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The Design of Online Learning: Technology versus Pedagogy or Technology and Pedagogy

Page history last edited by Ayman Gad 7 years, 9 months ago

The Design of Online Learning: Technology versus Pedagogy or Technology and Pedagogy







Since the beginning of online learning in the early 1990s, the technology vs. pedagogy debate has been going on. Which shapes the other? Does technology shape pedagogy or does pedagogy shape technology? In other words, is learning influenced more by the educational technologies used in the online learning environments or by the instructional strategies teachers use to deliver the content? In this paper, I will be trying to answer these questions investigating the role of technology and pedagogy in the e-learning design process.  Furthermore, I will present some models for e-learning course design that integrate technology and pedagogy in the design process.



The Role of Technology


There is no doubt that technology has extremely influenced both the online teaching and the learning processes.  VLEs, blogs, wikis, podcasts and the other mobile learning technologies have significantly facilitated access to knowledge anytime and everywhere.  Ally (2003)states that online learning solves the problems of time zones, location, and distance by making use of synchronous and asynchronous online learning tools.Moreover, online learning facilitates “situated learning” through enabling online learners to apply what they study in their own contexts (Ally 2008).


Although technology has virtually solved the problems of time zones, location and distance, there is still a crucial part that,if not accomplished, could negatively affect the learning process; namely interaction. According to the 'engagement theory', "technology can achieve certain types of engagement and interactions that would otherwise not be possible (Kearsley&Shneiderman, 1999)"(Beldarrain 2006, 147). Furthermore, Beldarrain 2006 argues that  technology, in addition to facilitating interaction, can also customize the level of interaction and allow the learner not only to interact, but also to control the way he interacts. Thus, technology, in this sense, goes beyond the role of facilitating online teaching and learning into influencing theory and reshaping pedagogical and instructional practices.


Clark (1983) and Schramm (1977) hold an opposing opinion that views learning technologies as tools or vehicles which convey the content and do not affect learning. They think that it is the content and the instructional strategies that highly affect learning and not the delivery tool.



The Role of Pedagogy


With the advent of CMC technologies and online teaching and learning, the need for different teaching methodologies and approaches arose. Palloff and Pratt (2007) argue that “it is not the curriculum we are converting but our teaching methodology; when our pedagogy changes, so must the course”(Palloff & Pratt 2007, 130). In the early practice of online education, many academic institutions did not have teaching methodologies specifically designed for online teaching and learning.  Academics and instructors used to convert their face-to-face teaching content into an online class without adjusting it to fit the completely different mode of delivery.  This “curriculum conversion” has proven to be unsuitable and inapplicable obviously because it ignored the different nature of the new medium. (Palloff & Pratt 2007). 


Caplan and Graham (2008) criticize this text-based approach to online course design as it does not utilize the "multi-modal, computer-mediated instructional means that are available".  They also criticize the pedagogical value of the discussion forums and chats that supplement such courses as they are usually implemented as "extras" and not as core components of the course(Caplan & Graham 2008, 247). They stress the importance of pedagogy in the design and practice of wed-based instruction. As Caplan and Graham (2008, p. 251) state:


"One way to address concerns about inferior pedagogy online is to dictate that the same educational standards must apply to the development of instruction for the Internet as to any other delivery medium, such as the classroom."




Palloff and Pratt`s Model


Palloff and Pratt (2007) mention four steps that are essential when creating a curriculum for an online course: "(1) defining outcomes and objectives, (2) choosing appropriate reading material, assignments, and tasks, (3) establishing a topic-driven course outline, and (4) developing and aligning assessment of activities with outcomes and objectives”(Palloff & Pratt 2007, 130).


Although these four steps are almost the same as those involved in creating a curriculum for a face-to-face course, Palloff and Pratt insist on implementing them all over again when designing an online course "rather than simply move the course from one medium to another." (Palloff and Pratt 2007: P.130).  In my opinion, the reimplementation of the four steps is really important as when instructors and curriculum designers start these steps all over again, they will find out the differences between the two mediums.  Accordingly, adjustments will be made to ensure the suitability of the course content, objectives and assessment to the new mode of delivery.



Salmon`s Model


Salmon (2002) realized this need for a pedagogical framework for CMC and online teaching and learning.  Early in 1998, she carried out an action research in the Open University of the United Kingdom trying to address some of the problems that take place in online teaching and learning. From her action research, Salmon built a five-step model of teaching and learning through CMC as follows; stage one: access and motivation, stage two: online socialization, stage three: information exchange, stage four: knowledge construction, and stage five: development (Salmon 2000, 23).


In her five-stage model, Salmon depicts the gradual improvement of the learner from a novice freshman who is confused and reluctant as s/he makes his first steps into the online world in stage one, into a more independent learner who is not only able to communicate confidently and efficiently through CMC technologies and tools, but also able to reflect on his learning processes and evaluate the effectiveness of the technology. In each of the five steps, Salmon describes the characteristics of the learning process, the changing roles of both teachers and learners, and the pedagogical and technological requirements during each step.  Moreover, she explains the problems that usually happen during each step and some possible solutions to deal with these problems. In this regard, Salmon points out that "The chief benefit of using the model to design a course with CMC is that you know how participants are likely to exploit the system at each stage and you can avoid common pitfalls"(Salmon 2000, 26).


