Online Learning Environments

Online Learning Environments and Their Applications to Emerging Theories of Educational Technology

By Valora Hodges


This paper looks at the discussion of theory and online learning environments.  It explores a variety of new and emerging theories of learning.  The theories discussed include socicultural constructivism, transactional distance theory, cognitive theory of multimedia learning, and connectivism.  Key principles that define each theory are outlined and then a connection is made to how they could effectively be implemented through the use of an online learning environment.  The conclusion being that new and emerging theories in the field of educational technology can work together to enrich e-learning and collaboratively bring education into the 21st century.

Keywords:  online learning environments, theories of educational technology, socio-cultural constructivism, transactional distance theory, cognitive theory of m ultimedia learning, connectivism


The 21st century is fast becoming known by its nickname of the ‘digital age’ which does a good job of describing what daily life is like in modern day society.  Through the use of technology, information is being developed very rapidly and connections between this knowledge and the individuals that interact with it are virtually instantaneous.  Theories of learning need to address this new pace of education today.  There is a positive correlation between the increase in new technology being integrated into society and the development of new theories on how to use technology as a catalyst for learning.  The most prevalent of these new leaps in technology is the use of the Internet in teaching and learning.  Online learning environments (or e-learning) have changed the dynamics of the traditional classroom.  E-learning provides an opportunity to bring together individuals into one community that surpasses physical space and time to unite and engage them in purposeful learning.

The theories of socio-cultural constructivism, transactional distance, cognitive theory of multimedia learning, and connectivism will be discussed by providing a description of their defining principles.  Then a correlation will be made on how they can be integrated successfully into online learning environments.  Some foundational definitions of the terms theory, learning theory, and learning environments need to be given before a valid argument can be made for these learning theories and their online applications.

Studying theory and what constitutes a strong theory often results in more confusion.  The word “theory” is used for such a wide range of contexts that warnings have been made to prevent it from becoming meaningless.  Often the use of the word theory creates an obstruction rather than an understanding.  For this paper a basic meaning of what constitutes a theory will be proposed in an attempt to help bypass the natural debate as to whether the concepts presented in this paper are actually or even potential theories of learning (Sutton, 1995, p. 371).

Koetting & Januszewski (1991) use the definition of theory established by the Association for Educational Communities and Technology (AECT) to help establish a definitional foundation.  The AECT defines theory as, “a general principle, supported by considerable data, proposed as an explanation of a phenomena; a statement of the relations believed to prevail in a comprehensible body of fact” (Koetting & Januszewski, pp. 401-402). It is easy to see that this definition contains problematic terms such as “considerable data” and “comprehensive body of facts.”  These terms are subjective and open for interpretation.  It is noteworthy that the AECT definition establishes the notion that a theory attempts to explain something through establishing relations between proven facts.

Ketterling and Januszewski (1991) go on to discuss different types of theories and use learning theory as an example of a descriptive theory.  They state that, “through learning theory we identify the process of learning in such a way that through the application of that theory we can control the learning process, and through that control, we can predict the outcomes of learning” (Ketterling & Januszewski, p. 404).  As theories of learning evolve so does the definition of what a learning theory is and the “control” and “prediction of outcomes” as described in the above definition loosen and provide for a more nonrestrictive definition.  The learning theory then no longer takes on the role of the box that holds instruction but the basis for expanding and redefining the box as an agent for change, not restraint.  Learning theories would have no contextual meaning if not for the existence of a setting that supports such learning.  These settings are called learning environments.  When the learning environment takes place on the World Wide Web, it is known as an online learning environment.  E-learning (electronic learning) has been used to define different concepts.  One of these is to address online learning which is how it will be defined for the purpose of exploring the above mentioned learning theories and how they apply to online education.

Sociocultural Constructivism

Credited for major contributions to the sociocultural constructivist theory is L.S. Vygotsky.  A Russian psychologist, Vygotsky is well known for his Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) theory.  The ZPD is often defined as the relation between what a learner knows and the knowledge that exists within the social context (Staupe, 2000, p. 820).  Sociocultural constructivism uses this relationship and continues it with stating that through this social interaction a new level of knowledge is acquired.  Emphasis is on dialogue that participants engage in as a means of collaboration and negation of meaning to reach a new understanding.  This process allows the learner to internalize what is being taught, and thus, they become an active part in shaping the learning environment (Nahme, 2000, p. 240).  Sociocultural constructivism defines learning as a sociocultural dialogic activity (Bonk, 1998, p. 26).  Therefore instruction needs to provide opportunities for participation in a community of learners that learn through authentic tasks.

