Date: November 16, 2005

Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape:
New Roles and Expectations

A dialogue motivated by an ibstpi research project

Presidential Workshop and Panel Session
at the
International Convention
of the
Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT)

Orlando, Florida, October 18-22, 2005


A good student is one who learns to think with his own head.


 Aldo Ciccolini, Italian-born French pianist in an interview with Radio France on August 16, 2005

On October 21, 2005 ten people gathered together at the Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Florida, to hold a six-hour workshop, asking themselves and each other questions about what should be expected of today's learners as regards their competencies, attitudes and general disposition. The results of the workshop session informed a two-hour Presidential Panel Session the following day. The panel session was open to all attendees of the 2005 International Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. The initiative to organize this event came in the wake of an ongoing research project of the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi) to identify and validate online learner competencies.

This Web page served the above group of ten in their preparation for the workshop and the panel session. It continues to serve them, and others who joined them, in following through on the initial dialogue. It is also open to interested researchers, students and educators in general. The group is currently working on bringing the results of their dialogue out in print. After the intended publication will have become available, this Web page will have become a companion Web-based document for the print volume.

Correspondence regarding this Web page should be addressed to [email protected].

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Description of the Presidential Panel Session:

The session was inspired by a research project currently undertaken by the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi), which aims at identifying and validating the competencies that allow today's learners to be successful. Ibstpi has for more than twenty years been involved in setting the standards for such fields as instructional design; the management of training; and instruction. Recently it turned its attention to an often forgotten actor in the learning environment: the learner, particularly the online learner. Trying to identify and validate learner competencies, though, is like aiming at a moving target. Today's learners find themselves in a learning landscape that is constantly and dramatically changing in terms of the modalities through which people learn; the purposes for which they learn; and the context, including temporal and spatial frames of reference, in which learning acquires its meaning. Learners are required to look at themselves as lifelong learners, putting greatly increased emphasis on learner self-efficacy, both individually and socially. It thus makes sense to ask ourselves deep questions about the learners, what to expect of them and how their roles and essential competencies should be defined.

The above concern inspired an extensive dialogue among ten eminent scholars, researchers, educators, and students. They included John Bransford (How people learn); Michael Beaudoin (Is the 'invisible' online student learning or lurking?) and Jeroen van Merriënboer (Training complex cognitive skills) in addition to Deb LaPointe and Yusra Laila Visser, prominent young faculty teaching at the University of New Mexico and Wayne State University, respectively; Diana Stirling and Christina Rogoza, two students who entered this dialogue with a mature high level of conscious appreciation and analysis of their own learning effort; and Michael Spector, Ileana de la Teja and Jan Visser, distinguished researchers involved in the aforementioned ibstpi research project and affiliated, respectively, with the Florida State University, the Télé-université Québec, and the Learning Development Institute. The group collaborated for several months online (as reflected on this Web page), then met during a six-hour intensive workshop, and subsequently expanded their dialogue during a two-hour panel session with some 40+ colleagues during the Annual Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, held in Orlando, Florida, from October 18 to 22, 2005. The entire process was facilitated by Jan Visser.
The Presidential Panel Session on Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape at the 2005 AECT Convention

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Details about date, time and venue of the Presidential Panel Session

October 22, 2005 | 9:30 - 11:30 AM | Durango 1 (Coronado Springs Resort, Orlando, Florida) 

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Participanting members in workshop and panel

Jan Visser, Learning Development Institute (organizer and chair)
John Bransford, University of Washington
Michael Beaudoin, University of New England
Jeroen van Merriënboer, Netherlands Open University
Deb LaPointe, University of New Mexico
Yusra Laila Visser, Wayne State University
Christina Rogoza, Nova Southeastern University
Diana Stirling, independent
Ileana de la Teja, Télé-université, Québec
Michael Spector, Florida State University

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Questions formulated by participanting members

As a first step in developing the dialogue, all ten participants were asked to share with their colleagues initial questions that could serve as a source of inspiration not only for their own contribution to the dialogue but that could equally inspire their colleagues. They were also asked to provide a brief rationale for their questions. Below is the tabulated result of this initial exercise, presenting the questions in the order in which they came in.

 # Author Question
Underlying thoughts
01 Jan Visser Is the online learner a distinct subspecies among the wider species of learners in general?
1) While there are probably distinct elements that describe the online learner and that suggest that online learners must possess specific competencies not required of other learners, I have the suspicion that the more relevant changes faced by learners in general (whether online, face-to-face, or in blended situations) are more profound. Thus, too strong a focus on the online learners may lead attention away from aspects more deserving of our consideration.
2) Hubert L. Dreyfus argues in On the Internet (London and New York: Routledge, 2001) that learning by means of instruction develops according to seven stages, which he designates using the following descriptors: Novice; Advanced Beginner; Competence; Proficiency; Expertise; Mastery; and Practical Wisdom. He reasons that only the first three stages can adequately develop in the distance education mode. According to Dreyfus, reaching proficiency and expertise require “emotional, involved, embodied human beings” (p. 48), something that he fears the online environment is incapable of accommodating. Moreover, apprenticeship, which is necessary for the last two stages, calls for the physical presence of experts of flesh and blood.
Would we, by focusing on the online learner, be neglecting important stages in the development of learning?
02 Jan Visser What are the key changes that we notice in today’s learning landscape and how can they be put into hierarchical order in terms of the importance of challenges posed to the learner?
These are actually two questions. They are both related to the previous question. The fact that, in addition to the various spaces in which people traditionally used to learn, there is now also an online spatial dimension to them or, in some cases, a totally autonomous online space, calls on us to consider if this is a relevant and important dimension (i.e. the previous question) and what other changes might have taken place. Where in the hierarchy of important challenges that face the learner sits the world of online processes? Is it an undivided world or should it be broken down into distinct aspects? How do the other changes we notice fit into the picture?
03 Jan Visser What does learning actually mean?
This may be a question that we should all ask ourselves upfront, before answering any other question. Most people, when writing about learning, don’t care to include somewhere the phrase ‘and by learning I mean….’ The way we answer the question has to do with our view of what it means to be human. After all, we are talking here about human learning, as distinct from animal learning and machine learning (recognizing, though, that some aspects of human learning can also be engaged in by animals and machines. Depending on what aspect of learning we focus, we may arrive at entirely different answers when trying to identify the competencies of the learner.
04 Diana Stirling
How does the design of the online software environment communicate expectations to learners? What gets communicated? 
Basic software design decisions may have a profound effect on the online learning environment, and thus, on the online learning experience. The flexibility of the environment in terms of learner input – not just in discussion areas, but also with regard to the larger parameters of how the virtual space is organized – communicates underlying expectations of learner roles. Is it worthwhile to articulate these expectations prior to designing the software? Are the instructors, curriculum designers & software engineers all engaged in virtual environmental design? Are the issues of learner expectations in these environments being considered with respect to design features? 
05 Diana Stirling
How does instructor use of online learning tools (e.g. software environment & its contents, email, etc.) communicate expectations to learners? What gets communicated? 
These questions have arisen as a result of my experiences in a summer school term in which I had two virtual classes. Both classes used the identical virtual environment, but in very different ways. One instructor was actively engaged in the online environment from the outset, inviting discussion by asking questions, participating in (but not dominating) discussion forums, etc., answering email queries promptly, even letting students know in advance if he was going to be out of town and thus unavailable. The other instructor was aloof, neither initiated nor invited discussion except in a very limited way, etc. These different experiences in the online environment seem to correlate with different kinds of in-person classroom experiences – the difference between an approach that encourages learner participation through discussion and interaction, and one that is dominated by instructor lectures. So, this question is related to Jan's first question – about the roles and expectations of learners in general. 
06 Diana Stirling
What do learners themselves expect in online environments? What role can/do those expectations play in the overall online learning experience? 
It might be instructive to consider what learners themselves expect in online environments. Why do students enroll in such courses? Are their expectations typically being met? Should they be? Should the expectations of learners be considered when designing and planning curriculum for such environments? Do the expectations of learners affect learner outcomes in terms of academic growth and personal satisfaction? 
07 Mike Spector
What makes a good/successful online course good/successful? Given an answer to that question, what role do the knowledge, skills and attitudes of online learners play in success? Which knowledge, skills, and attitudes are particularly critical to success of individual learners and the overall course? 
In "Choruses From the Rock," T. S. Eliot says that "the good man is the builder if he builds what is good." One could likewise say that the good [online] course is good if the outcomes are good. It also seems likely that good course experiences often result when there is a critical mass of learners with certain knowledge, skills and attitudes, with positive attitudes being perhaps the most important factor. Wanting to know and believing that one can learn relevant things if some effort is expended appear critical to success. 
08 Mike Spector
What might be different in answering what makes a good course good with regard to face-to-face and online courses? 
Online courses are often held to different standards than face-to-face courses. Courses taught in different settings and formats might well have different standards appropriate to certain aspects of the course. For example, accessibility in face-to-face courses might involve things like parking and ramps for wheelchairs whereas in online courses accessibility might involve things like Internet connections and screen readers for the vision impaired. However, when one considers learning outcomes or improvements in performance and understanding, such differences in standards are difficult to defend, although many expect more in terms of improved learning from an online course than a face-to-face course. That may not be a reasonable expectation. 
09 Mike Spector
Many people have claimed that face-to-face classroom groups have identifiable “personalities” and further that these might affect which instructional strategies and activities are likely to be successful. Is this also true with regard to online courses? 
One of the most difficult to master skills for instructors are facilitation skills. There is much variability in facilitating discussions due to class size, subject area, expected learner outcomes, learner prerequisites, and so on. Many teachers say that they also have to make adjustments in face-to-face settings due to the overall classroom dynamics and the behavior of certain individuals (e.g., those who tend to speak out on every topic as well as those who avoid speaking at all costs). This may well be true in online settings with different groups having quite different dynamics.  
10 Jeroen van Merriënboer
Shouldn't researchers in the field of instruction abandon the term on-line learning? 
With the upsurge of new Internet technologies the term "on-line learning" is becoming an increasingly broad container concept. It refers to studying text from the computer screen, to answering ready-made questions, to observing video clips and animations, to being active in asynchronous and synchronous discussion groups, to having Skype telephone conversations, to being engaged in highly interactive games and simulations, to being active in virtual and augmented realities, and to many more types of learning. Very different-cognitive and social-learning processes are involved with these different types of learning. From a research perspective, the term on-line learning seems to be useless because it does not help to generate valuable research questions.  
11 Jeroen van Merriënboer
Can on-line environments help to learn complex skills? If so, how? 
Recent theories for teaching complex skills focus on authentic learning tasks that are based on real-life tasks as the driving force for learning (see Merrill, M. D. [2002]. First principles of instruction. Education Technology Research and Development, 50[3], 43-59.). The general assumption is that such authentic tasks help learners to integrate the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for effective task performance; give them the opportunity to learn to coordinate constituent skills that make up complex task performance, and eventually enable them to transfer what is learned to their daily life or work settings. It is often difficult or even impossible to implement authentic learning tasks in on-line learning environments. The main reason to try it anyway has to do with efficiency reasons (costs) - not with the effectiveness of the instruction.  
12 Jeroen van Merriënboer
Do new requirements to on-line learners merely reflect the weaknesses of on-line learning environments? 
A common claim is that on-line learning environments pose new requirements to learners. This may be true, but are these new requirements really the result of a "changing learning landscape" or simply the result of weaknesses of many on-line environments? Must on-line learners not be more independent than traditional learners because most on-line learning environments lack social cohesion? Must on-line learners not be more self-regulated than traditional learners because on-line learning environments often provide insufficient guidance? Must on-line learners not be more motivated than traditional learners because on-line learning environments often lack motivational features? 
13  Deb LaPointe 
Can assumptions about self, authority, and knowledge develop so that online learners come to see and know themselves as knowledge constructors? Do online learners learn to examine their underlying assumptions, reflect on alternative possibilities, and reframe their worldviews? 
Higher education serves many societal aims. One aim is to help learners construct knowledge and apply that knowledge to solve problems in various contexts. To meet that aim, instructors help learners recognize that knowledge is fluid, always being built upon, and advanced through the efforts of many, including the efforts of the learners. Additionally, learners must recognize that complex problems are often solved with a set of skills that include working with incomplete information, adapting to changing conditions, managing complexity, and thinking beyond limiting paradigms in order to create and share knowledge. Higher education helps learners realize and gain confidence in their roles as problem solvers and contributors engaged in the construction and advancement of knowledge. 
These aims may be regularly pursued and attained in the traditional, face-to-face classroom. What is less certain is whether this aim of higher education can be attained in the online environment.
14  Deb LaPointe 
Are we ready to facilitate learning for gamers, learners from diverse cultures, and learners recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan? Can WE quickly evolve and change to meet their learning needs? How do we do that? 
Are we ready to facilitate learning for gamers, learners from diverse cultures, and learners recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan? Can WE quickly evolve and change to meet their learning needs? How do we do that? 
15  Deb LaPointe 
Are we preparing learners for creative global collaboration? Are we alerting learners to the fact that learners overseas are highly motivated and working in gifted communities? Do learners know that other countries are looking to them to create the next creative wave? Are we preparing learners to be creative collaborators? 
Technology and globalization are making it possible for individuals as well as countries and nations to work, collaborate, and compete globally. Jobs that can be outsourced and activities that can be digitized will be moved around the world. One of the strengths Americans can contribute to world collaboration is creativity. As T. L. Friedman mentions in The World is Flat (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) individuals can and must ask, Where do I fit into the global competition and opportunities of the day, and how can I, on my own, collaborate with others globally?  
16  Michael Beaudoin 
Should the online instructor be lenient in assessing the invisible learner's minimal participation in online dialogue if other course requirements are satisfactorily met? 
Questions 16, 17, and 18 are all related, directly or indirectly, to the phenomenon of the so-called "invisible" online learner, i.e., the student who is typically less active in an online course, in the sense that s/he does not participate as frequently as others in online dialogue via postings.
The rationale/motivation for posing these particular questions is that virtually (sorry for the pun here) every online course includes one or more such learners, and they can present a special challenge to the distance educator who wishes to honor differing learning styles while not compromising the course effectiveness. If we can understand what is going on with this learner behavior, then we might better adopt instructional approaches that appropriately accommodate the situation.
17  Michael Beaudoin 
Given that online course environments are generally enhanced by a community of scholars actively contributing to the course, especially via online discussions, can it be argued that the invisible learner's behavior is parasitic, in that s/he constantly takes from, but seldom contributes to, the course?
18  Michael Beaudoin 
Is there evidence indicating that invisible learners, despite their minimal engagement in online interaction with instructor and peers, actually do learn and perform on graded assignments as well as or even better than the more visibly active students? 
19  John Bransford 
Whether taken online, face-to-face, or in a blended manner, we all probably agree that people need to become "lifelong learners". What are some aspects of lifelong learning that are especially important to make explicit? 
Many people seem to assume that lifelong learning simply involves the addition of new sets of skills and knowledge to their existing repetoire. But that's the easy part. True learning often involves the need to unlearn and"let go" of cherished assumptions and procedures; to tolerate ambiguity while figuring out new pathways, etc. To what extent do and can traditional and online learning environments support both of these dimensions of learning? 
20  John Bransford 
Can online learning environments (including blended environments) provide learning opportunities that are more interesting and productive for learners than traditional environments? 
Often we start with traditional environments and talk about things lost in online environments (e.g. everyday face to face interactions). Perhaps online learning also allows many things to happen that are more difficult to pull off in traditional environments (record keeping that helps learners see how their thinking has changed over time, online assessments that branch people to different areas depending on their performances; opportunities to reach broader audiences for advice, etc). What, if any, are some advantages of online environments that can support learners in ways that are superior to our traditional approaches? 
21  John Bransford 
Can online environments appeal to learners who are active problem posers, leaders and teachers, or must they be primarily "knowledge dispensing" environments. 
Many learning environments (face to face, online, blended) are primarily knowledge dispensing and/or skill building environments. A few support problem posing, leadership and learning by teaching. Assuming that the latter skills and abilities are important for the twenty first century, how can we build environments that appeal to people who are more inquiry and action oriented than "tell me what I need to know" oriented.  
John Bransford  
Can "online" learning open up new spaces for learning that are not currently being utilized? 
Time to learn is a limiting factor for all of us. Lots of learning goes on informally. Can technology help us utilize informal time to increase learning opportunities? A simple example involves opportunities to download audio files onto Ipods and similar devices and listen in the car, while jogging, etc. What kinds of learners like to take advantage of these extra opportunities? 
Ileana de la Teja 
What is the role of online learners in a multi-actor environment? 
The definition of learning I am using is: "A willful, intentional, active, conscious, constructive, and socially mediated practice that includes reciprocal intention/action/reflection activities." (Jonassen, D.H. Learning as Activity. Educational Technology, March-April 2002, p. 45.)
As the learning paradigm shifts from expert-centered to learner-centered, the learner is asked to take on more responsibilities and tasks, that were usually assigned to other actors of the learning environment such as the instructor, designer, technician and manager. Serving in multiple roles is becoming common for online learners and challenges the notion of the learner as an undivided, distinct actor, leading us to question and re-think the roles of each actor. This question intent is to discuss the position of online learners in the context of reciprocal perception of interactions between stakeholders. 
Ileana de la Teja 
What makes a successful online learner? 
Although the importance of designing online learning environments based on a learner-centered approach has been emphasized by a number of studies, very little is known in terms of what makes some online learners more effective than others. Asking about successful online learners is to question our expectations from online learners as well as the kind of skills required for effective online learning. 
Ileana de la Teja 
Are online learners getting what they want/need? 
As online instructors/designers embrace the learner-centered approach, getting to know the learners' perspective becomes essential. Some studies have focused on the learners´ needs in terms of content, learning strategies and technology. However, I suspect that learners have individual and social concerns that are poorly known. What are those concerns and up to what extent is current online learning addressing those issues? 
Yusra L. Visser 
What is the effect of anonymity (presence or lack thereof) on the learner, learning, and performance? 
In the last two years, I have taught roughly equal numbers of learners through distance education and through classroom-based instruction. In my DL classes I have identified no less than 15 cases of plagiarism and cheating. No cases of plagiarism and cheating were detected in the classroom-based classes. I do not believe that DL promotes cheating or plagiarism. I do believe, however, that DL students are more affected by anonymity, and that anonymity affects different people in different ways. For some, the potential for anonymity causes them to seek out more social and intellectual contact. For others, anonymity encourages deeper reflection because pressure to keep up with the “academic Jones’s” is not as strong. And for some it appears to be the feature that allows them to feel less worried that an instructor can hang over their desks and peer into their eyes to detect that they have violated expectations for fair and ethical practice. What, then, is the effect of anonymity (not to be confused with isolation) on learning and learners, and how does this affect our understanding of educational practice in general? 
Yusra L. Visser 
Some suggest that distance learning can be a superior method of instruction for supporting the achievement of certain outcomes. What is the basis of this claim, and how can the claim be validated? 
It has been hypothesized that online/distance learning allows for a qualitatively different learning experience than classroom-based instruction, and that there are things that can be learned online in a more effective manner than in a classroom-based modality. Perhaps this hypothesis is a reaction to the pressure from continuous demands for “parity of esteem” when online and classroom-based instructional modalities are discussed. Regardless, the hypothesis seems to be gaining popularity. What is the basis for such a position? In the absence of empirical research findings to support this claim, what logically might be considered as examples of knowledge/skills/attitudes that are potentially better taught through distance modality? How would one go about determining whether the hypothesis of superiority of distance learning (or classroom based learning, for that matter) has merit, and if it does – what the basis for such merit is?
Yusra L. Visser 
How do we measure opportunity costs (from the learner’s vantage point) of different instructional modalities? 
This is perhaps a rather administrative and bureaucratic question, but I believe it is one that has significant relevance. In the United States, the practice of adding “convenience” fees to higher education distance learning courses is gaining momentum. It is not uncommon for universities to charge anywhere from $25 to $100 per credit hour for a distance learning course. These fees are added after the “regular” cost of tuition, and are thus 1) not covered by tuition waivers/scholarships, 2) not included in the advertised costs for education, and 3) also included for courses that are exclusively offered in online modality, and that are required in a student’s program of study. In other words, an undergraduate education major may expect to pay $500 for a course, but end up paying $800 for the course, since she is required to take the core course for graduation, and the college has decided to offer the course only in online format. Ethical issues with this practice abound. What is the basis for the increasingly popular position that online learning is 1) more convenient for the learner and 2) more expensive for the institution, and 3) cheaper for the learner, and therefore justifiably made more expensive? How does the position regarding convenience fees interact with opportunity costs for learners completing online degrees? What are the ramifications of these considerations for public university’s adherence to their missions? 
Yusra L. Visser 
What really is embodied learning, and how does it affect the effectiveness of instructional modalities? 
Dreyfus (see Visser, J., above) makes the interesting argument that there is a “glass ceiling” imposed by online learning in terms of the novice-expert continuum, based on the notion that online environments inhibit embodied learning. Distance education, of course, has a rich history and extensive scope, going far beyond the online modality. If Dreyfus’ argument holds merit, are “blended” instructional approaches (e.g. web-enabled courses, interactive radio instruction), less prone to such restrictions? Can we really argue that embodied learning is in the dominion of classroom-based instruction more than in the dominion of online learning, given the often paltry results for instruction and learning in the world’s poorly performing brick-and-mortar schools? Is embodiment in learning perhaps too quickly described as a state of being (i.e. physical) instead of a state of mind (i.e. experienced)?  
Christina Rogoza 
Does computer based collaborative learning rest on different epistemological assumptions and therefore, require the development of new pedagogies? 
Some classrooms today reflect a blend of cognitive and constructivist approaches to teaching and learning. Best practices in online learning suggest that good pedagogical strategies employed in the classroom setting should be duplicated as closely as possible in the online environment for the students to have an authentic experience. Although technology and learning management systems have allowed learners to engage in online discussion and collaborative activities, the online space essentially remains a repository for content.
Christina Rogoza 
How is culture mediated in the design and delivery of online learning? 
Online classroom management systems take a cookie cutter approach to design.
They assume a homogenous audience that can relate to a standard architecture and visual cues. However, online learners represent diverse cultural backgrounds with different epistemological roots. Should and can course management systems be flexibly designed to accommodate cultural diversity?
Christina Rogoza 
Can the online learners be oriented to a disposition that opens up their personal learning space? 
With an increasing emphasis on the use of constructivist pedagogy comes an increasing focus on how emotions and intentions impact on how learners feel about learning and how they may want or intend to learn differently. Does the online learner come to the virtual space with different affective (emotions, feelings) and conative (desires, intentions) attributes than the traditional classroom learner? How does the presence of these intentions and emotions open up the personal learning space? Can the learner be oriented to these attributes? 

