Learning theories have guided L&D for decades. Applying an understanding of how people learn is a central aspect of pedagogy. However, the unique blend of technology and learning that e-learning offers puts it in previously uncharted territory.

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While e-learning has experienced immense growth over the past decade, the influence of popular learning theories on the discipline tends to go under the radar. At the same time, it is not easy to accurately quantify how theories that emerged before the internet interact with online learning.

According to Andrews (2011), the modern body of knowledge about learning and e-learning has developed parallelly. Today, most researchers and experts agree that e-learning would benefit greatly from a more advanced theoretical foundation. At present, though, e-learning uses a vibrant mix of learning theories by adapting them to an online educational environment.

This article will walk you through some of the major learning theories that direct e-learning today.

Behaviorism – Learning through rewards, punishments, and repetition

Behaviorism is the first verifiable theory of learning that ever existed. The main idea of behaviorism is that living beings, including human beings, are like black boxes.

This theory equates learning to observable changes in behavior. Furthermore, all behavior is considered to originate as a response to external events or stimuli in one’s environment.

These external conditions are “antecedents,” and the behavior is a “response.” The desired response to an antecedent is reinforced with a reward when attempting to teach. On the other hand, an undesired response is reinforced with a punishment. Reinforcements are, thus, consequences to the antecedents.

It is important to mention that punishment in a learning environment is not severe or harmful. It is merely a consequence that signals to the learner that they produced the wrong response.

By repeating this cycle of antecedents, responses, and consequences, learners start displaying the desired behavioral outcomes. This process is called conditioning. There are two kinds of conditioning, operant and classical. E-learning (and even face-to-face learning) mostly use the former.

In online learning, gamification is the most widely used application of behaviorism. Gamification helps learners acquire new knowledge through feedback, such as color or sound indicators for the right and wrong responses. Through this feedback, learners can gauge what is and is not expected as a learning outcome.

Cognitivism – Mental processes and functions

Cognitivism came about as a response to behaviorism. It rejected behaviorism’s mechanical view of learning and emphasized the role of mental processes (cognition).

Cognitivism has several learning theories within it, but Jean Piaget’s proposition of mental schemas, assimilation, and accommodation is the most popular. Schemas are mental definitions or representations of concepts (e.g., sweet, naturally occurring foods with seeds are fruits, but sweet, processed foods are confectionary.) Through an individual’s interaction with their environment, they discover new things and form or reorganize mental schemas through accommodation and assimilation, respectively.

Some of the cognitive functions commonly involved in learning are:

  • Attention
  • Sensation
  • Memory, recognition, and recall
  • Perception
  • Problem-solving
  • Decision making
  • Categorization and sequencing of information
  • The use of language and symbols

According to cognitivism, understanding, catering to, and adjusting to learners’ mental processes makes learning effective.

Cognitivism also applies findings from neuroscience to e-learning. An example of this is Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning. This theory holds that the brain processes visual and auditory input through different neural channels. Depending on its use of audio and visual media, a course can be highly effective or very distracting. Thus, e-learning content should ideally use visual input as a supplement to audio input to simplify or elaborate on what is being spoken about.

Applications of cognitivism in e-learning are:

  • Readings (articles, research papers, books, interactive PDFs)
  • Visual models and flowcharts
  • Pictures
  • Narrative comics or activities
  • Mnemonics
  • Providing relevant examples

Social cognitivism or social learning theory – learning by observing

Social cognitivism holds that individuals learn by observing others. The people being observed are “models.

Not everyone a learner observes is a model, though. Instead, 4 cognitive conditions determine whether new information is acquired or not:

  • Attention
  • Retention
  • Reproduction
  • Motivation

Thus, an e-learning environment must facilitate these cognitive processes in learners.

Admittedly, all online learning does not fit the description of social cognitivism. The social aspect is central, and delivery methods like asynchronous learning may not always allow for social interaction.

However, even tools like video tutorials and demos fall under this umbrella. Furthermore, depending on the resources and goals of the organization, instructional designers can add social components to courses. Some examples are:

  • Forums
  • Instructor-led training
  • Group projects
  • Social media integration

Constructivism – Learning is an active process and knowledge is a personalized construct

Constructivism combines the work of well-known scholars and psychologists like Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. The essence of constructivism is that knowledge is a construct that learners develop through their individual experiences and unique circumstances. Thus, every learner has a personalized internal lens through which they acquire knowledge.

Constructivism borrows the concept of schemas, assimilation, and accommodation from Piaget. Mental constructs are a collection of schemas that frequently get reorganized.

On the other hand, Vygotsky described learning as a social problem-solving activity that the learner partakes in with another, more experienced individual (a mentor, instructor, or teacher).

Lastly, Bruner’s contribution to constructivism is discovery learning. Bruner believed that learners do not need instructors to organize content for them. Instead, they should be allowed to organize knowledge by themselves for learning to be effective. To do so, a spiral curriculum, which progressively refreshes old topics while introducing more complex ones, can be utilized.

Corporate e-learning can incorporate constructivism via battery courses, introductory and refresher sessions, revision activities such as quizzes and worksheets, group and instructor interactions, case studies, and simulations.

Combining learning theories with technology

Though still a developing field, corporate e-learning (and e-learning in general) has definitely found its footing in recent years. Learning opportunities mean a lot to employees and organizations alike.

While innovative, e-learning must also fulfill learning needs and objectives. Pange & Pange (2011) introduced some best practices based on a literature review and the theories mentioned above for the same. According to them, a functional blend of technology and learning theories should include the following components:

Conclusion

Instructional designers and L&D experts have a massive toolbox at their disposal for their digital learning courses. Depending on the desired goals and outcomes, different learning theories can be and are being combined to build dynamic courses for modern adult learners.

References

Pange, A. , Pange, J. (2011). ‘Is E-learning Based On Learning Theories? A Literature Review’. World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, Open Science Index 56, International Journal of Educational and Pedagogical Sciences, 5(8), 932 – 936.

Andrews, Richard: Does e-learning require a new theory of learning? Some initial thoughts – In: Journal for educational research online 3 (2011) 1, S. 104-121 – URN: urn:nbn:de:0111-opus-46841 – DOI: 10.25656/01:4684

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Learning Theories

Learning Theories

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the major learning theories?

The major e-learning theories are:

  • Behaviorism
  • Cognitivism
  • Social cognitivism
  • Constructivism

How do learning theories affect e-learning?

E-learning uses a vibrant mix of learning theories by adapting them to an online educational environment. It combines these learning theories with technology to offer dynamic courses for modern adult learners.

Is e-learning based on learning theories?

Yes, e-learning uses many popular psychological learning theories such as behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, and social cognitivism.

Is e-learning a theory?

According to Andrews (2011), the modern body of knowledge about learning and e-learning has developed parallelly. Today, most researchers and experts agree that e-learning would benefit greatly from a more advanced theoretical foundation.

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