Zeina Nehme (2000) describes how a sociocultural learning environment would work in a synchronous online community of learners.  She states that, “the synchronous online tool is the mediator and the social area is achieved through the different types of communication, collaboration, cooperation and interaction that happen among the moderator and the learners online” (Nahme, p. 247).  The use of online learning environments brings with them the availability of an extremely complex network of information and personnel that enrich the learning community.  Other principals of sociocultural constructivist theory that can be enhanced through e-learning are the need for a mediation tool and distributed intelligence (Bonk, 1998).  There is a need for a learning environment to facilitate the development of a culture in which participants learn and grow.  This community of learners must be diverse and utilize an array of knowledge.  Online learning environments provide the framework for creating such mediation as well as the ability to bring together a limitless perspective on any subject imaginable.

Transactional Distance

Transactional distance (TD) theory was developed by Michael Moore around 1997 (although it has been in the works since around 1972).  This theory has been the basis for argument among many scholars including Grosky and Caspi (2005) who argue that TD might not be an actual theory at all.  They do, however, agree that it is valuable in that transactional distance is viewed as a framework for understanding distance education and cited that the reduction of TD is a needed factor.  This theory has also been supported and studied in universities as vital to understanding how distance learning affects individuals who participate in such learning environments (Grosky & Caspi, 2005).

Moore (1997) uses Dewey’s concept of transaction as describing the role between individuals and the learning environment to establish a theory based on the unique learning environment created by distance education.  When learners and teachers are separated by time and physical space (as in distance education), the potential for misunderstanding between these individuals is increased.  This increase in the potential for miscommunication that can occur in distance education is what Moore (1997) defines as transactional distance.  TD is a relative variable and its degree is ever-changing based on the unique circumstances of each particular situation.  The principle factors that determine the degree of TD with a particular learning environment are the amount of dialogue, structure, and learner autonomy present (Moore, p.22).

Moore (1997) goes on to declare that distance education programs “with little transactional distance receive directions and guidance regarding study through dialogue with an instructor in a programme that has a relatively open structure designed to support such individual interactions” (Moore, p.23).  Online education by its very nature has the potential for a less predetermined structure or “open structure” thus allowing for the flow of dialogue between learners and instructors to increase and in turn lessen the amount of transaction distance present.

The effect of transactional distance on online learning environments was addressed in a study conducted by professor Yau-Jane Chen from the National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan.  Chen (2001) studied a web course offered by the university for the purpose of gaining learner’s perspectives in regard to the different factors of TD.  The conclusion showed support for the existence of transactional distance in online learning and the need to address it as a factor of student learning when instruction for e-learning is being designed (Chen, p.468).

Online education has the ability to adapt instruction based on the third factor of TD which is learner autonomy.  Learner autonomy is described as the “extent to which… the learner rather than the teacher determines the goals, the learning experiences, and the evaluation decisions of the learning programme” (Moore, 1997, p. 27).  Other media sources do not have the ability to create the needed dialogue for learner success.  For example, the use of a prerecorded video program as a media source for a distance education course must contain a highly structured program since all content is designed and produced prior to the actual instruction.  Since predesigned structure drastically decreases the amount of learner autonomy available in the course of study.

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (CTML) was designed by professor Richard E. Mayer (cite?).  Professor Mayer is well known in the field of educational psychology and has made it his goal to develop a theory based on researched-based principals that explain how people learn from words and pictures in multimedia learning environments.  It is based on the assumptions that people process audio and visual input differently, that people only process limited elements at one time, and that learning occurs when learners are presented with the right kind of cognitive processing. (Meyer in Veronikas, 2005, p.180)

Five cognitive processes are presented in CTML that examine how people learn from words and pictures.  Selecting words when verbal material enters through the ears, selecting images when visual materials enter through the eyes, organizing the words and the images, and integrating and building the connections between the visual, audio, and prior knowledge.  This understanding of how people learn was experimented with and research-based principles created.  These principles focus on eliminating processing that is not related to the goal, managing basic processing related to the goal, and providing a deeper reflective processing of the goal. (Meyer in Veronikas & Shaughnessey, 2005).

