-centred approach to teaching (Ally, 2008).

Most early forms of computer-assisted instruction were developed based on a Behaviourist approach to learning, which involved a drill-and-practice design. Drill-and­practice continues to be used in online education today, and is most commonly designed to reinforce basic skills such as spelling, vocabulary development, and typing. A Behaviourist approach tends to work well when the knowledge to be learned is objective, meaning that there is only one correct answer to give, or one specific approach to follow. Many contemporary online courses borrow their design from the Behaviourist school such as those that rely on basic exercises and quizzes to provide students with instant feedback and those that present new concepts and provide step-by-step instructions on how to complete certain objectives (Selwyn, 2011). In addition, most digital games used within online education also have Behaviourist undertones as they use points and rewards systems to reinforce desired behaviour. Ally (2008) provides an overview of the implications of Behaviourism for online learning that includes a focus on learning outcomes, online testing, sequencing of online materials, and ongoing feedback.

Please watch the following video for more information about Behaviourism:

Learning Activity 1 – Behaviourism in the Online Environment

Please reflect on the following questions:

  1. In what ways, if any, have you used elements of Behaviourism in your current teaching and learning practice?
  2. What are the potential pros and cons of online teaching and learning practices that are grounded in Behaviourism?
  3. What online teaching and learning situations do you think might benefit from a Behaviourist approach?

Topic 3 – Cognitivism and the Online Environment

Cognitivists suggest that learning takes place when information the mind receives it and then processes it to make sense of it. Learning new information is made possible by connecting it to existing information and then storing it so it can be retrieved later. The Cognitive learning theory places emphasis on understanding thought processes, and how the mind processes and stores information. In contrast to Behaviourism, the Cognitivist paradigm is concerned with the internal processes that take place during learning and argues that the “black box” of the mind should be opened and understood (Kalogeras, 2014). The Cognitive school recognizes the importance of individual differences, and of including a diversity of learning strategies to accommodate those differences. The role of the Cognitivist educator is to present new information in a way that helps the learner relate new information to existing knowledge in memory. Proponents of Cognitivism include David Ausubel, Jerome Bruner, Robert Gagne, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget (Ally, 2008).

Many current technologies used in online teaching and learning are based on Cognitivist learning principles including intelligent tutoring systems that can detect student misunderstandings and provide coached problem solving. These systems encourage users to construct new knowledge by providing minimal hints that require them to derive the remainder of the solution on their own. Intelligent tutoring systems are often based on a “mastery” model where users are allowed to progress through tasks after mastering a large proportion of a given task. However, in contrast to technologies based on Behaviourist principles, intelligent tutoring system are seen to promote learning by “doing” rather than learning by direct instruction (Selwyn, 2011). Online learning that incorporates pre-tests, visual organizers, and that chunks information into relevant topics/lessons also support the Cognitivist approach. Ally (2008) suggests that the implications of Cognitivism for online learning include strategies that allow learners to:

  • perceive and attend to information
  • retrieve existing information from long-term memory
  • apply information in real life
  • support student motivation and metacognition skills
  • use a variety of learning strategies and modes to accommodate diverse learning styles
  • chunk of information

Please watch the following video for more information about Cognitivism:

  • BlueSofaMedia. (2012). Use a learning theory: Cognitivism [Video file].


Source: Youtube:BlueSofaMedia

Learning Activity 2 – Cognitivism in the Online Environment

Please reflect on the following questions:

  1. In what ways, if any, have you used elements of Cognitivism in your current teaching and learning practice?
  2. What are the potential pros and cons of online teaching and learning practices that are grounded in Cognitivism?
  3. What online teaching and learning situations do you think might benefit from a Cognitivist approach?