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From left to right: Diana Stirling, Michael Beaudoin, Christina Rogoza, John Bransford, Deb LaPointe, Mike Spector
and Jeroen van Merriënboer during the six-hour workshop session at the AECT Convention in Orlando, Florida (October 21, 2005)

Reflective statements by participanting members

Following the formulation of the above set of questions, participants in the dialogue were asked to prepare concise reflective statements/papers concerning the questions they had earlier raised, using as much as possible the questions formulated by their colleagues as a source of further inspiration. The resulting set of reflective statements/papers is presented below. The collection of these papers formed the basis for the deliberations during the Orlando workshop, which in turn inspired the panel session. The papers, like the questions above, are presented here in the order in which they were submitted.

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Reflections on Three Questions I am Trying to Answer

Deb LaPointe

University of New Mexico

Received: October 3, 2005

The Background Giving Rise to My Questions

The questions I posed - (a) Can assumptions about self, authority, and knowledge develop so that online learners can come to see and know themselves as knowledge constructors; (b) Are we ready to facilitate learning for gamers and learners from diverse cultures and backgrounds; (c) Are we preparing learners for creative global collaboration - grow out of a sincere concern to address one question frequently posed about learning at a distance: Can distance education really provide a quality learning experience? The question bothers me for many reasons but mainly because I fear it possibly reflects a deeply ingrained societal belief that learning can only occur when the teacher and students are gathered together. Holding that belief suggests that any learning occurring outside of that configuration is, by definition, an inferior learning situation. Besides slighting the field of distance learning, its designers, and instructors, this attitude carries with it derision for the learners who take advantage of the ability to learn at a distance and the quality of the education they receive and can apply.

Abiding by the belief-be it pervasive or not-that distance education is not as good as face-to-face learning places many learners at a disadvantage, eliminates learning opportunities for others, and robs our world of the contributions made by those whose only chance to learn comes at a distance. The most viable method to terminate that belief of distance education as an inferior way to learn is to continue to improve the quality of the learning experience at a distance. For those reasons, I ask how do we make distance education better correspond with the way people learn; how do we make distance education a quality experience. The answers, in part, require that distance education design moves beyond single-sensory, autonomous learning through reading text-based lecture notes and taking online quizzes. I am searching ways to design learning at a distance that feels compatible with the way we really learn in a multisensory world, moving away from the computer for some of the learning activities, sometimes learning together, sometimes learning alone.

Trying to Educate Myself out of My Experience

To find answers to my search, I'm trying to educate myself out of my experiences-the way I have been taught as well as the way I have been taught to teach, usually using two senses-hearing and seeing. I'm seeking ways to facilitate multi-sensory learning, experiential learning that can lead to transformational learning at a distance. I'm trying to match media, technologies, interaction, and learning activities with the attributes of today's learners entering universities and to facilitate Kolb's (1984) experiential learning cycle at a distance. And for now, I'm seeking these answers without a budget for developing virtual environments or computer games.

Why seek multi-sensory experiences at a distance? The mind ultimately is not and of itself real; it is made of up of different experiences stimulated by different phenomena (The Dalai Lama, 2001). Our learning experiences, our relationships, our quality of life, and our identity depend, in part, on both what we do, whom we gather with, and how we experience what we do. Our actions and our perceptions are linked through real-world objects and experiences that afford a range of certain possibilities. Learning is experiencing some of the potential possibilities in the world in new ways, situating the meaning of words, images, symbols, and artifacts, forming new associations and patterns of thought, and forming new affiliations with other people (Gee, 2003). Since our mind is a parallel ensemble of physiological operations linking the muscular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems, it performs several activities at once, engaging our whole being with movement, feelings, and perceptions (Bownds, 1999). This ensemble informs our actions; our actions reciprocally change the environment for others. These ongoing environmental changes affect our actions in a pattern of learning with characteristics common of dynamic systems (Yan & Fisher, 2002). Thinking is the activity of deciding what movement to make next in a given environment with a group of people and tools. Consequently, thoughts separate from mind, body, and experience have no relevance to learners.

However, doing is not the end all and be all. Doing could merely be an automatic reaction to a stimulus perceived as pain or pleasure. The doing that higher education seeks to stimulate is an embodied experience in harmony with what the learner feels, wishes, and thinks, accompanied by the learner's search for meaning of the experience. When learners reach that harmony, Csikszentmihalyi (1990) would say there is flow. When the learner realizes that the meaning he or she takes away from a setting is but one of many possibilities and cares about the effect of his or her doing on others residing on the opposite side of the world, there is significant learning (Fink, 2003), the beginning of transformational learning (Mezirow, 2000).

Today I'm seeking how to facilitate flow and significant, engaged, transformational learning at a distance. It is suggested that flow and engaged learning do not happen at the will of the instructor or designer or even the learner. Flow and engaged learning happen when learning activities provide a balance between high challenge and high skills and allow the learner to focus on clear goals and receive immediate feedback (Fink, 2003). Flow and engaged learning happen when learners commit themselves fully to learning in terms of time, effort, and active participation (Gee, 2003). They happen when learners are willing to see themselves as the kind of culturally sensitive person who can learn, use, and value the learning experience offered, integrating insights gained from multicultural experiences.

The literature suggests that yesterday's generations of learners dutifully participated in learning activities with little if any questioning why. Today's generations of learners, who frequently grew up playing video and computer games, enter our institutions of higher education bringing a different identity and thought process. The video and computer games they have played while growing up and continue to play today have changed their identity. That identity and its attributes may be the source of additional ideas on how to design engaging distance education environments. This new generation comes to the university as active problem solvers who consult friends and classmates, seek resources and information, try out solutions, persist in trying to solve a problem even after making mistakes, and do not consider mistakes as errors but as opportunities for reflection and further learning (Gee, 2003; Beck & Wade, 2004). They see themselves as people who learn to experience the world in new ways and gain the potential to join and collaborate with a new affinity group, and develop resources for future learning and problem solving (Gee, 2003). They learn by trial and error; they operate with less structure.

Learning, therefore, does not just affect what a learner knows; it can transform how the learner understands the nature of knowing. While past generations of learners may have been, in Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's (1986) terms, received or subjective knowers, today's learners are more likely to be procedural knowers and independent, critical, creative thinkers who do not just progress sequentially toward competence. Our learners who do come to us as received or subjective knowers need to move toward seeing themselves as independent thinkers and knowers. All learners progress along a complex web of connections, varying with their experiences, culture, range of variation in level, and kind of pathway shown and followed (Yan & Fischer, 2002) as well as their identity as a learner.

To facilitate engaged learners in a balance of high competence and high skill, learners need to not only learn about the domain but also about themselves and their current and potential capacities. They must learn how to engage in new action-intellectual, social or physical-and in new ways of thinking-critical, creative, or practical (Fink, 2003). They must learn how to self-assess and monitor, so they can continue the learning, enable the flow, and collaborate with others globally. The distance education environment then needs to provide the opportunity for learners to repeatedly meet learners from other cultures, practice, try out, take risks in a place where real-world consequences are lowered, and reflect. Learners cannot learn deeply by being told things outside the context of embodied experiences (Gee, 2003).

Learning builds on previous learning experiences and knowledge; each learner's experience will be different as each learner is working from a different set of motivations, attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts based on previous experiences. Therefore, the distance education instructor is not teaching a class; she is teaching individual students (Bain, 2004). The students are not following a uniform learning path headed sequentially toward competence. Learning is not linear but filled with stops and starts, reversals and breakthroughs, success and positive emotions, failures, negative emotions, varying degrees of scaffolding required, and uncontrolled differences in social interaction and task requirements (Yan & Fischer, 2002). Each student takes a different pathway from novice to expert, from received knower to creative, constructed knower. Each pathway includes differing number of steps, levels of complexity, sequence of performances, degree and type of social interaction, and time to complete the task. Each student manifests his or her own unique unfolding course of activity, and through reflective abstraction on those experiences; each learner makes judgments about what has happened. New understanding is constructed from the integration of the new with prior, existing knowledge. Such application and generalization are difficult to attain without the time to experience and process the experience (Gee, 2003). Therefore, we need to fully immerse the learners in experiences while trying to eliminate their fear of making a poor grade while generating a hypothesis, testing out a new idea, and maintaining a highly challenging environment. Learners need to actively process-design an experience, consolidate, internalize, and test.

While I have been pondering these questions, I have been seeking answers through the literature and using the possibilities I find in the literature to design my distance education courses. I have been using Kolb's (1984) experiential learning cycle. Kolb's learning cycle is based as its name suggests on the learner's experiences. Briefly summarized, Kolb's learning cycle can be described as follows. The learner has a concrete experience of some type. That experience becomes integrated with previous experience through learner reflection. The learner generates a new abstract idea or hypothesis after his or her previous experience is reorganized to accommodate or assimilate the new experience; the learner then devises a plan for testing the new idea. The new idea is tested through yet another concrete experience.

As a distance education designer and instructor, I have been trying to solve the problem of making distance education a quality learning experience. I have been trying to match distance education media, technology, and learning activity to stimulate each phase of Kolb's (1984) learning cycle as suggested by Zull (2002). I have been trying to determine when the learners need to come together to stimulate learning and when they need to work independently. I have initially assigned synchronous voice discussions as one way of testing out new ideas and asynchronous text-based private journals for the reflection/integration stage . . . based on how I reflect and integrate through thinking and writing alone. After first implementing this design, I asked for feedback. The first comment I received from a learner was I reflect and integrate aloud when participating in class discussions and feel stifled having to reflect alone through a private journal. Now I am back to the drawing board . . . after testing out my new hypothesis and getting feedback. My recent experience, however, renews my interest in using problems and Kolb's experiential learning cycle to stimulate significant, engaged, caring learning through experience.

