December 1998 // Vision
Shifting Perspectives in Educational Technology
by Dirk Rodenburg
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Dirk Rodenburg "Shifting Perspectives in Educational Technology" The Technology Source, December 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

When we begin to seriously discuss what it means to learn, some interesting things happen. Although we begin by feeling that we share some understanding of what learning means, it rapidly becomes clear that there is a broad range of perspectives, each passionately articulated and defended. Our differing constructs of learning have profound implications for how we approach each educational moment, whether we are acting as faculty member, student, or administrator. As institutions seek to incorporate educational technology into a coherent and sustainable extension of their teaching and learning practices, some effort should be spent in a discourse that considers pedagogical frameworks and perspectives, their validity, and their application.

Pedagogical Frameworks and Educational Technology

There has, over the last 20 years or so, been a shift in pedagogical perspectives from a "transmission" model (the idea that learning is essentially the assimilation of information) to the adoption of a more "constructivist" framework (the idea that learning is an active process of constructing meaning on the part of each individual learner). This shift is essentially driven by two theoretical forces:

  • cognitive science research, from which human knowledge is understood to be highly complex, idiosyncratic, and, in the case of expertise, often tacit, and
  • social educational theory espoused by groups such as feminist and radical educators, from which knowledge is understood to be personally, socially, culturally, and politically indexed.

Educational technology has also shifted as these perspectives have emerged. Three additional theoretical frameworks have significantly impacted upon the discourse concerning educational practice and technology: constructivism, situated cognition, and cognitive apprenticeship.


A very important theoretical perspective, developed and influenced largely by science teaching, is constructivism. This perspective asserts that knowledge is constructed by the learner, not passively received or assimilated. Meaningful knowledge is the result of active reflection and integration on the part of the learner, and is best accomplished by means of tasks that bear some relationship to real-world experiences. Effective instruction, therefore, aims at asking the learner to model the world, predict outcomes, and attempt to reconcile actual outcomes with predictions based on the student's own cognitive model. Consequently, learners must actively engage in meta-cognition—"thinking about their own thinking." This means fostering chances for the articulation of, and reflection on, their own conceptual models.

Situated Cognition and Cognitive Apprenticeship

Two other theoretical pedagogical perspectives—arguably sharing constructivist theory—have recently emerged: situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship. Situated cognition states that usable knowledge is indexed by real-world experience; most real-world problems do not have clearly delineated solutions, but rather blurry or "gray" edges that can only be effectively solved in situations. Solving real-world problems often depends on the best compromise between competing demands. Therefore, learning should be accomplished in a real-world context.

Cognitive apprenticeship is the recognition that learning an intellectual task should be supported in the same way apprentices learn trades: through a process of expert modeling and appropriately scaled support.

Extending the Paradigm

These theoretical frameworks are presented not as dictates for instructional design, but rather as ways in which the concepts of instructional design might be extended to help instructors design better online teaching materials. In my experience within both university and corporate educational technology arenas, I have encountered some common practices that can be problematic in terms of student engagement and learning. These include:

  1. A lack of multiple and repeated contexts for the representation of content, and consequently support for longer-term retention of the material; content is likely to be viewed once and not revisited. Good design should focus on ensuring that the learner is given the opportunity to revisit and apply core concepts throughout each learning experience.
  2. The implicit assumption that all material should be viewed by the student before the assessment component is engaged in. Most approaches to online learning use the formula: access a module, read/view/listen to the material, complete the assessment. There are usually a complete distinction and separation made between content and assessment. It may be far more effective to embed some forms of assessment directly into the learning material in a way that engages learners to apply new and previously learned concepts, especially within "real world" contexts.
  3. The infrequent use of assessment as an instructional strategy.
  4. The infrequent use of pre- and post-assessment analyses as the basis for determining instructional need.
  5. A lack of focus on the interrelationships between concepts. A learning system offers the ability to link to—and integrate—content elements between modules or courses that cannot easily be accommodated within a paper-based delivery system, but this advantage is seldom exploited.

Implications for Educational Technology

Structuring content for an online environment is deceptively complex. Many instructional designers see the process of structuring content as simply one of successively "atomizing" what needs to learned into a categorical/hierarchical order of discrete elements. This order can be a useful, productive, and legitimate way of representing information, but a greater challenge lies on the opposite side of the coin: making sure that content is integrated into a meaningful conceptual whole. Meaningful learning, even in a purely training context, is not about absorbing isolated curricular components, but about struggling to understand, at a conceptual level, the underlying context and principles that relate that information to a larger picture.

The instructional needs of a target population center on context, communication, support for practice, and clear and unambiguous feedback in terms of learning outcomes.

Context is the authenticity of the learning experience; in other words, matching the working experience of the learners with the matrix in which the instructional objectives are embedded. This determines how well the tasks in the learning environment reflect the real world.

Communication is the interface through which the instructional materials are accessed and presented. It thus includes both interface design and imagery and the instructional media used. The critical factor in communication is ensuring that learners know where they are at all times regarding the instructional content and instructional intent. A well-designed learning system can provide dynamic support for both navigation and presentation of content.

Support for practice is a key determinant in the retention of information. The focus should be on the authentic representation of real tasks relating to appropriately delimited segments of content. There should also be support for both elemental and integrated learning. Games, simulations, predictive reasoning, and traditional assessment can all play a role in this process.

Learning outcome representation is critical for ensuring that learners retain a clear conceptual picture of their progress through the instructional material. Multimedia technology can support this in a variety of methods and formats. In addition, the essence of self-paced learning is ensuring that a review of recently-learned material is always easily accessible.

Teaching should focus on ensuring that content is meaningfully integrated into a solid and sustained conceptual framework. Understanding and adopting several principles may assist in achieving that goal.

  • What is perceived and attended to is idiosyncratically determined by a learner's prior knowledge, experiences, and frameworks; ultimately, the meaningfulness of new information is determined by the degree to which it can be linked to existing knowledge frameworks.

  • "Activating" prior knowledge is an important part of teaching new material; learners must be actively coached or mentored to understand how to articulate existing cognitive models, and how to integrate new information into extending and reshaping these models.

  • Learners need a high-level view of the material to be learned in order to provide a conceptual framework into which new material can be integrated. The "cognitive load" that learners can carry is based on their level of expertise. Novice learners cannot attend to more than a very small amount of material at any one time. This amount increases with expertise.

  • The axiom "less is more" is an important consideration in terms of the trade-off between learning outcomes and the amount of presented material, especially in the case of novice learners. The amount of supported practice is a critical determinant of learning, especially during the early stages of learning.

  • Lower-level cognition and psychomotor skills must achieve some degree of automaticity before higher-order skills can be successfully learned and utilized. This does not, however, negate or deny the importance of higher-level conceptual frameworks.

Ultimately, online learning development should focus on supporting and fostering the active participation of the student in constructing personally meaningful representations of the material. It is not simply a matter of breaking down the content into constituent components, but about asking the student to think about what he or she already knows and the extent to which these existing models make sense, reconciling differences between the predictive accuracy of these and alternative models, determining and refining first principles, and integrating new information into coherent frameworks. When these processes are supported, then online learning moves beyond the function of a reference source to become a true semblance of teaching.

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