Myrtle Adams-Gardner,

The University of Witwatersrand,

Faculty of Commerce, Law, and Management.

Wits Business Scool.

Several theories of learning exist in education; each emphasising a particular feature of the learning experience. Thinking about online teaching and learning during these unusual times of COVID-19, I believe that a pluralistic approach to education theory is required in education. I locate my work practice in higher education. Theories of learning are to be interpreted from both the learner and online facilitator experience, as learning in these contexts holds meaning for what is expected from the learner and therefore understanding how to shape the learning to be experienced. Online facilitation is about reflecting on the best ways to create quality learning and improve the effectiveness of one’s teaching. Many educators use the three debated theories in education when discussing curriculum to understand how the practice of education can work towards improving the quality of learning. I remain mindful of the fact that in my work practice, designing learning for online modalities require further investigation into the students’ online learning and the pedagogies adopted. In both learning environments (face-to-face and online), structure and design are what make learning possible for a learner knowledge that is disseminated from a knower of the subject to the meaning maker. The use of collaborative learning pedagogies in technology requires ways of working together in a growing age of information sharing and consumers of content. Coming to appreciate the purpose of learning theories can assist academics and educational technologist to develop capabilities that are best suited within higher education spaces of learning and teaching. What is the learning attributes that drive success in student online learning? 


How we learn and the best ways to impart knowledge is a question that has always been important to many online facilitators across education sectors. Authors Bankston (2013) and Carlisle and Jordan (2005) agree that behaviourists’ like Thorndike, B.F. Skinner, and Pavlov are associated with stating that learning is due to an observable change in behaviour. The behaviourist perspective of learning describes how the online learner observes the information, applies the knowledge practically and receives feedback as reinforcement.  


Cognitive learning theorists claim that knowledge is acquired from within the mind. A cognitivist theory purports that for learning to occur the learner must construct their knowledge and that it is through this experience that they can create the schema (mental representation), which are changed, enlarged and made sense of through complementary processes of assimilation and accommodation in learning. Bower & Hilgard, (1981), emphasise that learners use acquired knowledge to help them make sense of phenomena that they initially take as being unstructured or undifferentiated when participating in learning. An enabling environment for online learning is necessary to allow learners to be curious and want to learn. In supporting a cognitivist approach to learning it accepts that learning involves some state of unease and that it is necessary for the learner to interpret the information. A state of disequilibrium is created when the learner is presented with information that conflicts with their existing schema. This state is resolved when the information is either adapted to the new situation (accommodation) and the schema are modified or new experiences are incorporated (assimilated) in some way into the learners’ mental processing.  This is significant because it can be implied that one’s behaviour is not predictable and therefore it cannot be systematically assumed that because a behaviour is displayed (student being present online), learning (knowledge) has taken place.


Another school of thought in learning that exists is a constructivist perspective, which describes learning as the construction of knowledge. Constructivism focuses on understanding the information. A big component of constructivism is socialising; how we engage with the world, what lens we wear as learners and what the environment says about how we learn and make meaning of what we learn. The constructivist theoretical orientation holds that knowledge is acquired experientially and that it is mediated by our prior understanding. It is based on the belief that we learn by doing rather than observing, and that knowledge is built upon previous learning. Constructivism is believed to be the process in which we give the information meaning and value. This is the process in which we build and relate schema information into that which makes sense concerning the world that we are living in. The online learning process is not static and does not happen without our participation. Relevance is given to our schema through our culture and language.

Taken together, cognitivist/constructivist view education as meaningful personal experience as the basis of knowledge and learning. For the online learner, the meaning is constructed within a context of their personal experience implicitly rooted in language, culture, and the social experiences of that individual. Knowledge and thus learning is embodied within the ‘experiencing self’.  It is our active participation in the process of online learning that is attributed to making sense of knowledge, which is different from the behavioural theory of mirroring information back, which does not necessarily display understanding and knowledge.

As an instructional designer, I find myself asking and answering the pedagogical question: “What do you want your students to know, do, and believe as a result of the instructional experiences in each unit?” as it is critical for successful online course conceptualisation and learning and teaching. Then we have to figure out teaching strategies, the exact content, and the right assessment method to assess and enhance learning. Aligning the teaching and learning processes (content and teaching practice) requires an approach that incorporates learning theories that foster learning to a diverse online learner audience. Being adaptable and open to sharing teaching strategies requires online facilitators to come to appreciate the benefits of theory and explore multiple approaches to learning when using educational technologies. 

In online facilitation, the facilitator is interested in peer engagement and ways to adopt collaborative learning strategies. How students understand the learning pathway they are to follow for the online course and how they participate with peers and the online learning material becomes critical success factors for self-directed and group learning.  Online learners are involved in creating their unique education because navigating one’s learning is based on prior knowledge as in cognitivism and the ability to use educational technology tools. 

In the online teaching and learning environment, the role of culture as a mode of social transmission and learning is central to a framework for shared meaning-making thus claiming that through engagement learners internalise working models of the world. Situated learning gives the student an opportunity to learn and create meaning from his personal experiences (via thought and action, and language and culture) in ‘real-life’. According to Wenger (1998), human engagement with the world is “a process of negotiated meaning; as to how we experience the world and engage with it. When applied to social systems, the amount of online learning support and online learners prior learning experiences in with technologies will impacts how students perceive themselves as learners as they embrace ways of doing and being in a new environment of learning. In an online learning environment, for instance, the learning must be designed in a way that will add value to the online learning process for each unique learner’s experience. Pedagogy and educational technology must align to create opportunities for learning to take place; whether the learner learns is up to their willingness or attitude towards the learning process and ability to apply. 


The three perspectives on learning would argue that learning must be the central focus when preparing to teach online. How we acquire (as in behavourism) and process information and apply to learn experientially is what is of interest when comparing the three perspectives and locating oneself in practice as an online facilitator. If learning is predominantly information processing, then teaching should provide for efficient communication of information and effective strategies for remembering. If learning is predominantly experiential growth, then teaching should focus on integrating experiences and activities that promote the individual development of applying appropriate learning strategies, (for eg. ways to improve study skills). It should also create environments where meaning is created out of the experiences that learners share and through facilitative ways to help build understanding. 


Bower, G., & Hilgard, E. (1981). Theories of learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. New York: Vintage.
Carlile, O., & Jordan, A.S. (2005). It works in practice but will it work in theory? the theoretical underpinnings of pedagogy.
Glasersfeld. E (1989). Cognition, construction of knowledge and teaching. Synthese, 80(1), 121-140. Retrieved from
Wenger, E., (1998). Community of Practice Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge University press.
Woolfolk, A. (2004). Educational Psychology. Boston. Pearson