Despite growing interest in online tools for education, these tools did not arise necessarily with educational purposes in mind. As with other supports for teaching and learning, online tools could be of greater benefit to learners with the application of pedagogical principles and effective instructional design (Cuellar, 2002; Xu & Morris, 2007). However, many online resources have been placed into educational practice without consideration for effective pedagogy, often emulating “the worst of face-to-face courses” in their use (Lefoe, 1998, p. 453). Though online tools may be novel and full of potential, their use may not automatically lead to improved learning.
This paper examines how online tools might introduce specific pedagogical benefits and impediments to learning. These will be considered primarily within the context of post-secondary education and from perspectives of current scholarship in educational psychology. Several key benefits of online learning tools will be examined—how online tools overcome the problem of geographic distance in delivery of instruction, how these tools introduce new channels for communication, and how these tools provide opportunities outside the classroom for learning through social interaction. Then, two key impediments will be discussed—how online learning tools may not be appropriate for all learning styles and how cultural and gender biases in the design of online learning tools may potentially limit the learning success of many learners.
How might learners benefit from online learning?
There are several capabilities of online tools that may benefit learning. These include the ability to overcome geographic distance, the capabilities of versatile communication channels, and the capability for social interactions because of the interactive nature of online learning technologies.
Mitigation of geographic distance
Geographic distance has been identified among the key barriers to classroom learning (Taylor, 2002). A key benefit of online learning tools is that resources and communications can be placed into an online environment. This allows the resources to be accessed from any location where learners have an online connection. This capability of online learning has been found to have significant attraction to learners because learners identify convenience as a positive characteristic of online learning environments (Cuellar, 2002; Salaway & Borreson Caruso, 2007). Online learning, thus, is not tied to a specific place and can subsequently have global reach (Meyers, 2008).
This mitigation of geographic distance through online learning tools suggests that instruction could extend beyond the classroom environment. Instructors would be able to maintain contact with learners outside scheduled class times. Learning is affected because learners who might not have access under other circumstances would have access using online tools. Learning does not occur exclusively in classroom settings and learners could use online tools as a bridge to connect their learning in and outside the classroom (Meyers, 2008).
Online tools provide the capability of interactive communication (Stacey, 1999). Text, audio, and video communications can be recorded and shared among multiple participants (Meyers, 2008). Online communications―such as email or instant messaging―are widely seen as primary applications of online learning tools (Salaway & Borreson Caruso, 2007). Communications can be immediate and interactive or can be recorded and retrieved afterwards (Cuellar, 2002; Meyers, 2008; Taylor, 2002). The literature acknowledges that online communications currently lack the richness of face-to-face communication (Xu & Morris, 2007). However, online tools provide channels through which traditional communication can be augmented. Online communication can involve multiple parties, can combine synchronous and asynchronous modes, can blend text, graphics, audio, and video, and can be interactive (Romiszowski & Mason, 1996).
Communications are an important consideration in a discussion of learning because language is mediational and is used to represent ideas (Lefoe, 1998). A key proponent of language in learning is Vygotsky, who is considered among the leading theorists in the area of cognitive development (Woolfolk, Winne, & Perry, 2009). In Vygotsky’s model, language is considered the “most important symbol system” through which learning is constructed (Woolfolk et al., 2009, p. 42). It is through communication that new ideas and learning are tested (Woolfolk et al., 2009). “Language and dialogue [are] essential to cognitive development” (Stacey, 1999, para. 9).
The communication functions of online learning tools provide instructors a means to engage learners in interactive dialogue (Stacey, 1999). These communication activities involving the interactive use of language are seen as a key support toward cognitive development. For such discussions to be successful to learning outcomes, instructors must consider how to encourage online discussions and equitable participation of all learners (Taylor, 2002). Learners stand to benefit when they actively participate through verbal expression and dialogue.
The social constructivist theory of learning posits that learning occurs through social interactions. These interactions allow learners to co-construct their individual learning by connecting new experiences and insights to their existing knowledge (Lefoe, 1998; Stacey, 1999; Woolfolk et al., 2009). Social interactions provide learners a “means of extending ideas beyond the level they can manage individually” (Stacey, 1999, para. 40), a concept that Vygotsky referred to as the zone of proximal development (Woolfolk et al., 2009).
Online learning tools provide a platform for social interaction outside the classroom (Xu & Morris, 2007). Online learning tools can permit participants to interact with each other and not simply with the instructional materials. Meyers has argued that online interactions have the effect of breaking down social barriers, permitting otherwise reluctant learners to engage more freely and in a collegial fashion (2008).
As learning is largely a “social-dialogical activity” (Lefoe, 1998, p. 458), instructors ought to encourage social participation. This could take place where learners feel more at ease, as they might in online learning environments (Cuellar, 2002; Meyers, 2008). Learners from certain cultural traditions may achieve greater success where they perceive less social hierarchy and constraint, as in online environments (Meyers, 2008).
How might online learning environments impede learning?
Certain characteristics of online tools may present impediments to learning. The following discussion will examine how learning styles could affect learner receptivity to online learning and how cultural and gender bias in the design of online learning tools may affect learner success with those tools.