Thus, I would like to suggest, here, a combination of the two models that can achieve the benefits of both; the well-organized curriculum and the learner-centered environment.  The modification of Palloff and Pratt`s steps based on Salmon`s model can also compromise the battle between both the advocates of the learner-centered approach and the teacher-centered approach. For example, step two in Palloff and Pratt`s model, “choosing appropriate reading material, assignments, and tasks “should be shared between both the instructor and the learners in order to give the learners more responsibility and help them to be independent learners.  The selection of reading materials, assignments, and tasks should not be left completely to the learners as they don’t have the experience and the knowledge of the discipline that make them choose the appropriate textbooks.Weimer (2002, 28) argues that When teaching is learner-centered, power is shared rather than transferred wholesale. Faculty still make key decisions about learning, but they no longer make all decisions and not always without student input”.Furthermore, learners should also be given the chance to participate in step three; “establishing a topic-driven course outline “as this helps give them a feeling of ownership of the content they are learning.  Yet, steps one, “defining outcomes and objectives” and four, “developing and aligning assessment of activities with outcomes and objectives” should be the teacher’s responsibility.



It is obvious that the systematic framework that Palloff and Pratt introduce in their model is really essential to create and maintain a successful online course; nonetheless, its application might result in a teacher-centered learning environment as we can see throughout the four steps that all the decisions are made by the instructor. Contrary to that, actually, Salmon's model is in alignment with constructivism as a theory of learning and, consequently, its best application has to be conducted in a learner-centered environment.  However, Salmon`s model lacks the sound and organized structure that Palloff and Pratt have in their model.



The Integration of Technology and Pedagogy


Laurillard (2002) states that the starting point when designing any teaching or learning materials for any educational medium should be identifying the learning objectives and student learning needs. To be able to understand students’ difficulties, we need to know their current understanding of the topic so that we can make the link between what they really need and what we can do to address their needs.  In order to accomplish this link, she stresses the role of methodology over theory as, according to her, there is no such a sufficient theory that could bridge the gap between the learning objectives and the instructional practices. For this, she proposes a "methodological approach to design that is based on principled teaching strategy, using the Conversational Framework to link educational media to learning activities"(Laurillard 2002, 182).


Beldarrain (2006) suggests that “The rapid growth of online education worldwide has prompted the need to revise delivery structures and re-think pedagogical practices that were once appropriate" (Beldarrain 2006, 140). He refers to the integration of technology and pedagogy as a consequence of the changing role of today’s learners.  According to Beldarrain, “Today`s learners demand more control of the learning experience when they need it; how they need it" (Beldarrain 2006, 142). As a result, teachers are required to make use of emerging technologies that foster social interaction in order to facilitate the knowledge construction experience. 


Beldarrain (2006) asserts the integration of teaching models that foster social interaction like blogs and wikis when designing e-learning courses. According to Beldarrain “Technology is responsible for distorting the concept of distance between learner and instructor, and enabling learner to access education at any time and from any place"(Beldarrain 2006, 139) .Moreover, Watson (2002) argues that technology alone will not promote learning; however, the successful integration of technology into instructional practices can enhance the learning process.


Conole et al. (2004) present a model for e-learning design that supports the integration between pedagogy and instructional tools through the "articulation and mapping of different pedagogical processes, tools and techniques" and they argue that this approach can achieve the inter-relation between theory, learning, and instructional tools.Moreover, the pedagogically driven approach ensures flexibility and consistency with teachers' learning and teaching epistemologies.  The proposed model consists of the following stages:


1. Reviewing learning theories

2. Identifying common characteristics across different learning theories

3. Building a model using these characteristics

4. Mapping learning theories to the model and identifying learning theory clusters

5. Applying and testing the model and developing a learning design toolkit for mapping learning

     theories to learning activities and associated mediating tools and resources

(Conole G. et al. 2004, 21)






The ongoing debate over whether technology or pedagogy should take the lead in the e-learning design process has reached the conclusion that technology and pedagogy should not be considered separately.  The integration is inevitable due to the rapid and continuous reproduction of educational technologies and the changing nature of the learner in the age of communications revolution. The technology, the content, and the learner have their own demands which could be inconsistent with educational theories and instructional pedagogies.  Hence, the role of design becomes crucial to achieve a flexible and consistent integration between technology, content and pedagogy.


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Ally, Mohamed. (2008). "Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning." In The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, by Terry Anderson, 15-44. AU Press, Athabasca University.

Beldarrain, Yoany. (2006) "Distance Education Trends: Integrating new technologies to foster student interaction and collaboration." Distance Education: 139-153.

Caplan & Graham. (2008).  "The Development of Online Courses." In The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, by Terry Anderson, 245-263. AU Press, Athabasca University.

Conole G. et al.  (2004). "Mapping Pedagogy and Tools for Effective Learning Design." Computers & Education: 17–33.

Laurillard, Diana. (2002).  Rethinking University Teaching : A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies. Taylor & Francis e-Library.

Palloff & Pratt. (2007).  Building Online Learning Communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Salmon, Gilly. (2000).  E-moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. London: Kogan Page Limited.

Watson, G.  (2002). "Models of Information Technology: teacher professional development that engage teachers' hearts and minds." Journal of Information Technology for Teacher Education: 179-191.


Ayman Gad

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