Understanding learning in the online environment

Course Details

Course code: EDUA11145

Course leader: Clara O'Shea


This course seeks to provide an introduction to the various theories that have been developed to help us understand how people learn, form personal understandings and construct knowledge. Although not addressing course design per se, it will consider the ways in which understanding of the processes of learning can inform the practices of teaching. The view will be presented that learning online is not fundamentally different from learning through other media and in other settings, but will also explore the potential for online approaches to alter the social and interactional aspects of learning.

Please note: This course will not be offered in the academic year 2020/21

Learning Outcomes

On completion of the course, participants will be able to:

  • demonstrate a critical understanding of a range of theoretical perspectives which have been developed to understand learning
  • analyse and assess these perspectives in terms of the insights they offer into the nature of learning in online environments
  • critically evaluate these perspectives, and synthesise their knowledge into an understanding of the implications for the participant's own practice


The course is structured into ten weekly sections.

Week 1: Getting started and orientation.

Week 2: Cognition
Cognition refers to the processes of thought and reason – clearly central to the business of learning. We will consider a number of theoretical models which have emerged over time to help us to understand cognitive processes, and how these relate to learning. This progression has moved from an initial concern with the behavioural consequences and outward manifestations of learning, to a concerns with mental representations of knowledge and understanding. We will also consider the nature of memory, and the way in which selective attention, and existing knowledge structures, will influence what is, or is not, remembered. This understanding of the mind as a limited capacity processor leads to the notion that a certain cognitive load, describable in terms of the rate and the nature of information arrival, will be optimal for good learning.

Week 3: Knowledge
Here we consider the nature of knowledge, its non-equivalence to “information” or “facts”, and the way in which too much information may be inimical to the formation of understanding and the solving of problems. Technologies may be implicated in this phenomenon of “information overload”; both as a root cause, but also as a possible route to addressing the problem. This then raises questions about how best technologies should best be used in the service of education, and how education, and its objectives, might need to change in the presence of ubiquitous information technologies, and access to the Internet. Education, and the development of expertise in a particular knowledge domain, has never been about the accumulation of facts, but rather about the way in which we handle information within that domain.

Week 4: Active learning
Learning is an active and not a passive process.  It is about construction and not simply accumulation.  It comes through active exploration of the world, both physical and social, leading to the creation of personal meaning through experience.  Experience changes the learner, which has implications for future learning.  Thus learning is a disruptive, and potentially disturbing, process.  It is also the case that “good” learning in the past will facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge, which “faulty” learning – the development of misconceptions – can block the progress of deeper understanding. The process of teaching therefore is the business of helping learners to encounter useful and formative experiences, through which learning will occur.  It may also be about conveying excitement about a topic which can, in turn, stimulate the learner to want to engage; and affective rather than a cognitive matter. Learning then can be characterised as a cyclical process in which active exploration provides perceptual information which, when reflected upon will generate theories about the world which are tested out through further active experience.

Week 5: Distributed cognition
Action in the world will always have a particular context, and may be performed with the aid of some tool which augments our physical strength, manual dexterity, or cognitive processing capacity.  The idea of ‘tool’ here can usefully be extended to include psychological structures in our minds (for example, the ability to use language to explain and share a plan), or it may be that our ends can only be achieved in concert with one of more other social actors.  It may be that the ability to perform some act in the world is not held within the mind of some one individual, but rather distributed across the minds of several individuals who can be shown to be able to achieve the act only when working in collaboration.

Week 6: Social Learning
Humans are highly social beings.  We are intensely interested in the intentions and relationships of others in our social world, and consume media entertainments that are based on these interests.  We are also inclined to emulate others, and to learn through imitation, paying particular regard to those that we consider to be admirable in some way, or of high social status. Being interested in learning, we might want to pay attention to the cultural notion of the viral ‘meme’ – the image or idea that is transmitted rapidly and widely, as if by some form of contagion – which is seen to spread through communication media, particularly the World-Wide Web.  Our learning is generally socially located and motivated.  Learning is supported by others, and we value learning for what it enables us to achieve in the social world.  Domains of knowledge are set within ‘communities of practice’ and ‘affinity groups’ which promote learning and participation within the group, making learning a fundamental matter of identity construction; of ‘becoming’, as much as ‘knowing’.