Learning styles and preferences
A learning style is “an individual’s characteristic approaches to learning” (Woolfolk et al., 2009, p. 119). Learning preferences are similar but tend to reflect the learner’s expressed inclination toward certain learning approaches, as opposed to ones that could, in fact, be most effective for the learner. For adult learners, there are fewer differences between actual styles and expressed preferences (Woolfolk et al., 2009). Many kinds of learning styles have been described in the literature (Woolfolk et al., 2009). One set of differentiators of learning styles are sensory mechanisms such as listening, reading, seeing, or doing (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006). Another description of learning styles was given by Kolb, in which he characterized learning styles across two continua, “feeling versus thinking and doing versus observing” (Lussier, 2008, p. 51).
Online learning tools appear to hold appeal to learners depending on their learning styles. Rekar Munro indicated that learners tending toward certain aspects of Kolb’s model “expressed the highest satisfaction with technology as it accommodated their preference” while learners within other aspects of Kolb’s model “expressed less satisfaction” (2006, para. 17, 18). Butler identified similar correlations (2004).
The concept of learning styles acknowledges learners as unique individuals with particular needs and approaches to their learning. Instructors are encouraged to take individual learning styles into account when designing instruction, in particular when using online learning tools (Ally, 2008; Hargittai & Shafer, 2006; Rekar Munro, 2006; Xu & Morris, 2007). Without such intervention, learners may not benefit fully from online learning tools because the tools may not meet their individual learning styles, which may also affect learner motivation (Ally, 2008; Cuellar, 2002; Hargittai & Shafer, 2006; Rekar Munro, 2006).
Cultural and gender bias have been identified as impediments within educational curriculum (Woolfolk et al., 2009; Hargittai & Shafer, 2006). These biases are not simply related to content but extend to the structures, processes, and values presented through the instruction (Woolfolk et al., 2009). Hargittai and Shafer have pointed out that cultural and gender bias influence the design of tools such as software interfaces and the biases that exist in classroom curriculum may be exacerbated through the use of online learning tools (2006). Culture plays a significant role in cognitive development (Woolfolk et al., 2009), so much so that cultural impediments in online learning tools may affect the accessibility and usability of the tools (Hargittai & Shafer, 2006; Taylor, 2002).
For instruction to be accessible to all learners, instructors should consider the cultural and gender expectations of the learners. This is all the more critical when online learning tools are involved because of the biases that are inherent in the design of the tools (Hargittai & Shafer, 2006; Taylor, 2002). These circumventions would be necessary for learners to benefit fully from using the online learning tools.
The issues surrounding the use of online learning tools are complex. The scope of this paper allowed only for a limited examination of some of the capabilities and obstacles of these tools.
As an instructor, the author has made use of online tools in order to extend communication outside classroom contexts. At the same time, he has ensured that other avenues of communication, such as face-to-face and telephone, remain available. He believes that choosing the appropriate balance of supports is important in providing an optimal learning context, considering both the rich social and learning interactions of the classroom and the interactive supports of online learning.
As a learner, the author is less enthusiastic with online learning tools. He recognizes that effective use of these tools requires an ability on the part of instructors to balance the mix of online environments with classroom contexts. He also understands that institutional support may be lacking, making instructors less able to leverage the online tools available. This observation is echoed in the research of Salaway and Borreson Caruso (2007).
In their current form, online learning tools cannot replace all aspects of classroom instruction. As outlined in this paper, online learning tools present enablers as well as obstacles to learning. The impediments must be carefully considered against the benefits―and remedied where possible―for online learning tools to be fully effective. Based on the considerations identified in this paper, the following are a number of recommendations that could be used to guide policies for the implementation of online learning tools.
Because learning continues outside the classroom, online learning tools can be used as an adjunct to classroom activity. Instructors should be mindful that this learning is taking place and that online interactions can be used to connect online learning to the learning that takes place in the physical classroom. Because of the rich and complex social interactions in face-to-face learning environments such as classrooms, online learning should not be used to the exclusion of classroom learning. All efforts should be made to bring face-to-face instruction to learners. Learners should strive to take advantage of the social learning benefits of face-to-face interactions. There may be compromises to learners’ success when convenience is considered for its own sake.
Online learning environments can be used as platforms for delivery of instructional content. However, because dialogue is a powerful learning support, instructors should be encouraged to involve learners in communication through the channels provided in the online tools. Learners can extend their classroom dialogue outside the classroom in this manner. Online communications also involve learners in social interactions, shown to be key aspects of constructivist learning theory. The recommendation that could be made here is that online environments should be tapped for their communication and interaction supports.
By introducing online learning tools for their inherent benefits, instructors and administrators also introduce the obstacles inherent to the online tools. One of these obstacles is how online learning tools appeal more to learners with certain learning styles and less so to others. A recommendation that could be made is to identify learners whose learning styles are less compatible with online learning and provide them with adequate, alternate supports.
Because culture plays an important role in cognitive development and learning, instructional designers would do well to consider and remediate the biases inherent in the curriculum and in the design of online learning tools. This consideration must go beyond the content itself and include the structures, processes, and values implied through the delivery of instruction (Xu & Morris, 2007).
Online learning tools do hold out benefits to learners. At the same time, there are obstacles to learning that can counter any benefits. As with traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction, combined approaches with differentiated and varied instruction may be most successful when introducing online learning environments (Salaway & Borreson Caruso, 2007; Woolfolk et al., 2009). For now, online learning might not be seen as a replacement for classroom instruction. Instead, online learning may provide a valuable support for learners by making available a variety of ways for learners to experience their learning process.
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