I hope distance education can overcome the stigma that some people still hold. I hope that we can reduce the uncertainty about learning at a distance that society, perspective students and parents, and employers may hold. I hope that we will soon hear that many view the distance education environment as a place where significant, engaged, transformational learning occurs, where personal connections with other learners across the globe are made, and those experiences with others develop caring, culturally sensitive global learners. I hope those experiences are the start of learners' identities as people who are highly motivated to work creatively and collaboratively at a global level.


Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Beck, J. C. & Wade, M. (2004). Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M, Goldberger, N. R., & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. United States of America: Basic Books.
Bownds, M. D. (1999). The Biology of the Minds: Origins and Structures of Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. Bethesda, MD: Fitzgerald Science Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper-Collins.
Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
The Dalai Lama (2001). An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company.
Yan, Z. & Fischer, K. (2002). Always under construction: dynamic variations in adult cognitive microdevelopment. Human Development, 45, 141-160.
Zull, J. E. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.


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Reflections on My Questions for the AECT 2005 Presidential Panel

J. Michael Spector

Florida State University

Received: October 5, 2005

My three questions were about online courses: (1) What makes a good online course good? (2) Do those things differ from what makes good face-to-face courses good? and, (3) Do online courses develop "personalities" that might influence the selection and use of effective strategies and activities? Those questions came to mind partly as a result of my work for the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance, and Instruction (ibstpi) in the last nine years concerned with competencies for instructional designers, especially those designing technology intensive learning environments, and more recently competencies for online instructors and learners. These questions also arose in conjunction with online master's programs in instructional design and technology at Syracuse University and at Florida State University.

The chance to work with ibstpi colleagues in identifying relevant knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that pertain to online learning and instruction was enriching. We examined research, talked with many experienced practitioners, conducted interviews and surveys, and shared our own experiences. I worked with a doctoral student who conducted a qualitative investigation of the practices, perceptions, and approaches of highly experienced online teachers. We investigated; we discussed; we published papers and books - that on which academics thrive.

My experience with regard to the university programs was quite different. In both cases the faculty involved with developing and implementing these programs were enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. However, there was noticeable resistance from those not involved with online learning and instruction - especially in departments that did not make use of online learning in any of its many forms. Skepticism is fine; entrenched and dogmatic resistance is downright discouraging, especially from highly educated colleagues and administrators.

In any case, that context caused me to focus on those three questions. There is a thread running through my questions that suggests that online courses may have many significant things in common with face-to-face courses. As researchers, we have tended to focus more on the differences. That thread of similarity perhaps developed as a practical way to respond to those who regard online teaching as an alien ritual performed by people wearing masks. There is a complementary thread that pertains to quality. Like many others, I would like to do what I do well - at least every now and again. Satisfying that occasional desire for quality requires understanding what is likely to contribute to quality - not only from my perspective but from the perspective of students and those who may employ or work with my students afterwards.

The latter question is really a question of conscience. Stated simply, it comes to this: What good will come from what I am now doing and likely to do tomorrow? After tripping over this question while wondering about in academic darkness, I have come to this conclusion: I do not know. Not only do I not know what good will come from what I am doing, I do not know in general what will result from what I am doing. Ouch. The truth bites.

I do have an underlying belief, however, that I am willing to share. In Plato's Protagoras, Socrates and Protagoras are discussing virtue. Socrates proposes and apparently convinces Protagoras that if one knows what the right thing to do is in a particular situation, then one is compelled to do it; failure to do what is right implies ignorance. The paradox is interesting in its own right, but my concern here is somewhat different. For Socrates, the indication of understanding virtue was based entirely on action or performance. Socrates perhaps introduced the first performance-based criterion for understanding. There is also an implication that there may be a difference between what one says and what one does. Saying the right thing, at least in the cases Socrates considered (most of which involved values and virtue), is not a sufficient indication of understanding; one must also do what is right. In the words of my philosopher professor, O. K. Bouwsma: "Surely your life will show what you think of yourself."

That trip down memory lane may raise all sorts of other issues, such as the nature of values or the value of nature. I only wanted to suggest the general principle that performance is a reliable indication of knowledge in complex problem-solving domains. In order to determine how good any intentional learning situation is, online or otherwise, one might examine performance on representative problems in that domain. Performance is not the only indicator of learning. Learning is a process that occurs over time. Evidence suggests that sustained periods of focused and reflective practice result in improved performance. This would imply that another indication that learning is occurring might be commitment or motivation to continue. While the first measure might be characterized as the hitting-the-target measure, the latter measure might be characterized as the stickiness (stick-to-it) measure. Learning is a sticky business. And academics love to make a mess - this one at least.


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Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape: New Roles and Expectations - One Learner's Reflections

Diana Stirling

Received: October 5, 2005


I'd like to start my reflections by considering a question posed by our facilitator, Dr. Jan Visser: Is the online learner a distinct subspecies among the wider species of learners in general?

Perhaps the online learning environment brings out different aspects of a learner than in-person classroom environments do. There is evidence from psychology that people behave differently in different situations based on the roles and/or expectations assigned to them. Might this apply to online learners as well? If so, then learner expectations may be important to declare explicitly in the online environment. This leads to further questions about expectations in in-person learning environments and how those get communicated as compared with expectations in online learning environments.

This, in turn, brings to mind some ideas presented in Edward T. Hall's book Beyond Culture in which he discusses some differences between what he calls high-context and low-context communications (1976, p.91-93). Here's how Hall explains these differences.

A high-context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low-context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code. (p.91)

It seems worth examining what might be happening in online learning environments in terms of these ideas of context. If messages are not explicit, might the learners look for or respond to implicit messages conveyed by the software design and its use by the instructor? If so, what might be being communicated via these interactions?

My questions for the workshop are centered on these very issues. They are:

  1. How does the design of the online software environment communicate expectations to learners? What gets communicated?
  2. How does instructor use of online learning tools (e.g. the software environment and its contents) communicate expectations to learners? What gets communicated?
  3. What do learners themselves expect in online environments? What role can/do those expectations play in the overall online learning experience?

I'd like to address these questions in turn, always keeping in mind Hall's framework for understanding communications in terms of context.

Software As Context

Basic software design decisions may have a profound effect on the online learning environment, and thus, on the online learning experience. The flexibility of the environment in terms of learner input and collaboration - not just in discussion areas, but also with regard to the larger parameters of how the virtual space is organized - communicates underlying expectations of learner roles. Is it worthwhile to articulate these expectations prior to designing the software? Are instructors, students, curriculum designers, and software engineers all involved in the process of virtual environmental design? Are the issues of learner expectations in these environments being considered with respect to design features? And finally, is there an examination of the underlying philosophies and educational approaches that are implicitly embodied in the design of virtual learning environments?

My experience in online learning is limited to graduate studies. The program in which I am currently enrolled uses the D2L learning environment. This environment (at least as I've experienced it) includes the following areas or sections for each course: Course Home (with an area for posting news, links to Events - which are typically assignments, Personal Preferences, Personal Homepage, Personal Profile, Personal Schedule and Bookmarks), Chat, Checklist, Classlist, Content, Discussions, Dropbox, FAQ, Glossary, Grades, Journal, Quizzes, and Survey. Not all of these features appear for every class, the choice being apparently made by the instructor. In addition, each student has an overall Home section in which all of the online courses in which she is enrolled are listed, a central Email location to which all D2L email messages are sent, and a Locker, as well as a link to a Help page.

The student has input to Personal Preferences, which determine the characteristics of the display, and the Personal Profile, which is a form that the student may elect to complete in order to provide other students with information about herself. The student may also elect to upload files to the Locker section and may choose to keep an online Journal. The Schedule automatically enters due dates if they have been added by the instructor for a particular class, but does not consolidate the due dates for all the classes in which a student is currently enrolled. This can be done manually by the student, however.

The main point I'd like to make here is that all the rest of the sections, i.e., those that concern the substance of the course: Content, Discussion areas, Checklists, and etc. are entirely controlled by the instructor. Only the instructor can post discussion topics, establish permanent chat groups, set up surveys, make entries into a glossary or FAQ section, and so on. The instructor is always firmly and unequivocally in control of the community learning space.

What does such a context convey to the learners in terms of expectations? That depends, in part, on how the instructor uses the environment. Which leads to the next set of questions.

Instructor Use of the Online Environment

How does instructor use of online learning tools (e.g. the software environment and its contents) communicate expectations to learners? What gets communicated?

Taking into consideration that only instructors can set up discussion areas, some go one step further and set limitations on how many or how few contributions must be posted per student. One instructor of a class in which I'm currently enrolled restricts posts to one per week per student. She posts a question and each student must post one answer in response. These responses are then graded by her. Each week a new question is posted by her. Such a situation makes conversation among students in the discussion area impossible. Every post is specifically directed toward the instructor.

In another class, the instructor does not limit the number of posts per student, nor does he require a particular minimum. He posts a question based on the lecture or reading and the students are meant to post responses. In some cases, I have wanted to discuss a different point of the lecture or readings in addition to the one that is posted, so have written asking him to open a general discussion area for the readings/lecture of that week. He has responded saying that he didn't want to do that because he didn't want the discussion to become "confusing."

What kinds of messages are being conveyed by these uses of the software environment? Rather than making an attempt to broaden the parameters imposed by the software, these instructors limit them further. In this way, student interactions with one another are restricted. It is difficult to create a sense of a learning community within such restrictions. In the first instance, the social aspects of learning are all but ignored. In the second instance, while social learning interactions are enabled, construction of learning by individuals and groups is unnecessarily limited.

In combination, the software design and its use by instructors convey implicit messages to learners about their roles in the virtual environment. It is worth examining these in light of assumptions about: the capabilities of graduate students, what kinds of learning experiences are desirable in terms of preparation for further study and professional work, and the underlying purposes and processes of learning in general. An examination of the explicit messages being conveyed merits consideration as well.

Learners' Expectations

It is hard to generalize about what expectations learners bring to the online learning environment. As Deb LaPointe describes in her contribution to these proceedings, every learner brings a complex combination of "motivations, attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts based on previous experiences" (10) to the online environment. I would add that these components are in a constant state of flux. Even the online learning experience itself contributes to learners' internal revisions. These various components contribute to the expectations of the learners at the outset and as the online learning experience progresses.

Can these expectations be made explicit? Should they be? If so, how?

Sometimes one's expectations aren't consciously known even to oneself until they are contradicted. Anyone who has traveled or lived in a culture much different than the one in which she typically operates has experienced the clash and confusion caused by expectations that prove to be problematic in new or unfamiliar circumstances. Even in these situations, it can be hard to identify and articulate precisely where the problem lies. Could this be analogous to the situation encountered by learners (and possibly teachers) in online environments? If so, and if making expectations explicit is considered important, then how to facilitate the process of identifying and expressing them online also bears consideration.

Whether or not learner expectations are important may depend on the goals of the online program. If the goal is to provide step-by-step instruction for a specific task, or to provide data for memorization so that the learner can pass a multiple-choice exam, then the issue of learner expectations may be insignificant. If the goals of the program are more far-reaching and include providing qualitative as well as quantitative learning environments and experiences, then the issue of learner expectations becomes quite significant.

Online Learning Environments: High-context or Low-context?

I'd like to clarify that Hall's concept of high- and low-context communications is expressed as a continuum rather than as a dichotomy (p. 91). He explains his idea in terms of cultures, but for this discussion I'd like to apply the concept to situations within cultures and then to online learning environments.

Imagine that you are with a group of your longtime friends and you are relaxing together, maybe at a party. And further, imagine that you have brought along a new friend who is unknown to the group. Typically there will be lots of phrases and innuendos in the conversation that will be undecipherable to the newcomer. The group of friends together engages in high-context communications, the context having been built up over time by mutual experience and understanding with which the newcomer is unfamiliar. In order to be included, you will have to explicitly explain to the newcomer the details that are encoded in the communications between your longtime friends.

I'd like to suggest that many online learning environments are necessarily low-context, particularly those that are entirely text-based, and that some of the problems encountered in these environments have to do with a lack of explicit communication. The participants in online classes may live in different parts of the world and be from different cultural backgrounds. They may never have an opportunity to meet in person. Further complications can arise when teachers and learners come from cultures with different context densities. These factors all contribute to the need for communication to be made explicit. In the absence of explicit communication, individuals in online environments attempt to interpret communications in terms of their own previous experiences, which may or may not lead to misunderstandings. Naturally, these kinds of interpretations occur in all kinds of environments, including in-person classes, but in computer mediated learning situations, they may be all the student has to use as a guide. Lacking the visual and kinesthetic cues that are present in in-person learning situations can also contribute to the potential for misunderstanding. The lag time between recognizing and correcting misunderstandings in online environments seems to be longer than in in-person situations as well, due to limitations in the communication capabilities inherent in much of the software. If video conferencing is a part of the online environment, the potential for this kind of misunderstanding and the lag time needed to clarify messages might be reduced.

It seems possible that if a group of learners were to interact in an online learning environment consistently over time, the potential for moving the context toward greater density would exist. That increase in context density might result from the cumulative communications and shared experiences of the participants.

Virtual Environmental Design for Learning Communities

My experience with the D2L learning environment is that it is not conducive to student-centered or constructivist approaches. Exclusive instructor control is inherent in its design. It essentially supports the traditional lecture approach: the instructor talks and students listen, contributing only when they have permission from the instructor to do so. It would be awkward and cumbersome to use such an environment as the context for the co-creation of a learning community by its members.

But D2L and the other software products in the same category are not the only options. I have spent quite a bit of time considering questions like the one John Bransford proposed for this meeting, i.e., "How can we build environments that appeal to people who are more inquiry and action oriented than "tell me what I need to know" oriented?" I have also been influenced by questions Jan Visser has posed in our conversations about learning communities. From these conversations I've been inspired to wonder how an environment can facilitate the emergence of supportive, interactive, inclusive communities of learning.

If one were to start with the assumption that such communities are desirable and such environments ought to be created, what features would these environments have? There are so many possibilities that might work. Ideally, the environment would be designed by the learning community itself. However, this could be a kind of chicken-and-egg problem because it might be necessary to create the virtual space in order for the learning community to coalesce. So, for the sake of this discussion, imagine the task of designing such an online learning environment has been given to us.

Here are some of the features I would suggest:

Flexibility - the environment should not only have the capacity for a variety of features, such as the addition of hyperlinks, audio and video clips, Web conferencing, games, etc., but the overall organization of the environment should lend itself to change as the community's needs evolve. In addition, the environment ought to support flexibility in the roles participants play.

Accessibility - naturally, the environment needs to be accessible to the community it serves

Distributed Control - every participant ought to have the ability to contribute to and change the environment as s/he deems appropriate; thereby, all participants can share in the responsibility for the success (by whatever measures are valued by the participants) of the community (Wikipedia is an example of an environment with this feature.)

Navigability - the environment ought to be easy to navigate, and support searching and finding

Reliability -the environment ought to be technically reliable

There are innovators working on questions similar to these. One example is Chide Groenouwe's group in The Netherlands. Their project, Network Universalis (, provides an environment in which the roles of teacher and learner are interchangeable and contributions are made and interconnected in ways determined by the participants as the process unfolds.

Closing Thoughts

In an environment such as the one I've described in the previous section, expectations of learners would surely be different than the expectations supported by environments like D2L. In framing our questions about learner expectations, which environment(s) should we consider? This brings me back to Jan Visser's question at the beginning of this paper, about whether the online learner should be considered a subspecies of the broader category of learners in general. Maybe instead of trying to distinguish types of learners, it would be more productive to examine learning environments and the implicit and explicit expectations they can reasonably support.


