Learning Theories Supporting Massive Open Online Courses

Learning Theories Supporting Massive Open Online Courses

Denis A. Coelho (Universidade da Beira Interior, Portugal)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8279-5.ch006


Learning theories lay at the core of every educational paradigm; especially applicable to MOOCs are the ones that originate in constructivism. Connectivism is a de facto learning theory that is framing the growing enthusiasm surrounding the design and the worldwide dissemination of MOOCs. This chapter shows how connectivism has become the digital age's natural successor to the stream of learning theories that preceded it, despite its questionable ability to fulfill the totality of pre-digital requirements drafted for learning theories. As a disruptive phenomenon, several obstacles to materializing the promise of inclusiveness and equality in access to learning that is signified by MOOCs remain, including learner autonomy, presence (cognitive, social and teacher's) and critical literacies, as well as recognition, validation and accreditation. Finally, fostering the widespread development of the set of educators' skills essential to fully implement connectivism is needed in order to fully reap the potential benefits of MOOCs.
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Online education is developing. Those concerned with education (teachers, learning technologists) want to understand learning in this changing technological environment and think about how education might be different (Bell, 2010). Distance learning is a concept that has developed and enlarged with the advent of asynchronous based communication technology. A number of tools have been used over the past to support computer supported collaborative learning. One of the strengths of this approach to education is that it does neither force learners to commit to a rigid schedule (which would be the case in traditional education or even TV or Radio broadcasted lectures) nor to a physical presence at a certain place. Students are freed, time and place wise (Coelho, 2003). In e-learning, two major traditions have been prevalent: one where connections are made with people and the other where they are made with assets (Weller, 2007). These two distinct streams show a different emphasis: the first one has communication and interaction between people at the heart of learning, and the second one focuses on engagement with resources. Of course these distinctions have always been present even in traditional classroom learning; there has always been a triangle between educator, learners, and course content, and depending on the emphasis on one of the three, different teaching and learning strategies have been employed, related to the views of knowledge and learning. Since the 1980s, a fourth component has been added to the mix: the milieu in which people learn has had more emphasis in learning theories. Initially, through the emergence of andragogy and experiential learning (Rogers, 2002) and of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 2002), and more so, since the emergence and proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their increasing encroachment on everyday life, boundaries between settings in which people learn and in which they use technology for other activities have blurred, and perspectives such as connectivism have emerged (Kop, 2011). These different views of learning have at their heart different perspectives on knowledge development.

A theory generally applies to the synthesis of a large body of information. The criterion for a set of interrelated propositions to be a theory is not whether it is true or untrue, but rather whether it is useful or it is not useful for explaining or predicting behavior. A theory is useful even though the ultimate causes of the phenomenon it encompasses may be ultimately unknown. A theory can be refined, or with new information, it can take on a new direction (Duke, Harper & Johnston, 2013). A theory can be seen as a useful set of ideas that help us make sense of a phenomenon, something more formal such as a conceptualization or set of precepts, or something that can be proved or disproved (Bell, 2010). A learning theory can help us to think about how and why change (in learning) happens (Smith, 1999). Another way of seeing theory is as a body of knowledge that relates to and emerges from our own grounded theorizing. Networked theories of learning (Goodyear, 2001) and of society (Castells, 2000) are examples of the myriad of theories that have been elaborated to explain the impact of ICTs across education, commerce and society in general. Learners, teachers, managers and policy makers across the board are trying to integrate technology into learning in formal and informal settings, looking for theories that can usefully inform their actions (Bell, 2010). Constructivism and connectivism are two important digital age learning theories (Duke, Harper & Johnston, 2013), that can be useful to support the analysis and design of MOOCs.

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