Anderson: Towards a Theory of Online Learning

Today in Charles Graham’s course we discussed Terry Anderson’s article alongside two by Michael Moore.  Anderson combines theories of learning with the context of online education to suggest some outlines for a theory of online learning.  I was a little unsatisfied when I finished the article, perhaps because I wanted a full-blown theory, not just something moving “towards” one.

Anderson adopts the argument of Bransford, Brown and Cocking (1999), who state that “effective learning environments are framed within the convergence of four overlapping lenses. They argue that effective learning is community-centred, knowledge-centred, learner-centred, and assessment-centred” (p. 47).  Anderson first discusses being “learner-centered,” which seems most fundamental to teaching.  I found this line especially interesting as he discussed “knowledge-centered” learning: “John McPeck (2000) and other critical thinking theorists argue that teaching general thinking skills and techniques is useless outside of a particular knowledge domain in which they can be grounded” (p. 48).I think that I want to study online and blended courses in the domains of the humanities and history.  What are “the epistemology, language, and context of disciplinary thought” in these fields?  How does that impact what arguments I can hope to make?  I also found the concept of community-centered learning to be important.  I was surprised to read that Lipman was responsible for the idea of “community of inquiry,” something I had attributed to Garrison.  Need to do some reading up on this!  Finally, as Anderson discussed the concept of being assessment-centered, I appreciated the “growing list of tools provide such assessment without increased teacher participation” (p. 50).  Some of the listed items were even among things I proposed while teaching online, to lessen the workload, though the ideas were not accepted.  Glad to see such a list exists!

Anderson adds three more interactions to the list begun by Michael Moore.  Later, he writes that “sufficient levels of deep & meaningful learning can be developed as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student-teacher; student-student; student-content) is at very high levels. The other two may be offered at minimal levels or even elimimated without degrading the educational experience (Anderson 2003b)” (p. 66).  I don’t think I agree with this.  I feel that at least two of the forms of interaction must be present.  I guess you can go out and read a book on your own, with only student-content interaction.  But even then, the learning and retention will be greater if the ideas are shared with others.  Also, after reading Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, I’m more convinced than ever that even the most “expert performers” rely not only on practice (student-content interaction) but also on the feedback they receive from mentors (student-teacher interaction).

Thereafter he is to propose a “model of e-learning.”  But I didn’t feel there was a model.  Did I miss something?? I see a diagram, but it is never fully explained, and frankly, it is confusing without explanation.  Is that the “model of e-learning”?  Anderson also discusses Prensky’s idea that “different learning outcomes are best learned through particular learning activities” (p. 62), but that isn’t turned into a model, either.  As he ends, not having proposed a full-fledge theory, he does write that “we can expect, however, … that online learning – like all forms of quality learning – will be knowledge-, community-, assessment-, and learner-centred” (p. 68).  Here he comes full circle, but without ever having explained what online learning that is knowledge-, community-, assessment-, and learner-centered will look like.


Anderson, T. (2008). Towards a theory of online learning. In T. Anderson (Ed.), The theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed., pp. 45-74). Edmonton, Canada: Athabasca University Press.


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