Bransford, J. (2005). Questions formulated by participating members. Retrieved 10/4/2005 from
Groenouwe, C. Network Universalis ( Contact: [email protected] , +315987449, Free University Amsterdam, Room R-261, De Boelelaan 1081- 1087, 1081 HV Amsterdam
Hall, Edward T. (1976). Beyond culture. NY: Doubleday.
LaPointe, D. (2005). Reflections on three questions I am trying to answer. Retrieved 10/4/2005 from
Visser, J. (2005). Questions formulated by participating members. Retrieved 10/4/2005 from


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Reflections on Learning and Learners

Jan Visser

Learning Development Institute

Received: October 5, 2005

I Have a Bias

One can't help being influenced by one's own experiences when thinking about what it means to be a learner, what learning entails and how it impacts people. So many things we learn throughout life and in so many ways do we profoundly change, thanks to our ability to learn, as we grow older. The diversity of who we are and the different circumstances in which we find ourselves can't but produce a rich variety of ways in which we attribute meaning to the experience of learning.

I spent a significant portion of my younger years becoming a physicist, going through formal university training; learnt making documentary films entirely on my own through extensive reading and experimenting with film equipment; became effectively conversant with the Spanish language using a self-instructional book with accompanying audio recordings; failed on various occasions when I tried to do the same for Arabic but finally succeeded when the opportunity arose to take face-to-face classes; learnt to play the piano since the age of eight and am still learning, either by taking the occasional lesson or by trying things out for myself, carefully listening to the performances by others; familiarized myself in my late forties and fifties with the instructional design field, again using the formal setting of a university but this time only after serious negotiation about how I would use that environment; and learnt to construct complicated musical instruments, having acquired basic woodworking skills as a child while watching my father using his hands in applying those skills--as well as other skills that I still had to learn--following detailed written guidance. Besides the above more obvious instances of learning, I learnt numerous other things, such as overcoming shyness, accepting tragic and irreversible loss, and interacting gently with most of those I meet, none of which were ever taught to me in any formal way or setting. I had to find out for myself, interacting with those whose advice I chose to accept and whose model I wanted to follow. Learning, in each person's life, is extremely varied and it often remains a mystery what suddenly seems to turn the switch between being an apprentice and the master of one's abilities.

While I learnt many component skills, such as solving second-order partial differential equations; planing a piece of wood; editing a sequence of film shots; or presenting an argument in written form, those are not the things I feel added real value to my life. Without the more comprehensive perspectives of becoming a theoretical physicist, able to contribute to my field of interest; building musical instruments that I or other people would want to play; producing a documentary movie on an issue I felt passionate about; or being a contributing intellectual, none of the above skills, however competent I might have become in performing them, would have meant much to me.

Thus, my perspective on learning is one that is in the first place determined by awareness of the various comprehensive roles we wish to play in life. We want to be a good parent, a skillful carpenter, an effective teacher, a creative physicist, or a performing pianist who thinks with his own head rather than imitating someone else's performance.

A Matter of Definition

In answering a number of the questions posed in this dialogue, I am turned in the first place to those I raised myself (Questions 1 to 3). I proposed the third of these questions as one that should be dealt with before any other one. It asks: "What does learning actually mean?" and suggests that a response to it has something to do with "our view of what it means to be human" (J. Visser, in this dialogue).

I usually express my view of what it means to be human in materialistic terms. My down-to-earth view of members of the human species is that they are nothing more but also nothing less than pieces of organized matter--just the same as rocks, plants, and other animals. What makes them special and somehow unique is the fact that, in the course of evolution, humans became endowed with the faculty of consciousness, the ability to reflect on their actions, to hold things in mind and contemplate them, carrying out thought experiments, and to foresee, to an extent, the consequences of what they intend to do. What exactly consciousness is; to what extent some form of it might be present in other species or be an exclusive feature of humans; what allowed it to emerge; and what are the neuronal correlates of consciousness are questions in which only recently some tentative insights have started to develop (e.g., Edelman and Tononi, 2000; Carter, 2002; Greenfield, 2002; Edelman, 2004; Koch, 2004; Koch 2005; Steinberg, 2005).

Consciousness allows us to experience joy and sorrow as we transit through life. It is the cause of the eternal amazement with which we stand, generation after generation, in awe of who we are, where we come from, what we are here for, and where we are going. It is at the origin of our sense of belonging, of being part of a larger whole, an experience to which we give expression in religious beliefs, mythologies, evolving world views based on the methodical and disciplined pursuit of scientific insight, and great works of art.

Within the above perspective, being human means having the unique faculty of participating consciously--for a brief moment--in the evolution of the universe. This is both an outrageous claim and a call to humility.

If one accepts the above vision of being human, then learning must be conceived of in a similarly broad perspective of purposeful interaction with an environment to whose constant change we must adapt while being ourselves the conscious participants in creating it. 'Constructive interaction with change' thus ought to feature prominently in a definition of human learning at this level, expressing what ultimately learning is all about. Besides, it should be recognized that not only individual human beings partake in such constructive conscious interaction with change, but that the same behavior equally applies to larger social entities at a variety of levels of complex organization. Moreover, learning as conceived in this perspective is intimately interwoven with being alive. It is therefore not something one engages in every now and then, but rather a lifelong disposition. Finally, the disposition referred to in the last sentence is characterized by openness towards dialogue. Hence, I define human learning as "the disposition of human beings, and of the social entities to which they pertain, to engage in continuous dialogue with the human, social, biological and physical environment, so as to generate intelligent behavior to interact constructively with change" (J. Visser, 2001). When I first proposed this definition, I called it an 'undefinition,' referring to its intended purpose to remove the boundaries from around the current, too narrowly conceived, definitions of learning.

Four Levels of Learning

The above definition of learning applies at the most comprehensive level of being human, the level at which we are most distinctively different from anything else that learns, such as non-human animals or machines. Nonetheless, it should be recognized that human adaptive behavior, and thus learning, occurs at least at the following four levels of organizational complexity, some of which we share with other organisms (J. Visser, 2002, n.p.):

Level 1: Interaction with threats and opportunities in the environment through genetically transmitted preprogrammed responses, e.g. fight and flight responses.
Level 2: Acquisition of essential environment-specific abilities, such as mastery of the mother tongue, driven by an inherited predisposition to do so.
Level 3: Deliberate acquisition of specific skills, knowledge, habits and propensities, motivated by individual choices or societal expectations, usually by exposing oneself to a purposely designed instructional--or self-instructional--process.
Level 4: The development and maintenance of a lifelong disposition to dialogue with one's environment for the purpose of constructively interacting with change in that environment.

It can be argued that the above four levels of learning-related adaptive behavior in humans "represent a progression of increasingly higher levels of consciousness about one's role in life and in the world" and that "the four levels are not entirely distinct from each other" (n.p.). In fact, they may interact.

Not everyone is happy with a comprehensive definition like the one referred to above because it is difficult to use in the operational context of intentionally designed instruction. Besides, it may be seen to stress the obvious (see for a brief polemic on this issue the exchange between Chadwick, 2002, and J. Visser & Y. L. Visser, 2003). Most common definitions of human learning contemplate adaptive behavior at Level 3. There is nothing wrong, at least not in principle, with defining learning more restrictively--as is often done (see e.g. Jonassen's [2002] definition referred to in connection with Question 23 in this dialogue)--than my own comprehensive definition. It would be wrong, though, to do so without having in mind that one is dealing with only a segment of what it means to be learning. However important that segment may be at a practical level of intentional intervention in changing human performance capability to serve accepted societal goals--these days usually related to the interests of the prevailing economic model--by closing one's eyes to human functioning at a higher level of consciousness one is at risk of developing human beings who increasingly lose the capacity to intervene in ever more complex situations at a time when the major problems the world faces are exactly situated at such a higher level of complexity.

Thus, in view of the above rationale, I should like to argue that, at whatever level we interact with the development of human learning in our fellow citizens, we should always do so within the perspective of the highest level of complexity within which we expect people to be able to operate. Against the backdrop of that argument it is sad to observe how increasingly formal education, up to the highest level, is being dealt with as if it were a mere commodity (see for arguments in favor of this position Daniel, 2002, and Daniel, 2003, and for opposing arguments Jain et al., 2003).

Is There Such a Thing as an Online Learner?

I raised the question (Question 1), "Is the online learner a distinct subspecies among the wider species of learners in general?" (J. Visser, in this dialogue). The underlying thoughts that accompanied my question, particularly the reference to Dreyfus's (2001) claim that the online environment is incapable of accommodating "emotional, involved, embodied human beings" (p. 48) in ways that allow those who learn to reach proficiency and expertise, triggered off another question (Question 29), "What really is embodied learning, and how does it affect the effectiveness of instructional modalities?" (Y. L. Visser, in this dialogue). Stirling (in this dialogue) draws attention in Questions 4, 5 and 6 to the expectations created in learners due to their participation in online learning environments whose features, and ways in which those features are being used, affect the learners. In Question 8, Spector (in this dialogue) also refers to learner expectations, suggesting that "many expect more in terms of improved learning from an online course than a face-to-face course." I doubt whether this is indeed the case, but agree with both Stirling and Spector that it is reasonable to assume that the environment in which one learns creates expectations--perhaps not only in the learners, but also in those who facilitate the learning--that are determined, at least in part, by the characteristics of that environment. Merriënboer in this dialogue (Question 10) suggests that the entire concept 'online' may just be too broad to be useful to generate specific research questions. This suggestion, on the one hand, underlines that the environment is a likely factor (or set of factors) of influence but, on the other hand, it also points to the need to become more specific in describing the various defining characteristics of learning environments. I would argue, in that case, that such a differentiated approach in referring to the learning environment is similarly relevant in the case of online, face-to-face and hybrid learning settings.

Nonetheless, the online learning environment has its own specificities. For instance, it is able to facilitate kinds of learning, such as through global collaboration and online gaming (LaPointe's Questions 14 and 15 in this dialogue) and allows kinds of learner behavior, such as 'invisible' and anonymous participation (Beaudoin's Questions 16-18 and Y. L. Visser's Question 26 in this dialogue) that are far less likely to occur in traditional settings. Besides, there are technical possibilities in the online environment that potentially allow new learning spaces to be opened up (see e.g. Bransford's Question 22 in this dialogue) that may less easily come to mind to learners whose sole perspective is that of the face-to-face context. On the other hand, Rogoza's Question 30 (in this dialogue) highlights the fact that, whatever the potentiality of the online environment, the reality often remains below what is potentially possible. Besides, as suggested by Question 26 (Y. L. Visser, in this dialogue), this same environment may be responsible for generating in students a number of unintended and undesired behaviors that detract from reaching online learning's full potential.

I am not aware, when in the 15th century the printing press was invented and print materials came into wide use among the general public, that it resulted in the emergence of p-learning and p-learners. When Jan Amos Comenius published his Orbis Sensualium Pictus in 1658, calling attention, by doing so, to the importance of appealing to learners' senses by including visual illustrations in instructional text rather than capitalizing on their ability to memorize, it didn't result in isolating i-learning as a particular kind of learning, nor did the advent of instructional radio lead to r-learning or that of instructional use of TV to t-learning. Against the backdrop of a centuries old history of the use of media in education, there seems little logic in the current tendency to reserve a special place for such things as e-learning and m-learning for those instructional practices that involve the use of electronic communication via computer networking and handheld mobile devices, respectively.

The beauty of learners is that they are, well . . . learners. They come to the world hardwired to explore their environment (Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 1999). They create their own path through life while moving along, together with their fellow learners. Faced with different opportunities in which particular modalities--such as face-to-face instruction or education at a distance via a variety of media--may be dominantly available, good learners, those that have not been told that there is only one way in which to learn, will find their way not just by exploring the initially chosen option but equally by accessing multiple additional opportunities beyond the given one. Defining someone as an e-learner or distance learner, even within the context of a particular instructional context, is tantamount to discouraging such a person from engaging in such wider explorations.

Thinking back of the learning experience I know best, my own, I'm pretty confident that I would never have learnt Arabic had I stuck to the idea that I should meet this challenge through self-instruction; I would not have become a competent musical instrument builder had I limited myself to merely following the guidelines of the harpsichord building manual that I had at my disposal and had I not sought further advice from other builders and craftsmen and experimented with several techniques of my own invention; I would not have deepened my understanding of physics had I not supplemented an already excellent university program with weekly discussion and work sessions with a fellow student and friend who had similar interests and had I not explored what was on offer at other universities and in related fields; and, finally, my personality would have remained underdeveloped had I not been able to find my ways in the school of life and become increasingly better at feeling comfortable with who I am and at ease with the limitations of my being.

Obviously, one shouldn't generalize from the above (biased) sample-of-one. However, I would not have brought up my personal experience if it had not been largely convergent with the findings of an analysis of the stories of the lifetime learning experience of hundreds of people from around the world (Y. L. Visser, J. Visser, 2000, October; J. Visser, Y. L. Visser, Amirault, Genge, & Miller, 2002, April; M. Visser, & J. Visser, 2003), covering a spectrum ranging from illiterate Aymara farmers in rural Bolivia to academics in Europe and the USA of different ages. That research, which started accidentally at another annual convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (J. Visser, Berg, Burnett, & Y. L. Visser, 2000, February), shows a similar propensity in those whose learning stories were collected to situate themselves as learners in environments that include a wide choice of learning spaces beyond those formally designed for specific instructional purposes. The learning human being wanders among those various spaces and should be encouraged to do so. Part of the work that schools could usefully undertake would be to make their students aware of and conversant with that wide range of learning spaces to which they potentially have access.

It will be clear from the above that my answer to the question if online learners should be considered a subspecies among learners in general is a clear NO. 'Online learner' is at best an unhelpful concept and, as said, its use could encourage learners to adopt too narrow a mindset in considering their options.

There Are No Online Learners, but Learners Do Go Online

Some learners spend most of their learning time offline and will occasionally complement their learning effort through online explorations. Other learners may, in a particular context, primarily be driven by instructional events afforded to them online, but they will undertake additional offline explorations as well. Yet others will have opted initially for a hybrid learning environment, including both online and offline experiences, but they would still venture beyond what is given to them, offline as well as online. The crux is that intelligent learners, whatever their initial entry point into a particular learning effort, will continue to look around them, driven by their natural curiosity, to further enrich their learning experience both online and offline, in any way they consider useful, through all means at their disposal. I recognize that the above point of view clashes with some of the original core assumptions of the instructional design field. I am equally aware, though, that, over time, the field has grown to become more open to alternative views that attribute greater importance to the autonomous role played by the learner. Such an alternative perspective is relevant and important considering that change in human behavior is not merely a goal in the context of predetermined social or economic processes--such as to serve corporate interests--but may often relate to human needs and desires in much more complex, non-linear, ways, based on the long-term intricate interrelatedness of individual, communal and societal interests.

Dreyfus (2001) argues that learning by means of instruction develops according to the following seven stages: Novice; Advanced Beginner; Competence; Proficiency; Expertise; Mastery; and Practical Wisdom. He reasons that only the first three stages can adequately develop in the distance education mode. According to Dreyfus, reaching proficiency and expertise require "emotional, involved, embodied human beings" (p. 48), something that he fears the online environment is incapable of accommodating. Moreover, apprenticeship, which is necessary for the last two stages, calls for the physical presence of experts of flesh and blood.

I find Dreyfus's (2001) seven-stage analysis of the learning-through-instruction process relevant and useful. I also agree with him that emotional embodied involvement on the part of both learners and those who help learners to learn is crucial in the instructional context, particularly if the learning effort is directed at reaching more than mere competence. However, Dreyfus's conclusion that such emotional, involved and embodied presence is impossible in the distance education mode only holds if it is assumed that the various actors involved in what starts off as a distance education effort don't move beyond their starting point. If, however, as I argued earlier in this section, those same actors--who are all learners in the true sense of the word, whether their formal role in the instructional process qualifies them as such or as instructors or facilitators--continue their explorations beyond the conditions of their starting point, Dreyfus would be wrong. Then competent learners (and other actors in the learning environment) will always find opportunities in their wider environment to create such embodied presence to the extent that they find useful to them. This requires a kind of 'learning intelligence' that involves entrepreneurship; creativity; the ability to communicate personal goals and negotiate conditions to reach them; and the autonomous capacity to monitor one's interactions with the world. In the wider context it requires 'mentorship' in the true sense of the word to be reinvented.