Topic 4 – Constructivism and the Online Environment

Constructivism states that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it. Constructivism gained significant popularity in the 1990s and was influenced by John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky. Constructivist theories portray learning as a more active process than in Behaviourist and Cognitivist accounts. One of the central ideals of Constructivism is that human knowledge is built through exploration, with individuals constructing new knowledge upon the foundation of previous learning. In the Constructivist model, individuals are seen as constructing their own perspective of the world through personal experiences, thus learning is contextual. Social Constructivism, which is a branch of Constructivism, suggests that human knowledge is socially constructed, and that the interpretation of knowledge must be dependent on the cultural and social context through which the knowledge was constructed. Vygotsky introduced the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which suggests that learning takes place when learners solve problems beyond their level with the support of peers that are more experienced and/or an educator. From a Constructivist perspective, the educator functions more as a facilitator who coaches, mediates, prompts, and helps students develop and assess their understanding, and thereby their learning. The role of the educator in this type of environment is one of orchestrating and supporting the individual’s exploration rather than directly providing instruction. In a Constructivist classroom, learners are given control of the learning process and active techniques including collaborative and cooperative learning, hands-on experiments, guided discovery, and real-world problem solving are commonplace (Ally, 2008).

Online learning that provides necessary materials and resources for learner to construct their knowledge is derived from a Constructivist perspective. Examples includes the use of visualization tools that allow learners to see trends within data, concept map tools, and Internet resources, which provide learners with information based on different perspectives. Other examples include online courses that incorporate multimedia authoring tools, spreadsheets, word processors, simulations, etc., which can support guided inquiry and can be used constructively. Online learning that supports social interaction and collaboration using discussion forums, web conferencing, and electronic whiteboards also align with a Social Constructivist learning approach (Selwyn, 2011). According to Ally (2008), in a Constructivist environment, learners are active and construct their own knowledge, collaborative and cooperative learning is promoted, learners are given control over their own learning and given time to reflect, and learning should be meaningful and interactive.

Please watch the following video for more information about Constructivism:

BlueSofaMedia. (2012). Use a learning theory: Constructivism [Video file].


Source: Youtube:BlueSofaMedia

Learning Activity 3 – Constructivism in the Online Environment

Please reflect on the following questions:

  1. In what ways, if any, have you used elements of Constructivism in your current teaching and learning practice?
  2. What are the potential pros and cons of online teaching and learning practices that are grounded in Constructivism?
  3. What online teaching and learning situations do you think might benefit from a Constructivist approach?

Topic 5 – Connectivism and the Online Environment

Connectivism is a relatively new theory of learning that is still being refined and developed, and has sparked a great deal of controversy and criticism. Connectivism is based on the contention that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and learning consists of the ability to construct and navigate those networks. According to Siemens (2005) networks can consist of human and non-human elements, including objects and digital devices, and knowledge can reside outside of an individual. In this view, learners form connections between people and with technology in order to store, access, and generate knowledge. Connectivism is based on eight core principles: (1) Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions; (2) Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources; (3) Learning may reside in non-human appliances; (4) Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known; (5) Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning; (6) Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill; (7) Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all Connectivist learning activities; (8) Decision-making is itself a learning process (Siemens, 2005).

Several of the recent Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been designed using a Connectivist approach and are referred to as cMOOCs. According to Downes (2014) cMOOCs have four key design principles: (1) Autonomy of the learner in terms of choosing what content or skills they wish to learn; (2) Diversity in terms of the tools used, the range of participants and their knowledge levels, and varied content; (3) Interactivity in terms of co-operative learning and communication between participants; and (4) Openness in terms of access, content, activities and assessment. Bates (2014) describes online learning based on Connectivism as:

A networked approach to learning based on autonomous learners connecting with each other across open and connected social media and sharing knowledge through their own personal contributions. There is no pre-set curriculum and no formal teacher-student relationship, either for delivery of content or for learner support. Participants learn from the contributions of others, from the meta-level knowledge generated through the community, and from self-reflection on their own contributions (para 8).

Ally (2008) explains that in a Connectivist environment learners should be allowed to explore and research current information, learners should be able to unlearn old information and mental models and learn current information and mental models, learners should be able to identify important information from unimportant information, and should keep up-to-date in the field and be active participants in the network of learning, learners should be allowed to connect with others around the world, and instruction should be designed for experiential and authentic learning.

Please watch the following video for more information about Connectivism:

USC Blended Learning. (2014). Overview of connectivism – Dr George Siemens [Video File].

Source: Youtube: USC Blended Learning CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Learning Activity 4 – Connectivism in the Online Environment

Please reflect on the following questions:

  1. In what ways, if any, have you used elements of Connectivism in your current teaching and learning practice?
  2. What are the potential pros and cons of online teaching and learning practices that are grounded in Connectivism?
  3. What online teaching and learning situations do you think might benefit from a Connectivist approach?

