Global Theory for Distance Education

Choosing a Global Theory for Distance Education

By Kellie Schneider





Advances in technology have impacted education and created a new digital learning classroom which has presented educators with conflict in their perspectives of the context and direction of education today. Traditional theories such as behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism may no longer be appropriate in contemporary learning environments. Theory of education has been transformed by the increasing presence of technology integration in classrooms and the advances in online learning. This paper will examine online learning in the context of traditional theories and evaluate the relevance of emerging theories including connectivism, activity theory, Transactional Distance Theory (TDT), and Transformative learning theory.





Traditional teaching methods have normally been categorized into at least one of three major philosophies of education: behaviorism, cognitivism, or constructivism. As education continues to develop and change, some experts and researchers believe the theory behind education should as well. Mohammed Ally, of Athabasca University has suggested that no single learning theory can apply globally to online learning, and all theories must be combined to build online courses (Ally, 2004). Is it possible to confine the relatively new practice of online instruction within one or more existing theories, or does it require a new foundation? In this paper I will examine whether a global theory of online education potentially exists within the context of several emerging theories: Connectivism, Transactional Distance Theory (TDT), Activity Theory, and Transformative Learning Theory.


Traditional Learning Theories

Behaviorism is based on the behavior outcomes of learning, not necessarily what may or may not be occurring within the learner. As educators have voiced the opinion that not all learning can be observed, prevalent theories moved from behaviorist to cognitive perspectives. Cognitive theory relies on internal processes such as memory, motivation, reflection that help learners expanded their knowledge base and capacity for learning. The most recent of the three schools of thought is constructivism. Constructivists claim that learners create their own personal knowledge as they construct meaning according to their past experiences and current knowledge bases. Acquirement of knowledge takes place when learners can personally apply their learning experiences (Ally, 2004). As technology becomes more present in classrooms and learning environments around the world, these theories become questionable. The digital age has introduced a new type of classroom to the global schoolhouse and experts are debating about where the online classroom fits among these perspectives.



Siemens (2005) presents connectivism as an alternative theory to traditional theories. As we have moved into the age of information, especially in digital formats that are so easily accessible, traditional theories may not be enough. “We can no longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act” (2005, p. 3). We must rely not only on our own experiences for creating meaning in the world, but also the experiences of others. We learn through the network of connections we have with people and information.

Connectivism, as an emerging theory, has been questioned on its very validity as a theory and its relevance to education in general (Kop & Hill, 2008). Connectivism is rooted in the theories of internal and external knowledge, which, Bill Kerr cites as previously addressed in Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism (2007). These ideas may have been addressed, but have they been addressed in the same context? Encompassing new technologies within education may change the methodologies rooted in the theory of connectivism. With its commonalities in pre-existing theories, it is questionable whether, as Kop and Hill have suggested, Connectivism truly merits definition as a theory.


Transactional Distance Theory

Transactional Distance Theory, or TDT, is one of the more prevalent emerging theories in online education[k1] . Sushita Gokool-Ramdoo (2008), of the University of South Australia has suggested TDT for consideration of global acceptance. She claims that it is the most comprehensive theory, incorporating other perspectives and expanding even further upon them and that it transitions a learner from behaviorist learning perspectives to the more contemporary constructivist perspectives. Because TDT incorporates more traditional theories of learning it could be more widely accepted, preparing education for global acceptance, but does this really make TDT necessary? Is it enough to just utilize various concepts from existing theories? It is also arguable whether TDT is specific enough for online learning. TDT can be viewed as a general distance education theory. Online learning can be included in this category, but is not the exclusive component. Distance education can also include correspondence education that is not conducted over the Internet.

Also in question is whether TDT would apply to online learning programs that are not conducted at a distance. Michael G. Moore (1993) contends that there is some distance between instructor and learner in any education setting, including traditional face-to-face instruction. In this case TDT would apply. In order to determine a global theory, distance must be defined.


Activity Theory

David H. Jonassen (2000) describes activity theory as the interdependence of conscious processes of the mind and performance of activity. Activity theory relies on the cooperation of learners, learning context and community, expectations and tools. Online learning can be assumed to be one of these tools that subjects of learning may utilize. Activity theory is the theory behind student centered learning environments (Jonassen, 2000), which are based upon project- and problem-based learning which involves knowledge construction. This concept is reflected in constructivist theory, again questioning the need for a new theory that already relies on existing theory.


Transformative Learning Theory

Transformative learning theory is founded on the concept of learning within an individual’s frame of reference. Mezirow (1997) explained that this frame of reference includes “cognitive, conative, and emotional components, and is composed of two dimension: habits of mind and a point of view” (p. 1). According to transformative theory, the content and methods of our learning are based on how we see the world and how we are used to thinking. Mezirow stated the following:

Adults have acquired a coherent body of experience—associations, concepts, values, feelings, conditioned responses—frames of reference that define their life world. Frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences, they selectively shape and delimit expectations, perceptions, cognition, and feelings. They set our “line of action.” Once set, we automatically move from one specific activity (mental or behavioral) to another. (p. 1) Many online learning environments are geared toward adult learning. In this respect, transformative theory can be viewed as appropriate and possibly ideal.Edward W. Taylor (2007) of Penn State University-Harrisburg addresses the popularity of transformative learning theory in adult education.

Taylor’s  conclusions of the empirical research acknowledge transformative learning as a still-developing theory. This theory ventures into the same field as constructivism in that it based on making meaning. In some respects, it could be considered a more specific form of constructivism with an emphasis on critical reflection of the learner. With its emphasis on adult education, it may not be a broad enough theory to serve as a global theory for online learning in general. However, with its focus on changing learners from transformative thinkers to independent and responsible decision makers, one also has to wonder why transformative doesn’t apply to younger learners (Mezirow, 1997). Children may have a more limited frame of reference, but nonetheless, still maintain a unique perspective from their own realities.




With roots so deeply embedded in traditional theories, it is questionable whether there is truly a need for one of the emerging theories to serve as a global theory of online education. The very nature of online education and technology in general is ever-changing. A global theory in this field could be determined, but perhaps in vain as the needs of learners and education change so rapidly. Perhaps drawing from the traditionalists to meet the needs of individual online learning environments is the best service for all.






Ally, M. (2004). Foundation of educational theory for online learning. In T. Anderson & F. Elloumi (Eds.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning (pp 3-31). Athabasca, Alberta, Canada:

Athabasca University. Retrieved March 15, 2009 from

Gokool-Ramdoo, S. 2008. Beyond the theoretical impasse: Extending the applications of transactional distance education theory. The International Review of Research in Open and

Distance Learning. 9(3).Retrieved April 11, 2009 from

Jonassen, D.H. (2000). Revisiting activity theory as a framework for designing student-centered learning environments. In D.H. Jonassen & S.M. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of

learning environments (pp .89-121). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishing.

Kerr, B. (2007) A Challenge to Connectivism. Transcript of Keynote Speech, Online Connectivism Conference. University of Manitoba.

Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008, October). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 9(3), 1-13.

Retrieved March 16, 2009, from Education Research Complete database.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 74, 5-12.

Moore, M.G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical Principles of Distance Education (pp. 22-38). New York: Routledge.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for a digital era. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Retrieved April 14, 2009 from

Taylor, E.W. (2007). An update of transformative learning theory: A critical review of the empirical research (1999-2005). International Journal of Lifelong Education, (26)2, (171-193).

doi: 10.1080/02601370701219475



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: