EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 1
Emerging Learning Theories and Discussion Boards
Erin Markus & Nancy O’Sullivan
Boise State University
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 2
As students and higher education place more emphasis on technology in distance
learning, there is a need for analyzing learning theories to best accommodate this
expansion. This paper is intended to examine the use of emerging learning theories in
building a community of learners through the use of discussion boards in adult online
classes. Learning theories such as social constructivism, connectivism, transactional
distance and andragogy will be explored as a framework in developing a best practice list
for instructors in developing their online discussion boards.
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 3
Although education is constantly changing and new theories are emerging, nothing has
affected these changes as much as the integration of technology in the educational setting. Not
only are schools integrating computers and multimedia into their classrooms, but workplace
training and professional development has greatly benefited from the advent of technology.
Today we have access to a variety of technologies, both within our educational setting and in
our personal lives. Computer technology is woven into our lives through various means.
Computers are located in everything from cellular phones to cars. Our world is guided by
computer technology over and beyond CPU’s and keyboards. In order for students to grow in
their educational field and become successful, having fundamental knowledge of how computers
affect our lives is crucial. Having the fundamental ability to maneuver through basic computing
and technical equipment will benefit the student by teaching them how to utilize tools that can
greatly enhance their ability to perform well in any situation, both educational and professional.
Community of Learners
There is a need to understand the meaning of community so we may promote the concept in
our learning environments. According to Snyder (2009) learning communities are places where
participants share common interests and sharing of knowledge. “The goal of a learning
community is to advance collective knowledge by supporting the growth of individual
knowledge” (p. 49). It has been suggested that a community has four dimensions:
a. Spirit- there is a sense of belonging, membership and acceptance
b. Trust- establishing group norms, order and trust.
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 4
c. Trade- there is a benefit for each member and shared values.
d. Art- there is an emotional connection in time and space (McMillan, 1996).
Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews and Smith (1990) suggest that a common definition of
learning communities is:
“Any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses---
or actually restructure the material entirely---so that students have opportunities for
deeper understanding and integration of the material they are learning, and more
interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning
Benefit of Building a Community
A community of learners is a group of people who support each other in their collective and
individual learning. They are cooperative and can work productively together. Individually, they
are motivated and strive to do quality work. Since they know they are going to be encouraged to
take risks and be supported if they do not succeed the first time they try something new, they
challenge themselves, and they view mistakes as learning experiences which will make their later
attempts successful. A community of learners can include all levels of learners, because
everyone is learning, not competing. And, best of all, a true classroom community of learners
allows the teacher to learn as well as the students (Benson, 2008).
There are two approaches to building a learning community: the top-down structure in which
the hierarchical structure of teacher (boss, leader) and student (employee, follower) stays intact
and the bottom-up structure in which the hierarchical structure is dissolved and all participants
can take on the role of teacher or learner at any given time (Benson, 2008). Benson explains that,
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 5
“a bottoms-up approach provides workers and students more control over their environment with
the potential of leading to improved results and more efficient decision making practices” (p.
A theory is a hypothesis that describes, speculates, or defines a relationship between a set of
facts by utilizing principles, policies, beliefs, or assumptions. The world in which we live is
increasingly sophisticated, multifaceted and nuanced. People need high-level learning skills to
respond, learn and adjust to ever-changing circumstances. As the world grows increasingly
complex success and prosperity will be linked to people’s ability to think, act, adapt and
communicate creatively (Stratham & Torell, 1996).
With the changes in technology, students’ preferences and our mode of learning (distance
education) we need to look at new instructional designs and/or learning theories to guide us
(Snyder, 2009). Theories act as models or frameworks from which we can effectively design and
implement teaching pedagogies to enhance student learning. In particular, distance education
needs a new framework. As Kearsley (1998) stated, “Educators fail to understand that distance
education is really about creating a different kind of structure for learning and teaching” (p. 49).