Learning Activity 5 – Learning Theories Analysis

Please examine the online course that you are enrolled in for the Online Course Audit Assignment and share at least two examples of how elements of the course are influenced by the principles of the learning theories identified in this module. Please post your examples on your blog with the tag “EDDL5141.”

Learning Activity 6 – Online Teaching and Learning Context

Please identify a specific educational context that you are familiar with that you would like to design an online teaching and learning experience for and share a brief description of the context. Please review your peer’s examples from the Learning Theories Analysis Activity and identify at least two elements you would like to incorporate from the learning theories to design your own online teaching and learning experience. Please post your context and elements in the Week 3 Discussion Forum in Moodle: Online Teaching and Learning Context.


The theories illustrated in this unit represent an overview of what we know about learning theory today, and provide a framework for understanding how people learn. In general, Behaviourism focuses on the objectively observable aspects of learning, Cognitive theories focus on how the mind processes and stores information, Constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs knowledge, and Connectivism is based on the contention that learning consists of the ability to construct and navigate networks. These theories can help inform our teaching practice, and our use, selection, and implementation of various online teaching and learning strategies. Each theoretical perspective offers benefits and drawbacks to the design and development of online learning, which should be taken into consideration when making decisions about the best approach for a specific online learning situation.


Ally, M. (2008). Foundations of educational theory for online learning. In Anderson, T. (Ed.). The theory and practice of online learning (pp.15-44). Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from “http://www.aupress.ca/books/120146/ebook/01_Anderson_2008-Theory_and_Practice_of_Online_Learning.pdf” \h

Anderson, T. (2008). Towards a theory of online learning. In Anderson, T. (Ed.). The theory and practice of online learning (pp.45-74). Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from HYhttp://www.aupress.ca/books/120146/ebook/02_Anderson_2008-Theory_and_Practice_of_Online_Learning.pdf

Bates, A. W. (2014). Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: Philosophy and practice . Retrieved from “https://www.tonybates.ca/2014/10/13/comparing-xmoocs-and-cmoocs-philosophy-and-practice/”

Bates, A.W. (2015). Chapter 2: The nature of knowledge and the implications for teaching. In Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning . Vancouver BC: Tony Bates Associates Ltd. Retrieved from “https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/chapter/section-2”

BlueSofaMedia. (2012). Use a learning theory: Behaviourism [Video file]. Retrieved from “https://youtu.be/KYDYzR-ZWRQ” BlueSofaMedia. (2012).

BlueSofaMedia. (2012). Use a learning theory: Constructivism [Video file]. Retrieved from “https://youtu.be/Xa59prZC5gA”

Carleton University. (2017). Theories of learning [Video File]. Retrieved from “https://mediaspace.carleton.ca/media/Theories+of+Learning/0_6mk9y88u”

Darling-Hammond, L., Rosso, J., Austin, K., Orcutt, S., & Martin, D. (2003). How people learn: Introduction to learning theory . Retrieved from “http://www.learner.org/courses/learningclassroom/session_overviews/intro_home1.html”

Downes, S. (2014) The MOOC of one , Valencia, Spain, March 10. Retrieved from “https://www.slideshare.net/Downes/2014-03-10-valencia/21-DESIGN_PRINCIPLESAutonomy_Choice_of_contents”

Kalogeras, S. (2014). Transmedia storytelling and the new era of media convergence in higher education . New York: Palgrave MacMillan

LearningDctr. (2010). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism & learning and instructional theory [Video file]. Retrieved from “https://youtu.be/0YOqgXjynd0”

Merriam, S. B. & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide . (2nd Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International journal of instructional technology and distance learning , 2 (1), 3-10.

Siemens, G., & Tittenberger, P. (2009). Handbook of emerging technologies for learning . Retrieved from “http://www.elearnspace.org/blog/2012/05/21/handbook-of-emerging-technologies-for-learning-2”

Selwyn , N. (2011). Education and technology: Key issues and debates . London, UK: Continuum.

“https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKmIEq_8aiwfIMQKTQfVFyg” USC Blended LearningUSC Blended Learning. (2014). Overview of connectivism – Dr George Siemens [Video file]. Retrieved from “https://youtu.be/yx5VHpaW8sQ”

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