Thinking about theory and practice in online learning

July 29, 2015 Tony Bates
Taking the float plane to Victoria: always a wonderful experience

Taking the float plane to Victoria: always a wonderful experience

I ran a short face-to-face workshop yesterday on ‘Thinking about Theory and Practice’ for about a dozen students taking the Masters of Arts in Learning and Technology at Royal Roads University  My online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, is being used in this program and the instructors asked me to run a workshop on this topic, as students struggle with the relationship between epistemology, theories of learning, and methods of teaching.

The exercise

I’m not surprised that students struggle with this, as the relationships are by no means clear. I started by asking them to define different epistemologies. I then asked them what the connection was between different epistemologies and different learning theories. Then I asked them to choose from about 18 different methods or approaches to teaching (all covered in my book) and try to place them in relationship to theories of learning, as in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Thinking about theory and practice

Figure 1: Thinking about theory and practice

I also raised questions about whether constructivism and connectivism are epistemologies, or theories of learning, or both.

This was meant as a heuristic exercise, to get students arguing about and discussing the relationship between epistemology, theory, and practice, and why it is important to think about this in terms of learning design.

I ended my session with the following questions:

  • Constructivism and connectivism: are they epistemologies or learning theories?
  • Is there a direct relationship between epistemology, theory and practice?
  • How well do different teaching methods ‘fit’ with a specific learning theory?
  • Does technology change the nature of knowledge? If so, is connectivism an ‘adequate’ epistemology for a digital age?

Following my workshop, in the afternoon the students were divided into two teams to formally debate the motion (chosen by the instructors):

Connectivism should be adopted as the learning theory for educating students in our digital culture.

Both the workshop and the debate resulted in very thoughtful and forceful, sometimes impassioned, discussion.


It is impossible to capture the richness of the discussions in a short blog (I am hoping that the MALAT team will make an edited recording of the sessions available online). Different participants will have come away from the two sessions with different conclusions. Although I am fairly confident about discussing theories of learning and methods of teaching, I am not a trained or qualified philosopher, so I hesitate to tell students what the truth is in this area (OK, so I’m a relative constructivist).

However, here are some of my conclusions:

  • the most important is that I believe that connectivism is more of an epistemology than a theory of learning. Indeed it is an epistemology that relies on other theories of learning to explain how learning occurs in networks, although it has established conditions that make for ‘effective’ networks (see, for instance, Downes, 2007). In this sense it can be seen as an overall belief system about the importance of networks for sustaining and creating knowledge, but the mechanisms by which learning occurs in networks still need to be identified or worked out, or explained in terms of existing theories, such as constructivism.  This does not mean that over time, particular ways of learning and creating new knowledge through networking will not be identified, but more importantly, it would seem to make sense that we should be making use of networks and social media in education, since we are all becoming increasingly immersed in a connectivist world, and learning how to adapt and thrive in such a world probably requires using connections and networks for teaching and learning;
  • similarly, I am uncomfortable with defining constructivism as an epistemology. It is a strong theory in terms of explaining how learning occurs, but it takes its philosophical roots from other more general epistemologies. I would need to be a philosopher to define accurately what these would be, but constructivism is strongly influenced by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill (free will), Jean Jacques Rousseau (the Natural Human), and Jean Piaget (‘genetic’ epistemology);
  • although there is some relationship between epistemologies and theories of learning, they are not isomorphic, in the sense that a single theory of learning derives solely from one epistemological position. For instance, cognitive theories of learning draw heavily on both objectivist approaches (e.g. brain research) and more subjective or reflective approaches, such as constructivism;
  • there is even less isomorphism between theories of learning and methods of teaching, because methods of teaching are driven primarily by context. For instance, in a digital age, trades apprentices increasingly need both manual and cognitive learning. The learning of manual or mechanical skills through an apprenticeship model may be behaviourist in approach, but cognitive apprenticeship may draw much more heavily on a constructivist approach. Nevertheless some teaching methods, such as lectures or xMOOCs, are generally more towards the objectivist spectrum, while cMOOCs are more towards the connectivist spectrum (even though in practice they may include other approaches, such as more objectivist webinars, and support from teachers or experts through constructivist forms of discussion);
  • different subject areas tend to favour different epistemological positions, such as science favouring more objectivist approaches to teaching, and arts more subjective and interpretive approaches. However, it is still possible to teach science in a constructivist way – for instance through problem or inquiry-based learning – and arts in a more objectivist way (for instance, Mrs. Thatcher wanted British school children to learn the facts about British history, rather than discuss imperialism or racism and their legacies), although purists will argue that students will not become ‘true’ scientists or historians if the teaching does not reflect the ‘core’ epistemological nature of the subject area.

However, I’m a ‘relativist’ on all these points and open to be persuaded.

Does it matter?

Isn’t this all terribly abstract and philosophical? Nothing seems clear and definite, so how does thinking about these things help to teach better?

Well, if you are going to be an instructional designer, you will come across instructors and subject experts who may have a fundamentally different epistemological position from you. It will really help if you understand their position and how to take this into account when designing courses.

Second, there is nothing more practical than a good theory. If you have a theory that is convincing to you in terms of explaining how learners best learn, this should drive your teaching practice. It may not tell you exactly what to do as a teacher, but it should enable you to work out for yourself what to do – and more importantly, what learners need to do. But this theory needs to fit with your overall epistemological position about the nature of knowledge in your subject area.

Third, teaching is a pragmatic profession. It may take several different approaches, depending on the context and above all on the learner. In some contexts, such as safety compliance, employers don’t want workers questioning the process; they need to learn exactly what to do in a particular circumstance (behaviourism rules). In others, where problem-solving is essential, rote learning is not going to help dealing with a new or unanticipated danger.  Having a range of options in terms of teaching approaches for a range of different kinds of learners and contexts is more likely to produce results than slavishly following one particular method.

Lastly, all this uncertainty and choice illustrates why teaching and learning are not well defined activities that can be easily mechanised. Humans are better than machines at dealing with uncertainty and fuzzy or ambiguous circumstances, but only if they have a deep understanding of the options available to them and the circumstances in which each option is likely to succeed. This means thinking carefully about epistemology and theories of learning as well as various methods of teaching.

Galiano Island, on the way to Victoria

Galiano Island, on the way to Victoria. Vancouver Island is in the background.

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