We look to new learning theories, such as connectivism, transactional distance and andragogy to
help guide us through this educational shift. There are many reasons why a new theory is
created; perhaps an older theory doesn’t quite answer questions about learners or maybe the old
theory leaves out an explanation for cognition within the brain (Fouts, 2000).
Constructivism is a philosophy of learning founded on the premise that, by reflecting on our
experiences, we construct our own understanding of the world we live in. Each of us generates
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 6
our own “rules” and “mental models,” which we use to make sense of our experiences. Learning,
therefore, is simply the process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new
experiences. Constructivism calls for the elimination of a standardized curriculum. Instead, it
promotes using curricula customized to the students’ prior knowledge. Also, it emphasizes
hands-on problem solving.
Under the theory of constructivism, educators focus on making connections between facts
and fostering new understandings in students. Instructors tailor their teaching strategies to
student responses and encourage students to analyze, interpret, and predict information. Teachers
also rely heavily on open-ended questions and promote extensive dialogue among students.
Constructivism calls for the elimination of grades and standardized testing. Instead, assessment
becomes part of the learning process so that students play a larger role in judging their own
In 2005, George Siemens founded the theory of connectivism. Siemens (2005) states,
“Learning occurs through the diversity of opinions and that the “capacity to know is more critical
than what is already known” (p. 1). An important skill that will aid in learning is the ability to
connect different ideas and concepts between varieties of fields (Siemens, 2005). Kop and Hill
(2008) suggest that being in a variety of learning communities will help students make
connections between different sources and increase their knowledge base.
“The learning process is cyclical, in that learners will connect to a network to share and
find new information, will modify their beliefs on the basis of new learning, and will then
connect to a network to share these realizations and find new information once more.
Learning is considered a . . . knowledge creation process . . . not only knowledge
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 7
consumption. One’s personal learning network is formed on the basis of how one’s
connection to learning communities are organized by a learner” (p. 2).
Another skill critical to connectivism is the ability to filter out information and make
decisions on what is credible and important to know (Siemens, 2005). New information is
growing exponentially and the life of knowledge is now measured in months and years
(Gonzales, 2004). What is known as fact today will not necessarily be fact tomorrow, therefore it
will be important for students to stay up- to- date with quality information and have the ability to
organize this information.
Connectivism is an emerging theory that helps integrate our new world of ongoing changes
in information, technology, and our knowledge of learning. Students will learn by creating
environments where copious information can be discussed, reviewed and “experienced” through
connections in a group environment. A good example of applying the theory of connectivism
into our own course objectives is our weekly discussion postings. In this course, we have used a
weekly discussion board to focus on a topic and learn from each other. The discussion boards
give us, as students, a chance to view others’ opinions about the topic, and to share our
comments and ideas with our classmates. When using discussion boards, we learn about new
ideas, best practices, and personal experiences of classmates. All of this information helps us
grow in our own education and profession.
Transactional distance was defined by Moore (1993) as “the universe of teacher-learner
relationships that exist when learners are separated by timespace and/or time” (p. 22).
Transactional distance theory is a pedagogical concept that helps explain patterns of learner and
teacher behaviors when distance and space are presented. Moore (1993) states “With separation
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 8
there is a psychological and communications space to be crossed, a space of potential
misunderstanding between the inputs of instructor and those of the learner. It is this
psychological and communications space that is the transactional distance.” (p. 22).
It is possible for transactional distance to happen in the classroom, but it is usually thought
of as a way to research and understand variables in distance education. The importance of
learning about transactional distance theory (TDT) is to enable instructors and students to be
effective at distance learning.
There are three key variables in TDT, which include: dialog, structure and learner autonomy.
Dialog is described as the positive interactions between the teacher and the student. The second
variable is course structure. There are many elements that are taken into consideration when
designing the structure of the course such as, philosophy and personality of the instructor,
characteristics of the learners, environment and media will all have an effect on the design of the
course (Moore, 1993). As Moore (1993) states “Structure expresses the rigidity or flexibility of
the programme's educational objectives, teaching strategies, and evaluation methods. It describes
the extent to which an education programme can accommodate or be responsive to each learner's
individual needs” (p. 23). The third component of the TDT is learner autonomy. How
independent is the learner and to what extent are they willing to determine their own goals. It is
up to instructors to move students from being dependant on the teacher to being more self-
sufficient as the class progresses.