The term "mentor" derives from ancient Greek mythology. The story can be found in Homer's Odyssey. Mentor was the trusted friend of Odysseus and the tutor of his son Telemachus. We are told in the Odyssey [i] that the goddess Athena, the daughter of Zeus, on several occasions, took on the form of Mentor to give advice to Telemachus and Odysseus. The term "mentor" has since become synonymous of the kind of personal relationship that typically seeks to benefit the person who is being mentored. The beauty of Homer's account is, of course, that it tells us that you don't have to be Mentor himself to perform his functions. One can assume the shape of Mentor, as Athena did.

In essence, mentoring is a role that can be seen to represent one of the best sides of human nature, the disposition to dedicate oneself to the well-being of other people. I believe, based on personal experience, that the proliferation of online communication has created propitious conditions for people around the globe to reconsider their options to serve as mentor and to benefit from mentoring.

A Changed Learning Landscape

I reserved my second question to be dealt with last. "What are the key changes that we notice in today's learning landscape and how can they be put into hierarchical order in terms of the importance of challenges posed to the learner?" (Question 2; J. Visser, in this dialogue).

I argued above that I consider the notion 'online learner' an irrelevant and unhelpful concept but that I recognize that the 'online learning space' is a relevant and important extra dimension of today's learning landscape. It is there in addition to the various other spaces in which people traditionally used to learn. As explained, the online learning space may at times be the dominant dimension of the environment in which one learns; at times it may be complementary or supplementary. The fact that it is there, and that the tools through which it exists represent a certain level of technological sophistication, requires of today's learners to be conversant with those tools and their various uses. Some of those uses may be culture sensitive, which adds a further challenge, considering that the online learning space is not restricted to a single culture.

However, I believe that the more relevant changes in the learning landscape that we are facing have to do with a change of emphasis in the purposes for which we learn. In other words, they have to do with the kind of problems we--and the world at large--face and the responsibilities we attribute to ourselves as actors in that problematized environment. Here I see the following changes:

  1. Due to increased population pressure on our tiny planet with limited resources (six billion people in 2000; nine billion estimated for 2050), governing bodies as well as individual human beings face challenges regarding their day-to-day as well as long-term behavior that require a level of understanding and intelligence not required to the same extent of our immediate ancestors. The formal learning infrastructure (universities, schools, the media, etc.) have so far inadequately responded to the challenge to raise our consciousness and capacity to live in harmony with ourselves, our fellow human beings, the other species and our physical environment in general.
  2. Our capacity to intervene in our environment has dramatically increased. The extent of the impact of what we do, or allow others to do, has outgrown our capacity to foresee the consequences of our action. Here too, we dramatically lag behind in fostering learning--and creating the environment that nurtures it--that elevates our awareness of planetary responsibilities. Yet, the online learning environment is perhaps the opportunity par excellence to make important inroads in this area of concern.
  3. Linked to the phenomena highlighted in the previous two points, the world of the 21st century is characterized by turbulent change and a high level of unpredictability. The current and future generations will have to live with such unpredictability. It requires a high level of insight in and control over one's own capacity to learn, to an increased extent at Level 4 referred to earlier in this paper, and to do so in a lifelong perspective. Learning to learn, in a conscious way, should therefore be a prime concern, starting at the level of raising infants and continuing to be a concern throughout life.

A Concluding Concern

The above analysis of challenges that condition today's learning landscape contrasts sharply with how I perceive the current reality of academic life, both as regards students and faculty. The former are increasingly driven by pressure to obtain certificates, diplomas and degrees that give them access to jobs that may have little to do with what they actually learnt to obtain those tokens; the latter live under the pressure of complying with the exigencies of an increasingly complex university bureaucracy, including the various formalities related to the ritual of tenurization. Within that context, education is more and more being considered as a commodity, a perspective that degrades the provider of the commodity to the status of a grocery. The fact that the commodity can now be traded online has only exacerbated the situation. I believe this to be a dangerous development.


Carter, R. (2002). Exploring consciousness. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Chadwick, C. (2002). What is learning? Educational Technology, 42(6), 64.

Daniel, J. (2002). Higher education for sale. Education Today No. 3, October-December 2002, p. 1.

Daniel, J. (2003). Debate McEFA. Education Today No. 7, October-December 2003, p. 9.

Dreyfus, H. L. (2001). On the Internet. London and New York: Routledge.

Edelman, G. M. & Tononi, G. (2000). A universe of consciousness: How matter becomes imagination. New York: Basic Books.

Edelman, G. M. (2004). Wider than the sky: The phenomenal gift of consciousness. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N. & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: Minds, brains, and how children learn. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Greenfield, S. (2002). The private life of the brain: Emotions, consciousness and the secret of the self. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Jain, S. et al. (2003). McEducation for all? Opening a dialogue around UNESCO's vision for commoditizing learning [Online]. Available: [2005, March 29].

Jonassen, D. H. (2002). Learning as activity. Educational Technology, 42(2), 45-51.

Koch, C. (2004). The quest for consciousness: A neurobiological approach. Englewood, CO: Robert and Company Publishers.

Koch, C. (2005). The inchoate science of consciousness: New approaches could help quantify the mind-body gap. The Scientist, 19(17), 14-16.

Steinberg, D. (2005). Revelations from the unconscious. The Scientist, 19(17), 17-19.

Visser, J. (2001). Integrity, completeness and comprehensiveness of the learning environment: Meeting the basic learning needs of all throughout life. In: D. N. Aspin, J. D. Chapman, M. J. Hatton, & Y. Sawano (Eds.), International Handbook of Lifelong Learning (pp. 447-472). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Visser, J. (2002, November). Can we see the puzzle, rather than the pieces? Paper presented in the framework of the Book of Problems (or what we don't know about learning) dialogue held at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Dallas, TX, November 12-16, 2002 [also Online]. Available [2005, September 23].

Visser, J., Berg, D., Burnett, R., & Visser, Y. L. (2002, February). In search of the meaning of learning: A social process of raising questions and creating meanings. Workshop held at the Annual Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Long Beach, CA, February 16-19, 2000.

Visser, J., Visser, Y. L., Amirault, R. J., Genge, C. D., & Miller, V. (2002, April). Second order learning stories. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), New Orleans, Louisiana, April 1-5, 2002.

Visser, J., & Visser, Y. L. (2003). What's in a definition? A response to Clifton Chadwick. Educational Technology Magazine, 43(2), 58.

Visser, M., & Visser, J. (2003, October). "We closed our books and put them away." Learning stories from Mozambique - A critical reflection on communicating about the reality and future of learning. Paper presented at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), Anaheim, CA, October 22-25, 2003.

Visser, Y. L., & Visser, J. (2000, October). The Learning Stories Project. Paper presented at the International Conference of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Denver, CO, October 25-28, 2000.


[i] The full story can be found at


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Epistemic Metacognition - A Necessary Competency for the Online Learner

Christina Rogoza

Nova Southeastern University

Received: October 6, 2005


As an experienced and competent online learner I am dumbfounded when someone suggests that "they don't like to learn in the online environment." When I ask why, the response is usually vague finishing with "I guess I just like face to face interaction." When I ask why to that, the answer back may go something like "I like to see my instructor, I learn more that way." I find this perplexing as I am an individual that could care less whether the instructor is two thousand miles or three feet away. I will learn regardless.

Consider how restricted this learner's world is by the fact that he feels that he must be on location to experience learning. The questions arise as to what his assumptions are about knowledge and learning that places him in that space and how can his learning space be opened up? My sense is that I am coming to the online table with very different assumptions about knowledge than this other learner. Also I have a certain amount of confidence in my ability to negotiate my way through this environment and accomplish the learning tasks at hand. This is something that this other learner may be lacking. Is it possible to make this learner more competent in his ability to engage in the online environment? How do we create online learning environments that support the conditions necessary for learner success and that enhance lifelong learning development?


As distance learning has exploded on to the learning landscape the rapid development of distance learning technologies has facilitated a growing interest in exploring pedagogical considerations in teaching and learning. As traditional education has moved towards constructivist theory emphasizing a learner-centered model, technology has enabled the same shift to occur in distance education. Hence, educators and learners find themselves challenged to not only a new paradigm of teaching and learning but new learning environments created by emerging technologies.

The concept of learner-centeredness assumes that learners are responsible partners for their learning. This rests on a constructivist foundation that learners construct their own schema of knowledge based on prior experience and their interaction with their environment. This demands that learners be competent in problem solving, critical thinking, reasoning, and reflective in their use of knowledge (Derrick, 2003). Learners need to be adaptable and flexible in their learning strategies as they respond to new situations. These are competencies that are required to be successful in today's world.

These attributes are even more important for online learners. Research has shown that online learners need to be more self-directed than traditional learners in a face to face environment. To be successful the online learner needs to have the self-discipline, initiative, motivation, commitment, time management skills, and organization skills to work independently (Ko & Rossen, 2004, Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2003). Hongmei (2002) suggests that self-motivated and self-disciplined students are most likely to succeed in online learning. Therefore, their success is dependent upon their ability to apply successful learning strategies in self-directed learning.

Although these attributes for online learners are acknowledged as essential for their success, distance education student evaluations continue to be concerned primarily with (1) student outcomes (achievement, grades, test scores), (2) attitudes of students and instructors and, (3) satisfaction of students and instructors (Walker, 2002). In fact, the instructional design process for distance delivery draws from a behaviorist paradigm that emphasizes achievement oriented outcomes. These outcomes generally do not address attributes such as self-discipline, motivation, and self-direction. Hence, there is a dissonance between what we say are essential learner competencies and instructional design and teaching practices that might support that goal.

The constructivist paradigm immerses learners in a domain that requires them to adapt their learning strategies to their personal characteristics and to the learning context. This requires that students be able to critically reflect on their use of cognitive strategies. Romainville (1994) asserts that students are not adept at this and that the high rate of failure in the first academic year of university may be attributable to the lack of awareness and mismanagement of cognitive strategies. Teaching learners how to be more aware of their learning processes and how to regulate those processes will contribute to their efficacy as autonomous, self-directed learners.

The American Psychological Association (APA) developed a Learner-Centered Framework that included 14 principles about learners and learning. These principles were organized into four domains, metacognitive and cognitive, affective and motivational, developmental and social, and individual-differences. These provide a framework for practices that can be applied to distance learning environments (McCombs &Vakili, 2005). The cognitive-metacognitive domain is one that will be addressed in this discussion.


Metacognition has been identified as a significant factor that impacts on learning. Metacognition refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning. "Metacognition" can be simply defined as "thinking about thinking." Flavell (1976) the pioneer of metacognition research, described it as follows: "Metacognition refers to one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data. For example, I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact" (p.236).

Metacognition is concerned with the monitoring and regulation of cognitive processes. Essentially we have thoughts and they consist of what one knows (i.e., metacognitive knowledge), what one is currently doing (i.e., metacognitive skill), or what one's current cognitive or affective state is (i.e., metacognitive experience) (Hacker, 1998).

Metacognitive regulation consists of sequential processes that help to regulate learning. Activities such as planning how to approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task are metacognitive in nature. For example, after reading content the learner may use self-questioning to ensure that she understands what she just read. After self-questioning she may find that she does not understand the material and she determines what needs to be done to meet the cognitive goal of understanding the content (Livingston, 1997). Can this process of metacognitive monitoring and regulation enhance the learning process of the online learner? Would metacognition be considered a necessary competency for the online learner?

Romainville (1994) found that a relationship exists between academic performance and high achievement of students who actively apply their metacognitive knowledge about cognitive processes. The implications of this for instructional design for distance learning environments are clear. Curriculum design for any online course or program must incorporate strategies to facilitate metacognitive processes to ensure learner success.

However, as I recognize metacognition as a clear competency to accomplish learning goals, I have a nagging feeling that there is something more to this, i.e., an a priori awareness that precedes metacognition and opens the door to engage in learning.


Metacognition has been discussed as the regulation and control of cognitive strategies for learning. There is no doubt that metacognition represents a necessary competency for today's online learners. However, the whole notion assumes the existence of a learner who is ready to actively engage in learning in whatever learning environment is presented.

Research has shown that students' perceptions of instructional practices are interpreted through the lens of their epistemological assumptions. Personal epistemology is essentially the beliefs that individuals hold about knowledge and such beliefs influence the readiness of learners to engage in the learning process. Thus, students have particular views about how academic tasks, testing, interactivity, the structure of the classroom, textbook choices, etc. relate to knowledge acquisition (Hofer, 2004). It is this personal epistemology that determines how the learner engages in the learning activity and it is this that precedes the regulatory and control functions of metacognition. Therefore, epistemic metacognition is an additional dimension that needs to be added to the toolkit of metacognitive strategies.

Personal epistemology can be addressed from two areas: the nature of knowledge (what do I know) and the process of knowing (how do I know what I know). These can be further divided respectively into the dimensions of certainty and simplicity of knowledge and source of knowledge and justification of knowing (Hofer, 2004). These dimensions can be viewed as existing on a continuum and are applied to the learner as follows:

Certainty of knowledge. At one end, the learner views knowledge as representing absolute truth and certainty. At the other end, the learner's perspective is that there is no absolute knowledge as it is continuously evolving.
Simplicity of knowledge. At one end the learner views knowledge as discrete facts. At the other extreme, the learner views knowledge as contextual and relative.
Source of knowledge. The learner might see knowledge as existing external to self and residing in an expert authority. At the other end of the continuum the learner might see knowledge as being actively constructed in social interactions.
Justification for knowing. This dimension addresses how the learners justify and evaluate their beliefs. At one end of the continuum they might justify their beliefs using authority. At the other end they would evaluate the evidence and the expertise of the authority.

It is important to understand how students make epistemological sense of their learning environment. One instructor noted how frustrating it can be to engage students who are for example, at one end of the continuum at certainty of knowledge where their beliefs may be grounded in religious authority. These students simply did not see the need for dialogue as their knowledge was certain and not debatable. This problem is exacerbated in the online environment where the student can literally turn off the conversation. It is evident that this epistemological belief impacts on how or even if the student engages in the learning community.

Beliefs about knowledge will also influence the student's choice of learning strategies. Perhaps the student believes that knowledge is simple and factual, and therefore will memorize the facts with little thought to evaluating those facts. At this point a cognitive prompt could be used, but the student may disregard it if they believe that there is no rationality for evaluating the facts.

Epistemological beliefs can be general or subject specific. For example, students may have beliefs about knowledge in the area of mathematics that differ from their beliefs about knowledge in psychology. Therefore, facilitating student awareness of their beliefs in this particular subject area needs to be constructed in a comparative way to their general beliefs about knowledge. If they see dissonance between the two there is a window for reconciliation of the two sets of beliefs and movement up the continuum.

Implications for the Distance Learner

There is evidence that students can move along this continuum of their beliefs and there are interventions that will effect epistemological belief change in learners moving them from simple to more complex reasoning (Hofer, 2004). Epistemology could be said to be an aspect of metacognition and consequently training students to be epistemically aware will ensure their success in applying metacognitive processes.

Instructional approaches have been developed that integrate the development of metacognitive thinking processes into online curricula. In addition to this, instructional design should focus on using the technology to incorporate epistemic metacognitive processes as well. This dimension of the metacognitive domain should be introduced at the very start of online coursework with accompanying assessments of learner engagement. As the learner becomes more adept at capturing their epistemic understandings, they can move from simple to more complex beliefs. Practice in this type of thinking can make it a habit of the mind and will guide the learner to becoming a competent lifelong learner.


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Hofer, B. K. (2004) Exploring the dimensions of personal epistemology in differing classroom contexts: Student interpretations during the first year of college. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 29, 2, 129-163 Retrieved Sept. 13, 2005 from

Hongmei, L. (2002). Distance Education. Pros, cons, and the future. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western States Communication Association, Long Beach, CA. Retrieved Oct. 2, 2003 from

Ko, S., & Rossen, S. (2004). Teaching online: A practical guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Livingston, J. (1997). Metacognition: An overview. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2005 from

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Romainville, M. (1994). Awareness of cognitive strategies: The relationship between university students' metacognition. Studies in Higher Education, 19(3), 359-366.