Week 7: Learning and identity
New learning changes the way we think about ourselves.  This may be a positive experience, as we come to think of ourselves as more competent, while bad experiences of learning may cause us to think of ourselves as not being ‘the sort of person’ who is competent in a particular field of endeavour. Learning is therefore about ‘belonging’, as coming to think about oneself as a particular sort of person will carry with it ideas of affinity and affiliation. 

Week 8: Motivation
Motivationis about our understanding of what moves us to act. When our present state differs from some desired state, we experience a motive force. This idea returns us to thinking of education as both a disruptive and a stimulating experience; we are motivated to learn, and at the same time new learning brings further motivation to resolve the discord between old and new ideas. Ideas about motivation are closely related to an understanding of the impact of reward on behaviour. The virtue of external reward in relation to learning is a deeply contested subject; providing students with extrinsic reasons to engage in learning activity may not always be a good thing. However we may have to overcome initial reluctance to engage by the provision of some form of incentive.

Week 9: Individual differences
A learner-centred approach to education must involve some consideration of the ways in which learners might differ, and thus have different needs for support and encouragement. Differences in the intellectual ability of learners may be much less important than the beliefs that learners (and teachers) have about those abilities. What we believe about intellectual ability will influence and constrain how we approach the business of learning and study, as will our beliefs about the nature of knowledge, and the processes of learning. Whether or not we are prepared to seek help when it is needed will have a profound effect on the outcome of a learning endeavour. The teacher will have a role to play in helping the learner effectively to understand the impact of some of these influences, and effectively to manage them.

Week 10: Learning development
The presence of technologies in our world changes things.  It changes how we approach learning, what it is that we need to learn, and how we should best develop as learners.  Technologies can be applied to the automation of tasks related to conventional practices, or to the augmentation of our intellectual capacities thus radically changing the nature of some practices.  Technologies can thus be deployed in ways that are conservative, or powerfully transformative.  


There are four elements of assessment on this course. 

Participation (10% of your final mark). Quality and quantity of participation in the asynchronous discussion activity of the course will be assessed.

Learner analysis (20% of your final mark).Participants will write an analysis of a learner group with which they have worked, or anticipate working.  This account will consider the support needs of this learner group.  This piece will be a maximum of 1000 words long +/- 10%.  An element of peer assessment and feedback will be included in this assignment.

Learning challenge (20% of your final mark). Participants will write an account of the progression of a ‘learning challenge’ – a piece of new learning upon which they have embarked for the purposes of the course.  This account will address what has been learned about the nature of the learning process, and about the participant as a learner.  This piece will be a maximum of 1000 words long +/-.

Essay (50% of your final mark). Participants will write an essay on some topic from the course.  A list of essay questions will be decided by discussion among the course group, and each course member will choose one of these questions to address in a piece of writing of maximum 2500 words long +/-.

Teaching Methods

Participants will engage with the course through guided reading and personal research.  The primary medium of communication on the course will be asynchronous discussion through text discussion on the course virtual learning environment.  Structured assessment activities provide a central element of the learning process of the course.


Indicative content can be found in :

Carey, B. (2014). How we learn : the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. Macmillan.

Gee, J. P. (2013). The anti-education era : creating smarter students through digital learning.  Macmillan.  

Norman, Donald A (2013) The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition.  Basic books.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don't students like school? : a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom. John Wiley.



As with all courses, you will be required to have regular access to a computer with a good broadband connection, and will be responsible for providing your own computing equipment and consumables. All core and some additional readings will be provided online.