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e-Learning kit: Aligning theory and practice

Strategies and technologies for transitioning from face-to-face teaching to online environments (#eLkit).

Aligning theory and practice

Making the move to online learning is the ideal time to reflect on our practices and theoretical perspectives. Before going forward, ask yourself these questions and record your responses (make a map or diagram if it helps): What does the learning process look like? What are the theories that drive my teaching practices?

Learning theories

It would be great if there was a learning theory exactly in line with our thinking and teaching style - it's not that simple, and it is not necessary. We are free to borrow from the different schools of thought and use them to challenge our own assumptions.

Most influential theories of learning (UNESCO):

  • Behaviourism: Learning as behavioural changes
  • Cognitive psychology: Learning as acquisition of knowledge
  • Constructivism: Learning as construction of knowledge
    • Social constructivism: Emphasis on social and situated learning
    • Experiential learning: Meaningful experiences change knowledge and behaviour
  • Multiple intelligences: There are many distinct “intelligences”
  • Situated learning theory and community of practice: Learning occurs most effectively in communities

Further reading:

  1. Conole et al., 2004 - Table 1: Summary of key learning theories and models, their characteristics, and how they might be realised in the context of e-learning.
  2. Ravenscroft's historical overview of e-learning research (2003).

Constructivism (and constructionism)

Constructivism is probably the theory most often reflected in librarian teaching practices. At its core is the construction of knowledge and the creation of individual meaning but it also emphasizes learner-centred and activity-oriented processes (Ravenscroft, 2003). Active learning, project-based and problem-based learning are all rooted in the broad theory of constructivism. The influential psychologists are Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Vygotsky and their works are recommended as further reading but they require some commitment: Piaget (The essential Piaget or Piaget by Boden), Bruner (Toward a theory of instruction), Vygotsky (Mind in society or Thought and language).

With the growth of makerspaces and DIY movements, constructionism is of particular interest to librarians. Seymour Papert was influenced by Piaget and based his theory on constructivism but with a focus on making things. His idea is that learning takes place best while the learner is constructing something, either physical or virtual (simulations). Papert applied his theory to the development of a programming language at MIT, LOGO, to put children in control of their learning (1980).

Five perspectives on teaching

E-learning strategies are suggested for each of the 5 different perspectives on teaching adults, from Dan Pratt and associates, for alignment with teaching perspectives (Gabriel, 2007). You can also take the teaching perspectives inventory (TPI for short).

  1. Transmission: Teachers transfer knowledge to students (was once the dominant perspective).
    • E-learning strategies for this perspective include posting a syllabus, calendar and lecture notes, sending individual emails, and using quizzes and tests with feedback. Student study groups can help increase dialogue.
  2. Developmental: Teachers are facilitators for student knowledge construction (based on constructivism).
    • E-learning strategies for this perspective include designing interactive and team activities, providing tools for students to share resources, using discussion boards, case studies and real life examples.
  3. Apprenticeship: Teachers mentor students while they work on authentic tasks
    • E-learning strategies for this perspective include promoting self-reflection and providing means of sharing reflections with peers, activities with real world context, using scenarios for modelling, and collaborative activities for team-based learning.
  4. Nurturing: Teachers establish a highly supportive environment for risk taking
    • E-learning strategies for this perspective include providing personal attention and advice about study skills, sharing personal experiences with students and participating in class discussions.
  5. Social reform: Teachers expand students' world views and encourage them to affect change
    • E-learning strategies for this perspective include team presentations and encouraging discussions and critical reflections on presentations, selected issues and texts, as well as on their own surroundings.

Conversational Framework

Laurillard created the conversational framework for analyzing educational media to meet the demands of the learning process (2002).

The set of requirements for any learning situation:

  • It must operate as an iterative dialogue;
  • which must be discursive, adaptive, interactive and reflective;
  • and which must operate at the level of descriptions of the topic;
  • and at the level of actions within related tasks.

Different media are combined to meet the requirements: narrative media (print, audio/video), interactive media (hypermedia, interactive tutorial), adaptive media (games, simulations, virtual environments), communicative media (conferencing, file sharing, collaborative authoring), and productive media (learners build something: microworlds, models, systems). 

Final reflection

Revisit your answers to questions posed above: What does the learning process look like? What are the theories that drive my teaching practices?

After exploring these ideas, have you changed your perspective?

What questions do you still have? I'd love to hear from you!

Bottom of the page bonus: Try out the Logo interpreter!

"Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can't, anything can be painfully difficult." (From Papert's intro to Mindstorms, 1980)


See the full bibliography for works consulted.​

Conole, G., Dyke, M., Oliver, M., & Seale, J. (2004). Mapping pedagogy and tools for effective learning design. Computers & Education, 43(1), 17-33.​

Gabriel, M. A. (2007). "Toward effective instruction in e-learning environments." In: Bullen, M., & Janes, D. P. Making the transition to e-learning: Strategies and issues. Hershey, PA: Information Science Pub.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking university teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies. London: Routledge/Falmer.​

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Ravenscroft, A. (2003). From conditioning to learning communities: implications of fifty years of research in e-learning interaction design. Research in Learning Technology, 11(1).

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