Simonson, M, Smaldino, S, Albright, M, & Zvacek, S. (2003). Teaching and Learning at a Distance Foundations of Distance Education (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education

Walker, K. (2002). Theoretical Foundations for Website Design Courses. Technical Communication Quarterly 11(1), 61-83 Retrieved Oct. 1, 2005 from


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Learners in a Changing Learning Landscape:

Reflections from an Instructional Design Perspective

Jeroen J. G. van Merriënboer

Open University of the Netherlands

Received: October 10, 2005

Both learners and teachers find themselves in a learning landscape that is constantly and dramatically changing in terms of the modalities through which people learn, the purposes for which they learn, and the context in which learning acquires its meaning (Visser, this dialogue). I will reflect on this phenomenon from the perspective of an instructional designer rather than the perspective of a learner - simply because being a learner does not distinguish me from anyone else but being an instructional designer and, in particular, being a researcher in the field of instructional design is my profession. Instructional designers basically try to select instructional methods that make learning effective, efficient, and appealing. They typically do so on the basis of an analysis of, among others, what ought to be learned, in which context or under which circumstances it is learned, and by whom it is learned. Researchers in the field of instructional design carefully investigate the conditions under which particular methods yield desired effects and organize those methods in instructional design models or theories. In this short reflective paper, I will first sketch the new learning landscape in terms of changes in what is learned, changes in contexts, and changes in learners. Then, I will discuss the implications for selecting instructional methods, that is, the implications for the field of instructional design.

Changing What is Learned

In order to deal with rapid societal and technological changes, people more than ever need problem-solving and reasoning skills that allow them to deal with new, unfamiliar situations in their professional and everyday life. This focus on complex skills or professional competencies implies the integration of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in such a way that transfer of learning is enhanced. Thus, learning is no longer primarily about reaching specific learning objectives, but about the ability to flexibly apply what has been learned in new problem situations.

A related issue is that life-long learning, often in non-formal settings, is becoming a necessity to survive in a society in which jobs and technologies quickly change. This asks for higher-order and "metacognitive" skills that allow for independent, self-directed learning, such as information problem solving, self-assessment and self-regulation skills, and learning-to-learn. Consequently, in addition to flexible and transferable professional competencies, learning competencies are becoming increasingly important.

These developments in "what is learned" have clear implications for the use of instructional methods. In modern instructional theories, there is a focus on whole, meaningful learning tasks that are based on real-life tasks as the driving force for learning (Merrill, 2002; van Merriënboer & Sweller, 2005). The general assumption is that such tasks help learners to integrate the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to deal with real-life problems, and also provide a fruitful basis for the development of higher-order skills. Instructional methods primarily pertain to experiential learning in real or simulated task environments, and include the design of learning tasks or learning experiences, the sequencing of those experiences, and ways to scaffold the learning process (see van Merriënboer, Kirschner, & Kester, 2003). On-line learning makes experiential learning in simulated task environments only possible to a certain degree. That is, it should be perfectly clear that on-line learning alone would never be sufficient to educate medical doctors, who need to practice with patients of flesh and blood; lawyers, who need to practice in real court yards; or carpenters, who need to practice with real wood and tools.

Changing Contexts

In addition to changes in what is learned, there are also major changes in the contexts in which learning occurs. Learning in technology-rich, informal and professional settings is becoming general practice. In modern societies, people have 24-hour opportunities to connect to other people and to vast information resources through mobile phones, MP3 players, Personal Digital Assistants, laptop computers, and other mobile devices. These technologies allow for the realization of many instructional methods that sustain different types of on-line learning.

Even more important, new technologies allow for time- and place-independent learning and for individualization of instruction, because mass media (books, television, radio) are more and more intertwined and replaced with personalized media that provide on-demand information and support, tailored to the particular needs and preferences of individual users and learners. An enormous increase in the flexibility of education may be expected, a process that is driven by mass-individualization or mass-customization (Schellekens, Paas, & van Merriënboer, 2003).

Contextual changes clearly affect the use of instructional methods. More and more instructional methods can be realized in on-line tools and mobile devices, and new media-method combinations emerge with their own specific affordances. For instance, methods that stimulate learners to construct knowledge may use the interactive possibilities of hypermedia; methods that help learners to learn from each other may take form in on-line learning communities, and methods that aim at the just-in-time provision of information during professional task performance may take advantage of mobile technologies (e.g., presenting operating instructions on-demand on a mobile phone, PDA, or augmented reality glasses). Furthermore, the selection of instructional methods will no longer be based on the general characteristics of a whole "target group" but on the specific characteristics of the individual learner.

Changing Learners

This takes us to the changing learner. At an abstract level, it is tempting to describe the emergence of the "on-line learner", who is directing his own learning, who is focusing on the development of flexible problem solving skills, who is having a rich mix of (on-line) media to his disposition, and who is expecting instruction that is fully tailored to his personal needs. But on the individual level, differences between individual learners may have far greater implications for the selection of instructional methods than the emergence of the so-called on-line learner. I will give three examples. First, life-long learning will evidently mean that more and more elderly people become involved in goal-directed learning. And there is research evidence that effective instructional methods for older on-line learners are quite different from effective methods for younger on-line learners, due to a significant decrease in working memory capacity of the elderly (van Gerven, Paas, van Merrienboer, Hendriks, & Schmidt, 2003).

Second, life-long learning also implies that more and more learners are not novices in a particular learning domain, but are at various stages of expertise development. Recent research points out that this level of expertise is a major factor to be taken into account when selecting instructional methods. For instance, Kalyuga, Ayres, Chandler, and Sweller (2003) provide a review of research results on the "expertise reversal effect", which indicates that instructional methods that are effective for low-expertise learners are often ineffective for high-expertise learners, and vice versa. For instance, low-expertise learners learn more from studying worked examples than from solving the equivalent problems, while the opposite pattern is found for high-expertise learners.

Third, a common claim is that young learners (the "gaming generation") learn in new ways and have a new conception of learning. They would be better able to learn by trial and error, to seek helpful resources, to try out solutions, and so forth. This may be true for a subgroup of young learners, but research also points out that there are surprisingly large differences in students' perceptions of instructional methods and learning environments. For instance, Könings, Brand-Gruwel, and van Merrienboer (in press) studied the perceptions of young students (13-14 years of age) who were confronted with an educational innovation, characterized by the use of meaningful learning tasks, more independent learning, and individualization. Whereas some students perceived this innovation as desirable and an impetus for their learning, others perceived it as undesirable and not helpful for promoting their learning.


No doubt, the learning landscape is drastically changing. With regard to what is learned, there is more emphasis on complex skills and higher-order skills; with regard to contexts, new technologies allow for flexible time- and place independent learning and mass individualization; and with regard to the learners, there are better opportunities to adapt instructional methods to individual characteristics such as age, level of expertise, and learner perceptions. High-quality instructional design research is badly needed and should focus on the question which instructional methods or method-media combinations are effective, efficient and appealing for teaching complex and higher-order skills, in a highly flexible fashion, and taking learner's individual needs and preferences into account.

In my opinion, notions such as "on-line learning" and "the on-line learner" are not very helpful for the research field of instructional design. On-line learning refers to a motley collection of methods (presenting text on the screen, asking ready-made questions, showing video clips and animations, evoking discussions in asynchronous and synchronous discussion groups, engaging learners in highly interactive games and simulations, etc.) that invoke very different types of learning. This is not helpful to generate valuable research questions. And the term "on-line learner" suggests a homogeneity that simply does not exist: Effective instructional methods for different subgroups of on-line learners (e.g., young vs. old, high- vs. low-expertise, positive vs. negative perceptions) seem to be much more different from each other than methods for so-called on-line learners and "traditional" learners. Moreover, what we need to develop for the future are not methods for an intangible group of on-line learners, but methods that are tailored to the personal needs of individual learners. Only then, we are serious in putting the learner at the center of the learning environment, whether it is on-line or not.


Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003) The Expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 23-31.

Könings, K. D., Brand-Gruwel, S., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (in press). Towards more powerful learning environments through combining the perspectives of designers, teachers and students. British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.

Schellekens, A., Paas, F., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2003). Flexibility in higher professional education: A survey in business administration programmes in the Netherlands. Higher Education, 45(3), 281-305.

Van Gerven, P. W. M., Paas, F., van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Hendriks, M., & Schmidt, H. G. (2003). The efficiency of multimedia learning into old age. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 73, 489-505.

Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Kirschner, P. A., & Kester, L. (2003). Taking the load of a learners' mind: Instructional design for complex learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 5-13.

Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., & Sweller, J. (2005). Cognitive load theory and complex learning: Recent developments and future directions. Educational Psychology Review, 17(2), 147-177.

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Reflections on Seeking the 'Invisible' Online Learner

Michael F. Beaudoin

University of New England

Received: October 11, 2005


While much has been written regarding the learning behaviors of students participating in online courses, little research has been conducted to ascertain whether or not students are still engaged and actually learning even when not visibly involved in online discourse with other students and faculty. This presentation summarizes a preliminary study of inactive students enrolled in an online graduate course, augmented by further reflections of the author based on expereince and observation of online student behaviors over the next five years following the initial study. These findings attempt to identify how much time is spent in course related activity, what the reasons are for "invisibility," and if preferred learning styles influence their online behavior. The data shows that these students do, in fact, spend a significant amount of time in learning related tasks, even when not visibly participating, and they feel they are still learning and benefiting from this low-profile approach to their online studies. Preliminary analyses of course grades indicate that the mean grade is better for high-visibility learners than for no-visibility learners. Subsequent reflections reinforce these findings, and suggest that further research on so-called invisible learner is a critical area of invesitgation to better understand the dynamics of asynchronous learning and teaching.


In 1999, I was asked to evaluate a new course as a pilot to an online Master' s of Distance Education curriculum offered jointly by University of Maryland University College and Oldenburg University (Germany). The following year, I had the opportunity to log into this same course as a faculty observer. And, in the next year, I revised and mentored this same course (Foundations of Distance Education), which I have occasionally taught over the next three years.

In these various roles, I acquired a keen interest in the phenomenon that has been referred to by Helmut Fritz as "witness" learners (1997), and which I have subsequently referred to as "invisible" learners (2002a, 2002b, and 2003). This inquiry resulted in a study of learners defined as such, and to several publications and presentations on various aspects of that research.

Now, with the added benefit of five years experience designing and teaching a variety of online courses in three graduate programs for three institutions, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on my own experiences as a practitioner, and to augment my prior investigation with more anecdotal and reflective observation and analysis regarding the so-called 'invisible' student. It is my hope that this earlier work, coupled with more recent practice, will generate further interest and an exchange of ideas and opinions among colleagues who are also intrigued by e-pedagogy, especially as it applies to the teaching-learning dynamic with students who appear less actively engaged in online discourse.

As interactive modalities increasingly facilitate the connectivity between students and teacher and students with other students, attention to the phenomenon of online interaction has gained heightened interest among those seeking to enhance the teaching-learning process at a distance. In considering the learning process in this particular environment, we might assume that it correlates closely to what is visible (i.e., students' written words that appear on the monitor), and conclude that if there is no visible online activity, then little or no learning is likely to occur. Assuming that some learning might indeed occur even when students in online courses are not posting comments, what could be contributing to this tendency to "lurk" on the periphery of course activity? Are they "auto-didactic learners who prefer to remain as anonymous and autonomous as possible? Do they forsake opportunities to participate because thinking about what to write is more formal and less spontaneous than oral, face-to-face dialogue typically is? Do they frequently have a thought in mind that they are mentally composing, but others often seem to express the same idea before they can do so? Or are they simply having technical difficulties mastering the intricacies of the particular online platform being used?

What we do not see in asynchronous environments, literally and figuratively, is what else is going on that contributes to participants' learning. And it is easy to assume that unless learners in online formats are actively participating by posting frequent and relevant contributions, they may be benefiting relatively little from this more passive experience. Further, we might assume that unless students are posting comments that are directly related to the designated topic in, for example, a so-called threaded discussion forum, their learning is likely to be further compromised. Thus, for those students who, even if they do regularly log-on, but who do not engage at all in a particular discussion or who seem to be offering irrelevant or, at best, tangential remarks, we might conclude that they just don't contribute to or benefit much from the experience. Some distance education theorists argue that the dialog between student and teacher is the essential defining element of distance education; Holmberg stated that it should consist of guided didactic conversation (1981). It is curious that, although an historical tenet of distance education is the notion of learners autonomously constructing their own knowledge, instructors facilitating the learning process for distant students often become alarmed when dialog with them wanes.

Helmut Fritsch, director of the Center for Research in Distance Education at FernUniversitaet (Germany), offers an insightful appraisal of the level of student participation as measured by the frequency of online entries at specific points in time as a seminar progresses. He developed the notion of "witness learners" (i.e., students who are not actively participating via written contributions at a particular point, but who nevertheless are still engaged in the process as observers (witnesses) of the written exchanges taking place online between other students. He argues that learning, even in this more passive and less visible mode, is still occurring (1997). This was the working assumption that this study intended to investigate.


An online master's degree program offered by the University of Maryland and Oldenburg University enrolled two sections of the Foundation of Distance Education course in fall 2000. Mid-way through the semester, it was noticed that twenty-four (24) out of a total of 55 students in the two sections had not actively participated (i.e., they posted no online messages during one or both of the modules wherein two prominent guest faculty, who had authored the required textbooks, were each conducting a week-long online conference with each cohort. Since the course format requires online participation to successfully complete academic requirements, and because the articulation of ideas (whether presented on paper or transmitted electronically) is viewed as an inherently critical element of the learning process, and so is seen as an activity which becomes a key criterion for ascertaining academic success.

A questionnaire was designed and administered to these seemingly "inactive" students, with the intention of identifying the primary factors influencing their non-participation in this particular component of the course. This author designed the instrument, then transmitted it electronically to the target population in Fall 2000, midway through the academic term. It should be noted that this study did not take into account gender, native language, and whether or not this was the respondents' first online course


All twenty-four students responded within the prescribed deadline. The first set of nine questions asked for data regarding total hours spent during the two-week conference period on various course related activities. The activity that commanded the greatest amount of time was reading assignments-an average of 12 hours over the two-week conference period. An average of 7.6 hours was spent logging-on to the course site, and reading others' comments.

The second set of questions posed to these low-visibility students asked them to identify factors (checking all that apply from a list of ten provided) that deterred them from posting comments. Three-fourths of them responded that they simply preferred to read what others wrote, or that they had thoughts but others made similar comments before they could post anything themselves. Only four students indicated that time constraints limited the amount of time they could spend writing comments.

The last set of questions was intended to obtain data related to students' learning styles in an online environment, and asked them to respond with a Yes or No to ten items. All but one of the 24 respondents indicated that they were often processing ideas gained from the course even when not visibly participating. Nineteen (19) said they felt they were learning just as much or more from reading others' comments than from writing their own. About half identified themselves as "autonomous" learners less inclined to be active in group learning, regardless of the medium
Many emphasized that they spend many hours on the course, and that they have gained much from the course, however little it may appear that they participated; only two confided that online courses did not seem to be their preferred way to learn.

Summing up respondents' comments regarding the primary reasons given for non-participation, the factor cited most often is that online learning is a new experience, and students need time to become acclimated to using it. Three admitted that their limited interaction online is similar to how they would behave in a classroom setting. Several expressed intentionality to write comments more frequently, but didn't because by the time they were ready to do so, several others had already posted similar ideas. It was also clear that many were reluctant to offer online comments just for the sake of being "present." Four students admitted to being self-conscious about writing in this forum, one due to being a non-native speaker, another to being shy, and the other two were just not sure how to express themselves. Interestingly, two stated that they frequently compose messages, but didn't post them; it may well be that this behavior is a more common phenomenon than we might have initially conjectured.