Though, Grosky and Caspi (2005) do not believe TDT is a theory, they do suggest that
understanding transactional distance is important to understanding learning in distance
education. It is important to understand the variables that contribute to transactional distance so
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 9
that we are able as instructors and instructional designers to bridge the gap of space and time in
order for students to feel connected and able to learn and explore during online classes.
Malcolm Knowles introduced the student centered andragogy model for adult learning in
1973. It is important to understand this theory in terms of distance education (DE) since the
majority of DE students are between the ages of 25 and 50. These students tend to be highly
motivated and task-oriented. Many have careers, family and other obligations. They bring to the
class unique life experiences that can be a valuable resource in the class community. It is
reasonable to assume that a different framework for designing and teaching should be
incorporated (Cercone, 2008).
There are five assumptions at the center of the andragogy model. Learners should: (1) know
why they should learn the material, (2) be shown how to direct themselves through information,
(3) relate the information to their personal experience, (4) know that they only learn when they
are ready and motivated to learn, and (5) ask for help in overcoming inhibitions, and beliefs
about learning (Cercone 2008). Since adult learners tend to be more autonomous, instructors
should act as facilitators and provide an organized framework to guide the students through the
instruction (Cercone, 2008).
Another characteristic of adult learners is the biological change in memory. As age
increases, there is a decline in short-term memory, which is the memory that creates links
between new and old information (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). It is important for instructors to
“chunk” information into small sizes and create reflective opportunities to link new and old
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 10
This model suggests that instructors provide learning activities that are grounded in real
world, case-base situations that are meaningful to adult learners (Huang, 2002). Adult learners
have more responsibilities requiring the use of their time, so instructional materials need to be
pertinent and structured to increase success among students (Huang, 2002). Huang (2002)
describes six instructional principles for adult learners:
Interactive Learning- it is important to interact with the instructor and peers and avoid
Collaborative Learning- constructing collective knowledge and social negotiation
Facilitative learning- providing a safe positive environment for sharing ideas and
Authentic Learning- create real-life learning experiences for students
Student Centered Learning- student constructs their own knowledge
High Quality Learning- emphasizes critical thinking skills and guided reflection
Andragogy learning theory is a way to better understand how adults learn. As Snyder (2009)
suggests, “These theories seek to explain how the process of learning as an adult differs from
learning as a child. They focus on describing how various social, psychological, emotional and
physiological factors affect adult learning” (p. 49).
A discussion board is an asynchronous environmental tool that provides an opportunity for
each individual to post a statement as well as to respond to the postings of other students; thus,
creating a discussion (Cox & Cox, 2008). Discussion boards are used in almost every online
educational platform as a place for student-student and student-teacher interaction and idea
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 11
sharing. The interactive discussion boards used by online courses create a sort of “social
network” that is contained within the class.
This tool is relatively simple for students to master and offers a means for electronic
dialogue. The instructor generally posts an open-ended, thought-provoking question that supports
the particular course material under consideration. Students then post a response to the initial
query. Postings in a discussion board are threaded. This means that within a discussion there can
be several topics being debated simultaneously and when students make their initial post, other
students can reply to a post by having the discussion appear indented under the main post thus
making it possible to reference original responses. Discussion boards can help students in
collaboration projects. As with face-to-face interactions, discussion boards give students an
additional social context to discern information about each other (Baker & Lund, 2007; Slagter
van Tryon & Bishop, 2009).