Online learning environments can be designed with these principles in mind so as to promote more effective learning.  It is easy to present large amounts of material in an online learning environment since so much knowledge is accessible in a digital format and easily uploaded to present to learners.  According to the CTML theory, learners can only process limited amounts of information and therefore e-learning should limit the amount of information that a learner is asked to process.  Digital media can also become extremely complex and information jumbled in a format that looses the focus of the related goal.  Information needs to be simplified, focused and presented in a format that is easily understood and clearly delivered.  Simplified and precise information is the focus of CTML along with taking this focus and extending it out into a deeper reflective understanding of the content (Meyer in Veronikas & Shaughnessey, 2005).  Reflective learning is not a new idea and online learning environments have the potential to create a framework for reflection through activities such as personal learning journals, wikis, and discussion board questioning.  Cognitive theory of multimedia learning is a research-based theory that can be applied to improve the level of online education available.


Connectivism is a learning theory established in 2005 by well known theorist George Siemens.  He explored the theories of chaos, network, and self-organization to formulate this theory.  Siemens (2004) proposes the need for a new theory to address the change in how people think and handle knowledge as a result of the increased uses of technology in all aspects of daily living.  He argues that the “know-how and know-what is being supplemented with the know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed)” (Siemens, p.1).

Principals of connectivism explore new ideas in learning and data transfer.  The theory states that due to the fact that information has now become digital, its flow has increased to a point of becoming too complex for an individual to keep up with it all.  The learner thus finds a need to create an external network of valid sources such as people or content of information called nodes.  These nodes create places for the individual learner to organize up-to-date knowledge that can be accessed when needed.  Thus putting the value on the external environment in which knowledge is filtered and transferred as opposed to how it is internalized by the learner (Siemens, 2005, p.5).

Epistemological principals of connectivism are unique in that learning may occur outside the individual.  In this view, knowledge is made up of connections that emerge and adapt based on the context thus giving connectivism its epistemological framework for its grounds as a learning theory (Kop & Hill, 2008).  Siemens verifies this new belief of how  learning occurs in a post on his website,, when he writes that, “the learner aggregates related nodes…and relies on each individual node to provide needed knowledge.  The act of learning is offloaded onto the network itself –i.e. the network is the learning” (Siemens, 2005).

By their very nature online learning environments have a structure consisting of networks where information is gathered.  This information is then retrieved by the individual participant and studied and sorted.  Connectivism provides the needed shift in learning skills and activities to provide a successful and up-to-date learning environment through the use of online tools and resources. (Siemens, 2005)

Concluding discussion

The theories explored in this chapter are just a sampling of what is out there.  Underlying themes are emerging as to what is the new look of education.  Learner’s roles are changing to be more active and centered in the learning process.  Epistemological views are changing and redefining what learning is and how it occurs.  Online applications are being developed that follow the principles created in these new learning theories.  The following chart shows these factors and how the theories overlap and complement each other as powerful tools for creating an effective online learning environment.


Learner’s Role

Epistemological View

Online Application

Socio-cultural Constructivism

* to interact within the learning environment and create dialogue

*Actively shape the learning environment

*bring diversity to the community

Participants internalize the information being discussed and learning occurs

* mediation tool

*Development of a culture

Transactional Distance

* Interaction and dialogue to help lower TD

* learner autonomy

(Not explicitly stated)

* Open structure

* Create environment for dialogue

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Learner-centered with technology being adjusted to fit their needs

Learning occurs when presented with the right kind of cognitive processing based on research-based principles

Take into account the principles of how people learn when online application is being designed


Create a node where information is accessed and stored

Learning equals connections and many occur outside the individual

Tool for networking between hubs

New and emerging theories of learning are being developed and discussed every day.  The hot topic is how to integrate the digital world into teaching and learning in an effective manner.  A call has been made to explore these theories and examine their effectiveness with a critical eye and reach outside the boundaries of what is seen as traditional education to develop a working model of learning that is relevant with how information is being developed and shared in society today.


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