A preliminary analysis of final course grades offers intriguing evidence that performance cannot be easily correlated to participation, or that frequent participation necessarily leads to better performance on graded assignments conference. The statistics show that the mean grades are better for the high visibility students than the no visibility students, yet low visibility students seem to do a bit better than the visible (average) students. This suggests that fully engaged, highly participatory learners tend to perform strongly in graded assignments, but that minimal online participation does not compromise grades and, in fact, may reveal that these low visibility students are dedicating more time to reflection and processing of course material that translates to stronger assignments than those submitted by students participating at an average level.


What might we discover, at least preliminarily, from this data? Regarding how much time is spent on course related activity even though little of it is visible to the faculty or to other students, we can state that our intuitive assumption is correct that course related activity, though mostly invisible, is taking place. Indeed, if over a two week period in the lives of busy adult students, each spends an average total of 44.6 hours engaged in these various course-related tasks, it must be assumed that some learning, is taking place in an ongoing fashion. While it may be tempting to question if students really do, in fact, spend as much time as is claimed on these activities, we must nonetheless accept their self-perceptions, as we are not in a position to perceive what actually occurs outside the online environment. It is quite remarkable, given that this respondent group was identified on the basis of low participation, that such a significant amount of time (i.e., 22+ hours per week) is presumably devoted to academic activity in this one course.

It is evident from the responses regarding reasons for low participation that a significant factor affecting online activity is a certain level of discomfort with the electronic environment, causing some hesitancy to contribute, and then the moment is lost. Students want to "get it right" before they commit themselves to online dialogue because the written format seems so "public." It may be that online discourse feels more formal and premeditated, while classroom discussion lends itself to a more spontaneous, informal exchange that is not recorded and therefore is less likely to be retained. That three-fourths of the respondents in our study indicated they prefer to read rather than write may suggest a learning style preference, but it may also relate to a lack of familiarity and facility with the medium. And, although it might be suspected that time constraints would be used frequently as an "excuse" for low participation, the data revealed that lack of time was a relatively negligible factor.

It is important to recognize that students' inclination to interact can depend on a variety of factors, including age, personality, learning styles, professional training, etc. Indeed, as Kearsley (1995) and others have noted, it may be that the more autonomous, self-directed learner is also more reflective, and so requires less stimulation and reinforcement from interacting with more "other-directed" peers. And it may be that the perception that there are avenues for interaction are just as important as actually utilizing them. Fulford and Zhang (1993) found that a key factor in student satisfaction in an ITV course was not the extent to which students actively participated, but rather their perception that interaction was possible and was occurring. This suggests that if courses are designed to provide interactive features, and there is evidence that interaction is taking place or even that the potential for it exists, than knowing it is available may be as important as actually utilizing it.

It should be emphasized here that we are not endorsing low-visibility behavior in online courses as a desirable trait; the purpose of the study is to begin to better understand those factors contributing to low visibility participation at certain points as a course progresses, and to determine if learning-related activities might be occurring "behind the scenes." Also, it is noted that this study did not take into account such factors as gender, native language, nor did it record whether or not this was respondents' first online learning experience.


As indicated earlier, with the benefit of mentoring a variety of online courses in the five years since the 2000 study, I attempt here to further examine, through experience and observation, these same dynamics regarding the invisible online student, in hopes of better understanding and effectively supporting these learners. I have posed the following suggested questions that relate directly or indirectly to the phenomenon under consideration here (i.e., the student who is typically less active in an online course, in the sense that s/he does not participate as frequently as others in online dialogue via postings). The rationale/motivation for posing these particular questions is that virtually (sorry for the pun here) every online course I have mentored includes one or more such learners, and they can present a special challenge to the distance educator who wishes to honor differing learning styles, while not compromising the course effectiveness. If we can understand what is going on with this learner behavior, then we might better adopt instructional approaches that appropriately accommodate the situation.

Should the online instructor be lenient in assessing the invisible learner's minimal participation in online dialogue if other course requirements are satisfactorily met?

The value and importance of online participation in threaded discussions must be emphasized from the outset of any online course wherein the instructor intends to factor that activity into student assessment. To not do so early only exacerbates the situation when the instructor eventually notes minimal participation by some, and so must then become the enforcer, possibly creating an atmosphere of "forced" interaction. To allow minimal participation by some students, with the thought that they will simply have to suffer the consequences later when graded, is likely to incur the ire of more engaged students, some who will go so far as to admonish the instructor for not explicitly clarifying expectations in this regard.

Given that online course environments are generally enhanced by a community of scholars actively contributing to the course, especially via online discussions, can it be argued that the invisible learner's behavior is parasitic, in that s/he frequently takes from, but seldom contributes to, the course?

The online instructor should make his/her position quite clear at the outset as to the parameters of participation and performance, and also what the rationale is for such expected behaviors. Explaining the nature and purpose of learning communities or other desired collaborative activities may not ensure constant participation by all, but at least it provides a cue from the instructor that one type of involvement is preferred over the other. Of course, if the instructor does not him/herself exhibit the type of online behavior expected of students, the demand for interaction becomes problematic to enforce.

Is there evidence indicating that invisible learners, despite their minimal engagement in online interaction with instructor and peers, actually do learn and perform on graded assignments as well as, or even better than, the more visibly active students?

In five years of observing and assessing the work of online students, the pattern described in the preliminary study conducted in 2000 seems to be consistent- that the invisible student generally does as well as the moderately visible student, but not as well as the highly visible peers. This does suggest, as was noted in my earlier work, that the so-called 'lurkers' may often represent the more reticent student who feel they are quite engaged, learning and satisfying course requirements, even if only posting minimally. Still, it must be said that there are typically one or two of these students who are not only not visible, but are also largely disengaged from the course, hoping to marginally satisfy course criteria and extract a passing grade.

Does the more "public" aspect of the online environment hinder certain types of learners from actively participating, or might the absence of face-to-face interaction actually encourage more expression of ideas and opinions?

I am convinced that, in many courses I have mentored in the past five years, the richness of online discourse has been significantly greater than it would have been with the same student populations in classroom-based courses. This is especially the case, I believe with diverse classes containing, for example, students of varying ages and experience. Consider the following: In an issues-oriented course (American Education) I have taught both face-to-face (f2f) and online, I have always emphasized the importance of full participation in discussions. Despite my efforts to establish a supportive and comfortable environment, in either milieu, for the frank expression of opinions and ideas, the younger traditional-age students in my f2f classes have always been reluctant to express themselves as much as the older adult students who are returning to school. Yet, when this same course was offered for the first time online, with the same demographic mix, the degree of candor and boldness of expression among the younger students was noticeably equal to that of their older counterparts from the very first week's threaded discussion. It does seem to me that the online setting allows for a sense of anonymity, and tends to equalize the legitimacy of anyone's thoughts, regardless of age and experience.

Might the low visibility of some students be a function of little or no prior experience with online studies?

Students new to the online course environment are generally able to adapt rather quickly, and there is little evidence that their lack of familiarity with a particular platform inhibits their participation. A recent example of this is a course I am currently mentoring which was developed just prior to being offered and, consequently, enrolled students were informed relatively late that it would be delivered online. Four students, in particular, expressed annoyance or apprehension upon becoming aware of this, explaining that they had no prior experience with online courses and wondered if this would compromise their ability to successfully complete their studies. Yet, barely three weeks into the course, these same four students have all contacted me to express their pleasure with the course, and all are at least as visible as their peers, most of whom have taken online courses before. In fact, it is interesting to speculate if perhaps it is the newness of the experience that makes them especially active, as they are eager to master the medium as effectively as others do.


These anecdotal reflections on the 'invisible' learner generally reinforce findings of my earlier study. What I would now propose to do is to pose essentially these same questions in a follow-up study that could serve as a "book-end" project, complementing the first preliminary study, and these more informal conclusions based on experience and observation. This would provide a series of three investigations, to determine if the invisible online behavior chronicled here would remain largely consistent in a third study. And it is hoped that this would provide a sufficient amount of data and discussion to prompt others to conduct their own research regarding the 'invisible' learner.

From these analyses, can we arrive at any preliminary insights about what transpires "below the surface" in an online context that either helps or hinders learning? We can probably conclude that essentially the same "witness learning" phenomenon occurs in both formats- classroom and online. Certainly, most students are actively engaged in learning activities, often in an auto-didactic fashion, even though there may be relatively little obvious manifestation of that activity. It could be suggested that the image of an iceberg serves as a useful analogy here, in that most of its mass is hidden beneath the surface, just as is the case with our invisible students' learning.

It is premature to declare that a certain level of interaction in online discourse is an essential ingredient to student success or course effectiveness. All online learners are invisible to the teacher; that some are less visible than others is not necessarily an indicator that the benefits of the learning experience are being compromised. Those who are involved in the instruction and assessment of online learning are reminded that although the medium is technology-based, the actual learning remains an inherently auto-didactic and invisible process, just as it is in courses at fixed times and places. We are reminded here of Dewey's observation regarding a critical element of the teaching process: to create conditions for "productive inquiry" that takes place independent from the teacher. In the online learning environment, teachers must be attentive to process as well as content to ensure that this inquiry is indeed occurring, however invisible it may be to them.


Beaudoin, M. (2003). Is the 'invisible' online student learning or lurking? Reflections on teaching and learning in an online graduate program. Oldenburg, Germany: Oldenburg University Press. ASF Series # 6.

Beaudoin, M. (2002). Learning or lurking? Tracking the 'invisible' online student. The Internet and Higher Education, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Summer.

Beaudoin, M. (2002). Finding the elusive online student. Online Classroom. April.

Dewey, J. (1971). Experience and Education. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Fritsch, H. (1997). Host contacted, waiting for reply. Final Report and Documentation of the Virtual Seminar for Professional development in Distance Education (pp. 355-78). Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg.

Fulford, C.P. and S. Zhang. (1993). Perceptions of interaction: The critical predictor in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(3), 8-21

Kearsley, G.. (1995). The nature and value of interaction in distance education. In M. Beaudoin (ed. pp. 83-92), Distance Education Symposium 3: Instruction. University Park, PA: American Center for the Study of Distance Education.

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Five Thoughts on Online Learning and Preparation for the Twenty First Century

John Bransford

University of Washington

October 16, 2005

As I sketch my thoughts, I'm mindful of the highly effective process that Jan Visser put in place to ( help? nudge? force?) each of us to better prepare for this symposium. We were asked to post and share questions and perspective relevant to issues of online learning. This has helped each of us learn from one another, and will undoubtedly affect the nature of our live presentations and interactions. I personally have learned a great deal from the postings of my co-presenters, and it is noteworthy that all this learning has taken place "online".

Many of my collaborations with colleagues across the world are also made possible by opportunities for online interactions, and the advantages of these kinds of interchanges are almost certainly apparent to everyone at this conference. This brings me to several points that seem worthy of mention. Most are obvious, but they nevertheless seem to be potentially useful for helping us organize our discussions of issues and opportunities.

1. Everyday Learning vs. Formal Education

This first (obvious) point is that learning is much broader than "formal education". Most of what we learn throughout our lifetimes involves informal rather than formal learning (e.g. Bransford, Vye et. al, in press), and it seems useful to keep this distinction in mind when we discuss "online learning". The online learning that all of us have done to prepare for this symposium is not the same as taking a formal course.

Of course, even "informal vs. formal learning" is not a simple either-or distinction. For example, preparation for this symposium involves a real world task, deadlines, and even thoughts of "being graded" (by audience members). Hence our online, non-course learning contains elements of formal educational environments. Other kinds of informal learning are less focused, time limited and "high stakes". When discussing online learning and the learner characteristics associated with it, differences between formal and informal learning seem useful to keep in mind.

2. The Necessity of Developing Online Learning Skills

The point above is related to this second one; namely, that if we think about learning "writ large" (i.e. beyond formal courses), the ability to engage in online learning is fast becoming "necessary and not just nice" (Thanks to Andrew Ortony for this phrasing--he used it in the context of using metaphors to communicate).

Even if opportunities to learn online are inherently inferior to opportunities to learn face to face (which I doubt and will discuss later)--it is still the case that online environments make it possible to learn much more than would be possible if all learning were restricted to face to face opportunities. A dramatically expanded range of ideas and perspectives become available to us when we know how to navigate in order to find the riches of the online world.

La Pointe's excellent article (this symposium) includes a relevant quote from a student who said: "I reflect and integrate aloud when participating in class discussions and feel stifled having to reflect alone through a private journal". This is clearly a valid concern for the student, but it seems to me--and I suspect that all the co-presenters agree--that we owe it to future learners to help them understand the importance and benefits of learning to adapt to online learning opportunities. Sometime in their lives, today's students are going to need to make use of online learning opportunities. We need to help them learn to develop the skill and courage spans (Wertime, 1979) to learn to adapt to and embrace these opportunities--even if they still prefer face-to-face interchanges.

This does NOT, of course, mean that all of our students' learning--informal, formal or some combination--needs to be online. But we do need to help students realize that part of what they currently like is affected by what they are used to, and that "stretching current "comfort zones" by making attempts to adapt to new kinds of learning environments is a major part of developing the "adaptive expertise necessary for success in our increasingly fast - changing world" (Hatgano & Inagaki, 1986; Schwartz, Bransford & Sears (in press).

3. Learning Environments

All the participants in this symposium have made the important point that we should talk about online learning environment rather than talk as if there is only one face-to face environment and one online environment. In the student quotation from La Pointe's paper that I noted above, the student prefers face to face interactions over "…reflect(ing) alone through a private journal." As many in this symposium note, private journals are not a 'necessary' component of on line environments but, instead, one of many options. As we all know, it is both possible and relatively commonplace to have online opportunities for interaction among learners (rather than only private journals). And there are many additional features of learning environments that are possible as well.

It would be a shame if our students developed either the explicit or implicit assumption that there is only one format allowed in online learning--just as it would be a shame for them to assume that all face to face learning is always lecture, or always free-form unguided small group discussion; always cutthroat competition rather than cooperation to help everyone achieve high standards, etc. Helping learners understand the potential landscapes of both face-to-face and on-line environments (plus blended combinations) seems to be a component of "learner centeredness" that is important for us to pursue (e.g., see Duffy et. al, 2004).

4. Adaptive Expertise and Guided Collaborative Design

If there is anything about online learning environments that is a certainty (for both informal and formal learning), it is that they will continue to change quite rapidly. Preparing learners to adapt to change therefore seems like a high priority. And we if create two-way feedback loops and learner-adjustable interfaces, learners can play an important role in this change.

In order to accomplish this, we need to move from tacit "trait theories" of learning styles and preferences to "momentary state theories" that encourage people to become metacognitive about what is working at the moment and why. Based on the learning sciences literature (e.g., National Research Council, 2000), my bet is that people's need to see, hear, touch, feel, interact personally, etc. will vary depending on the subject matter being taught and their level of expertise within that subject matter. For example, novices typically need visuals--often dynamic ones--to learn about plate tectonics whereas more advanced learners can read or listen and generate their own images. Our society sets the stage for prompting people to adopt "trait-like" theories of themselves as learners when, in reality, peoples' needs and preferences are much more situative depending on their current knowledge, goals and learning context. Overall, we need to help students develop the habits of mind to continually adapt, adopt, and even invent offline and online "smart tools" that will help them as they progress through life and along various expertise trajectories (e.g. Bransford, Zech, etc. 1999); Schwartz, Bransford & Sears, in press). As noted above, this needs to be a lifelong quest--it's not a one-time task of finding a single learning style and sticking with it for a lifetime.

5. Special Affordances of Different Kinds of Learning Environments

If there is anything about online learning environments that is a certainty (for both informal and formal learning), it is that they will continue to change quite rapidly. Preparing learners to adapt to change therefore seems like a high priority. And we if create two-way feedback loops and learner-adjustable interfaces, learners can play an important role in this change.