Discussion boards are widely used in online education. The level of interaction depends on
what the instructor deems necessary to achieve the common goal of the lesson. Below is a chart
of Discussion Board Best Practices to consider when designing a lesson around a discussion
Discussion Board Best Practices Chart
Best Practice Recommended Ideas Reference
Define and Communicate Convey the purpose of the discussion Snyder, 2009
Discussion Board Purpose board (DB) in your syllabus, email, Brown, 2001
podcast/vodcast and add announcement. Huang, 2002
Instructor Interaction There needs to be instructor interaction on Paloff & Pratt,
the DB, but too much interaction can have 2007
a negative effect on length and student-
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 12
student interaction. Convey your intended
interaction to the students.
Etiquette Guidelines Provide students with a set of guidelines Slagter van
that describe your expectations and Tryon & Bishop,
etiquette for DB. 2009
Time Guidelines for Posts It is helpful to post guidelines for initial posts and Ruey, 2010
reply posts concerning when and how many are
Students Input Ask students to post their expectations of Snyder, 2009
the DB. This encourages them to clarify
Build Rapport The first discussion on the board should Brown, 2001
be about building rapport and discovering
commonalities between students and
Public Sharing/Build Trust Early on, have students share a piece of Snyder, 2009
information that will contribute to the Huang, 2002
community’s goal. Have other students Slagter van
comment on the positives of the Tryon & Bishop,
Instructors need to be careful of harsh Gulati, 2008
grading as this may lead to distrust and
Encourage Students to ask Create a separate discussion board for Huang, 2002
Questions questions to the instructors so all can learn
from other students’ questions. Also,
create a “student lounge” where students
can ask other students for help or
Student Ownership Have students take turns in creating the Gulati, 2008
DB questions (instructor approval) and Allen, 2005
have students summarize the discussions Ruey, 2010
at the end.
Provide a Summary A summary of the DB is useful for Ruey, 2010
students and can be done by the instructor
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 13
or students taking turns to provide the
Time for Reflection Set the last DB as a time for closure and Snyder, 2009
reflection. What did they learn and how do
they plan to apply their new knowledge in
the real world.
Technology integration, if done properly, can do many things to help in the process of
creating more authentic learning environments. Many of the studies report, if the learning
environment is technologically rich, it can increase self-esteem and enthusiasm for learning
(Fouts, 2000). This can lead to more positive attitudes for learning, as well as lower absentee and
dropout rates. In fact, one study proved that having a more technologically rich learning
environment eventually lead to a higher rate in college attendance and scholarships (Stratham &
Torell, 1996). Technology integration has also been shown to help create more authentic learning
environments where the students are more motivated to attend, have a greater chance of
communication and collaboration and have more opportunities to use higher order thinking and
problem solving skills connected to real world applications (Fouts, 2000).
Online learning is changing the way we educate ourselves. There are not many professions
or jobs that do not utilize some sort of online, or computer integrated training. Online learning
has streamlined the process of educating others. In this paper we discussed how emerging
theories have contributed to the success of online education, specifically the use of discussion
boards being utilized in online courses. The success of online learning would not be possible
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 14
without a community of learners and educators working together towards a common goal.
According to Cercone (2008),
“Online learning will continue to grow in importance for adult learners. The challenge for
educators is to learn how to provide a positive “social” environment using an electronic
medium. Technology will continue to change as new technologies are developed.
Instructors will need to adapt, change, and continue to learn about how this “electronic”
environment can be used to foster a social atmosphere, and they will need to recognize
their role as change agents” (p. 152).
Social constructivism, connectivism, transactional distance and andragogy are important
learning theories to understand when incorporating a discussion board in higher education online
classes. Understanding these theories help instructors incorporate sound discussion board
guidelines that encourage building a community of learners. This connectedness will encourage
students to complete class objectives. To build a community of learners, it is suggested that
instructors follow researched practices regarding discussion boards such as: Defining the purpose
of the discussion board, expected interactions & etiquette, encouraging students to take
ownership, allowing time for building rapport and giving students time to reflect. These
guidelines along with understanding emerging learning theories will help provide the basis for
building a cohesive online learning community.
EMERGING LEARNING THEORIES AND DISCUSSION BOARDS 15
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