In order to accomplish this, we need to move from tacit "trait theories" of learning styles and preferences to "momentary state theories" that encourage people to become metacognitive about what is working at the moment and why. Based on the learning sciences literature (e.g., National Research Council, 2000), my bet is that people's need to see, hear, touch, feel, interact personally, etc. will vary depending on the subject matter being taught and their level of expertise within that subject matter. For example, novices typically need visuals--often dynamic ones--to learn about plate tectonics whereas more advanced learners can read or listen and generate their own images. Our society sets the stage for prompting people to adopt "trait-like" theories of themselves as learners when, in reality, peoples' needs and preferences are much more situative depending on their current knowledge, goals and learning context. Overall, we need to help students develop the habits of mind to continually adapt, adopt, and even invent offline and online "smart tools" that will help them as they progress through life and along various expertise trajectories (e.g. Bransford, Zech, etc. 1999); Schwartz, Bransford & Sears, in press). As noted above, this needs to be a lifelong quest--it's not a one-time task of finding a single learning style and sticking with it for a lifetime.

5. Special Affordances of Different Kinds of Learning Environments

Whether face-to-face, blended, or primarily online, particular features of learning environments have special affordances that affect learning. Sometimes it helps to be able to feel objects (weight, smoothness, etc.) manipulate them and so forth (e.g. Brophy, `9 ). In the movie Apollo 13 for example, engineers are shown solving a problem that actually occurred in the Lunar Landing Module (LLM)--they received a box of parts and were told to "make this from these". Without the actual 3D parts, it is doubtful that they would have succeeded in a timely manner. Computer-based 3D models of the parts would probably have been less effective. In other cases, of course, seeing a 3D simulation (e.g. at the level of nano-technology) can be uniquely advantageous for helping people learn. Similarly, some people are more likely to participate in discussions when they are live; others prefer online discussions. As Stirling so clearly explains, these often involve differences in high-context versus low-context communication systems. Plus they can involve high or low affect--students who have problems in my courses (e.g. with grades or with other students) often prefer to discuss them first over E-mail because they are afraid of crying if we meet face-to-face. Overall, there are different affordances of various environments that fit different needs. And of course, multiple affordances can be available in any environment--especially blended ones.

A number of symposium participants mention comments from colleagues suggesting that online environments are inherently inferior to face to face environments (see especially, Spector). Ongoing work suggests that there are affordances of online environments that provide advantages that can be hard to duplicate in mere face-to-face classrooms. For example, my colleague John Bourne (2001) created "knowbots" that knew when an assignment was due and nicely reminded students that a deadline was approaching (it might say, "Are you feeling OK? I notice you haven't posted your assignment yet and it's due in an hour. Let me know if you need some special help".). This greatly increased the degree to which students posted on time. For this symposium we had our own "knowbot"--Jan Visser--who did an excellent job of nicely reminding us when things were due. However, for people with large classes, electronic knowbots make the task of politely reminding students much easier to achieve.

The VaNTH Center for Bioengineering Education Technologies ( has developed the CAPE system, which can be used in blended or totally online settings. The program makes it easy for instructors to create challenge-based lessons and build in a set of formative assessments that allow students to take particular paths depending on how they answer. Students can stay connected to one another as well. One of the nice features of the system is that it can be used to connect homework assignments with students' performances in classes. Keeping close track on what each students understands and needs on a frequent (e.g. class-by-class) basis - and providing appropriate out-of-class follow-ons, is--of course--very difficult in traditional instructional contexts.

The ability to connect the Internet and handheld devices (iPods, Palms, etc.) provides additional advantages for learning. For example, students can have access to materials while driving in the car, waiting in lines, etc.; hence we can help them open up new spaces for learning to occur. It is exciting to keep an eye on affordances of online environments that allow us to surpass the levels of learning that have occurred in the past.


Overall, the preceding thoughts (developed in part by having the opportunity to read the great thoughts of my co-presenters) help me address the issues and questions I posted several weeks ago; namely: (1) why the idea of lifelong learning means that all of us must become "adaptive experts" who must frequently be willing and able to step out of existing comfort zones and give up old ways of doing things in order to adapt; (2) how online environments (especially blended ones) can improve on traditional classroom instruction: (3) how appropriately designed online environments can encourage problem solving and knowledge building (e.g., see CAPE at; Bransford et. al, 19 ); (4) how opportunities to connect to new handheld devices opens up new spaces for learning that tend to be wasted otherwise (e.g. while waiting in lines, driving in the car).

I look forward to the live interactions that represent the next step in this journey.


Bransford, J. D., Zech, L., Schwartz, D., Barron, B., Vye, N., & CTGV. (1999). Designs for environments that invite and sustain mathematical thinking. In Cobb, P. (Ed.),
Symbolizing, communicating, and mathematizing: Perspectives on discourse, tools, and instructional design. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bransford, J. D., Vye, N. J., Stevens, R., Kuhl, P., Schwartz, D., Bell, P., Meltzoff, A., Barron, B., Pea, R., Reeves, B., Roschelle, J., & Sabelli, N. (in press). Learning theories and education: Toward a decade of synergy. In P. Alexander & P. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (Volume 2). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Duffy, T.M., & Kirkley, J.R. (2004). Learner-centered theory and practice in distance education. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hatano, G. & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp.262-272). NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.

National Research Council (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded Edition). Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. J. D. Bransford, A. L. Brown, & R. R. Cocking (Eds.), with additional material from the Committee on Learning, Research and Educational Practice. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. [On-line]. Available:

Schwartz, D. L., Bransford, J. D., Sears, D. L. (in press). Efficiency and innovation in transfer. To appear in J. Mestre (Ed.), Transfer of learning: Research and Perspectives. Information Age Publishing.

Wertime, R. (1979). Students' problems and "courage spans." In J. Lockhead & J. Clements (Eds.), Cognitive process instruction. Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute Press.

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Reflections on the online learner competencies

Ileana de la Teja

Laboratory of Cognitive Engineering and Learning Environments (LICEF)
Tele-universite/UQAM, Montreal

October 17, 2005


The point of view expressed in this text corresponds to a researcher interested in identifying the competencies of the online learning actors and fascinated by the complexity of the task. They are based on professional experience in the elaboration of lists of competencies and the use of a graphical modeling technique to integrate the competencies at curriculum, program or activity level and to make them match with appropriate resources to facilitate the online learning process. I would like to point out some difficulties surrounding the elaboration of online learner competencies and propose some hints to analyze them.


As indicated by Jan in the introduction of this website, this panel was inspired, at least in part, by an ongoing project of the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi), in relation with the online learner competencies.

It is in the venue of competencies that I formulated my questions for this panel. My expectation is to move forward the discussions on competencies that have been generated in the context of the Board as well as with colleagues at Téluq, the distance education university where I do research on the competency-based approach applied to online learning. The questions I propose stem from issues under consideration by the "ibstpi online learner competencies team" (the OLC Team), suggesting that the online learner competencies are more challenging and difficult to "capture" than other sets of competencies previously elaborated by the Board, such as those for instructional designers, instructors, training managers and evaluators. Why is this so?

A preliminary explanation to this query can be found in certain opinions generated in discussions among OLC Team members and invited participants.

To elaborate a list of online learner competencies, it is important to distinguish the online learner from other types of learners (ex. Face-to-face learner) or the learner in general. This distinction seems unclear. (See Jan's reflections posted in this website)

  • By focusing on the online learner as individual, competency frameworks lose sight of the contextual and situational nature of learning in online environments.
  • The competency framework provides a limited structure to articulate the basic criteria for online learners to be successful.
  • The end-users of the online learner competencies are difficult to depict, among others, due to the diversity of goals and interests they may have in online learning, their context of learning (ex. academic, corporate), type of learning (ex. formal, informal), level of expertise with technology, etc.

Please note that these opinions do not necessarily reflect the OCL Team's position but my personal interpretation of discussions by phone conversations, face-to-face meetings, email messages and a Wiki exercise led by the OLC Team in the last two years.

It is from these assumptions that emerged my three questions for this panel:

  • What makes a successful online learner?
  • What is the role of online learners in a multi-actor environment?
  • Are online learners getting what they want/need?

What Makes a Successful Online Learner?

This question encompasses two main concepts: success and online learner. With regards to success, for the purposes of this panel, and to be coherent with the premises stated earlier, this question focuses on the competencies required by the online learner to be successful in terms of the realization of his/her planned learning outcomes whether they are cognitive, affective, psychomotor, or meta-cognitive. To tackle the concept of "online learner", it is appropriate to distinguish between online learner and other types of learners, otherwise said: "Is there such a thing as an online learner"? (J. Visser, on this website).

Online Learner or Just Learner?

A close look at the work done by ibstpi in the past four years may shed some light on this issue, especially during the creation of the list of instructors' competencies, when particular attention was brought to find out if the competencies for face-to-face instructors were different from those of the online instructors.

By modeling the competencies in a graph, according to the modeling technique developed at LICEF, it became clear that the domains in which the competencies had been organized were shared by both types of instructors: Professional foundations, Planning and preparation, Instructional methods and strategies, Assessment and Evaluation, and Management. Furthermore, the competencies under each domain could apply to both types of instructors. For example, "Demonstrate effective presentation skills", or "Demonstrate effective questioning skills" are competencies required for instructors in general, regardless of the type of tools used. However, the performance statements (PS) of each competency appeared to be different according to the applied instrument. This is the case of PS "Follow up on questions from learners", that instructors perform in a different way depending on the context and type of tool. For example, time managing will be different if the tool used for questioning is synchronous (chat) or asynchronous (forum, email, etc.). Also, the type of interaction during questioning may depend on the cardinality (one to one, one to many, many to one, many to many) as well as on the type of media (text, images, video, audio, manipulation).

This finding suggests that, at the highest level, the competencies are generic for all instructors, but that they differ when different technology settings mediate the activities. This is consistent with the Activity theory, which considers that "human experience is shaped by the tools and sign systems we use."

By applying this principle to the online learner one could come to the conclusion that a learner is a learner, but that when the online technology mediates the activity and the object, the online learner requires a particular kind of competencies (cognitive, affective and psychomotor) to make his/her "mediation" successful.

Competencies or Hints?

It is interesting to see there are very few studies on online learner competencies, but many universities and organizations offer hints and tips on the Web to help the learner succeed in an online environment. For example, according to WorldWideLearn, "These are the traits that successful online students possess, to varying degrees: Self-Directed, Motivated, Comfortable with computers, Able to use email, internet browser, word processor, Like to read and write, Inquisitive, Disciplined, Independent, Able to stay on task". Although very important for online learners, these tips can also benefit face-to-face learners (see C. Rogoza). Even flow and engagement (see D. LaPointe) are not exclusive to a specific type of learning.

In my opinion, and from an operational point of view, to identify the competencies that are specific to online learners, it is essential to start by categorizing the competencies required in the learning process (for the learners in general) and then, to distinguish the impact that online tools have in the different tasks and activities. Only in that way it will be possible to identify the skills required to perform those tasks and activities. It is in the way of viewing learning that the qualities that make for a successful online learner will emerge.


What is the Role of Online Learners in a Multi-Actor Environment?

Tools are key to identify the specificity of the online learner competencies but they are not the center of the online learning process. In fact, it is not the tools but its use that is instrumental to online learners. "Tools are never used in a vacuum, but have been shaped by the social and cultural context where the use is taking place." (Bannon).

In the context of online learning, the use of tools is manifold because there are different actors that use the same tools in different ways and each actor has panoply of activities to perform. This entails a double analysis of competencies. The first analysis focuses on the way each actor uses the tools and allows the creation of the list of competencies per actor. The second considers how actors interrelate with each other and the use they do of tools for interacting. This type of analysis suggests a sort of "collective competencies" that need to be considered in a multi-actor dynamics where an actor cannot perform a specific competency if the other actors do not support him by performing their related competencies. Otherwise said, it would be very difficult to stipulate the competencies required by online learners to be successful, without considering their relation with the other actors and their competencies. This complex endeavor, that highlights the collective nature of online learning has been, to my knowledge, dimly explored by studies on competencies, and may benefit to be regarded from a modeling approach.

The scene becomes more intricate when one considers that each actor can play various roles during the online learning process. Playing different roles means using the tools in different ways because in a learning context, different actors can use the same tools for different purposes. Online learners for example, may use a learning-object repository to search information; for the instructional designer the interest could be to reference his/her work in order to reuse it later; the instructor may analyze materials for further use, and the manager could use the repository to track the updating of materials.

From a learner-centered perspective, online learners are in charge of selecting learning strategies appropriate to their goals and preferences, finding their own resources, building up social interaction that will provide instructional scaffolding, and managing their own learning. The online learner, as an actor, is therefore asked to perform roles that usually were the exclusive realm of other actors in the learning process. The instructional designer was in charge to provide the pedagogical strategies and design the materials; the instructor was accountable of the knowledge and the strategies to deliver it, whereas the manager controlled and administered the operations.

The roles of online learners change during the learning process, which in turn modifies the required competencies for each of the actors, just like in a structure of variable geometry. Therefore, it is essential to consider the online learner competencies within a non-static learning context.

Are Online Learners Getting What They Want/Need?

Several authors in this website have outlined the diversity of interests of online learners, as well as the numerous contexts in which the learning process can take place making it difficult to categorize the type of expectations that online learners may have. Moreover, expectations are not always clear or easy to express and it would be particularly challenging to find some of the competencies required to fulfill a certain goal.

It would be naive to think that competencies are THE solution for an online learner to be successful. Let's remember that one of the main functions of competencies is to give objective guidelines to recruit and assess personnel. To which extent developing certain skills such as self-assessment, autonomy and flexibility, represent the learner's innermost interests?

The reflections on the online learner competencies need to be extended into a society perspective, "since the concept of competence involves some reference to desired or required performance, the question may now be put of who desires or requires that performance." (Holmes)


Bannon, L. (1997). Activity Theory. Interaction Design Centre. University of Limerick

Henri, F., and Lundgren-Cayrol, K. Henri, France ; Lundgren-Cayrol, Karin. Apprentissage collaboratif à distance : pour comprendre et concevoir les environnements d'apprentissage virtuels. Sainte-Foy (Québec, Canada) : Presses de l'Université du Québec, 2001, 181 p.

Holmes, L. (1992). Understanding professional competence: Beyond the limits of functional analysis. Prepared for Course Tutors' Conference, Institute of Personnel Management at UMIST, 6-8 July 1992.

Klein, J. D., Spector, J. M., Grabowski, B., & de la Teja, I. (2004). Instructor competencies: Standards for face-to-face, online, and blended settings. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Nardi, Bonnie A. (ed.). (1996) Context and consciousness: Activity theory and human-computer interaction. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1996.

Paquette, G. (2002). Modélisation des connaissances et des compétences, Presses de l'Universite du Quebec. St-Foy, Quebec.


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Far left: AECT President Wes Miller kicking off the dialogue at the Presidential Panel Session at the AECT Convention in Orlando, Florida, on October 22, 2005. Behind the table, from left to right: Jeroen van Merrënboer, Michael Beaudoin,
Deb LaPointe and John Bransford.

Audio files of the panel session

For the benefit of those who were unable to attend the panel session, we make available below the audio files (in MP3 format) of the successive segments of the session. Sound files are large and will thus take time to download (some may take several minutes, even on a broadband connection and considerably longer via a dial-up connection). Your best approach to downloading a file will be to right-click on the link and then choose 'save target as' to save the file to your desktop or any directory of your choice before listening to it. Sound files are in the MP3 format and are thus compatible with most audio players. All recordings are in stereo. It will thus be of help to use headphones when listening to the discussion sessions so as to better separate the different voices.

Opening remarks by AECT President, Wes Miller (0.42 MB - 1m 10s)

Introduction about the session by Jan Visser (2.18 MB - 6m 20s)

Introduction about ibstpi by Michael Spector (1.57 MB - 4m 32s)

Presentation by John Bransford (3.44 MB - 10m 00s)

Presentation by Deb LaPointe (3.12 MB - 9m 01s)

Presentation by Michael Beaudoin (4.68 MB - 13m 37s)

Presentation by Jeroen van Merriënboer (4.08 MB - 11m 52s)
PowerPoint slides used in support of the above presentation are available here.

Dialogue - 1st part (9.61 MB - 28m 03s)

Dialogue - 2nd part (8.76 MB - 25m 19s)

Wrap-up by Diana Stirling + closing remarks by Wes Miller (2.10 MB - 6m 01s)

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