Communication Project Magazine

Volume 3.1 Summer 2000


Foundations of E-Learning

Marvin Gottlieb, PhD

2000 The Communication Project, Inc.


While I was formulating my thoughts for this brief excursion into some of the concepts that I believe should be underlying the development of e-learning events, I entered "e-learning" into the Yahoo search engine. As might be expected, 22,379 entries appeared. Without thoroughly examining them all, a cursory survey suggests that everyone from programmers to classroom teachers want to try his/her hand at it, but few are discussing how to best construct the content of learning events in this new medium.

One definition of e-learning describes it as "network enabled transfer of skills and knowledge." [1]   "Network," in this case, means any computer-enabled network, although the "e" (electronic) could also relate to such things as the telephone, television applications, and even radio. These may be subjects for further discussion in other articles, but it is the use of the term "network" that provides a springboard for this discussion of pedagogy.

While networks may have very definite and distinct meaning in an electronic context, they also have a definite and potentially different meaning for teachers and trainers.

There are two primary questions that I will raise here:

  1. Is there any cogent theoretical basis for designing and developing content for e-learning?
  2. What role, if any, does the constructivist model play in the creation of e-learning events?

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Constructivism and the "Collective Zone"

Most educators today are applying or at least exploring a constructivist approach. Developed by Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky, constructivism theorizes that there is no such thing as knowledge separate from the knower, but only knowledge we construct ourselves as we learn. Learning is not understanding the "true" nature of things, but rather a personal and social construction of meaning out of a bewildering array of sensations which have no order or structure besides the explanations which we fabricate for them.

Constructivism grows out of the notion that humans have a need to make sense out of the world. Instead of absorbing or passively receiving objective knowledge that is "out there," learners actively construct knowledge by integrating new information and new experiences into what they have already come to understand, revising and reinterpreting old knowledge in order to reconcile it with the new learning. Although the new learning is subject to interpretation by the learner, to be effective it should take place within a social context, and it must be useful to the learner (Billet 1996).   [2]  It is in this social context that we need to consider the idea of a network as a "collective zone."

Vygotsky’s (1978) historical cultural law of development of the higher mental functions, and his notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD),  [3]    are clear projections of the way he understood the social nature of the psychological process. As such, for the constructivist, social interaction is not only another factor for learning along with the psychological and the biological, but the essential component for the development of the human psyche. While Vygotsky focused on the relationship between adult-child, or novice-expert to create the ZPD, Moll and Whitmore (1993) extended the ZPD concept to the whole classroom, which they call the "collective zone."   [4]   When I conceptualize a network for learning, I see it as a collective zone – virtual or otherwise.

In some ways constructivism has drifted into the vernacular of the training and development profession. We now refer to our participants as "learners," we rapture over the notion of "learning organizations," and we trumpet the coming of the new age where the learner becomes primarily responsible for his or her own learning. More often than not, the differences are semantic or an excuse for not being able to get the job done, or the justification of an economic motive.

Despite the changes in terminology, most training and development initiatives continue to follow the behaviorist approach that has dominated education, in which the teacher disseminates selected knowledge, measures the learners’ reception of facts, and focuses on task control and task completion. Often the event (or module) is structured using individualistic or competitive learning strategies rather than cooperative learning strategies that emphasize, or at least take into account, the social factor.

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Individualistic, Competitive or Cooperative; What Works Best?

According to a summary article by Johnson and Johnson (1993),   [5] there have been over 120 studies done to compare the relative advantages of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning on individual achievement. The results show that cooperative learning promoted greater achievement than competitive or individualistic learning methods. These results held for verbal tasks, mathematical tasks, and procedural tasks. The research also found that cooperation promoted greater intrinsic motivation to learn, more frequent use of cognitive processes such as reconceptualization, higher-level reasoning, metacognition, cognitive elaboration, and networking, and greater long-term maintenance of the skills learned.

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Application of Constructivism to E-learning

Within the last several years, developers of Artificial Intelligence have been experimenting with constructivist notions of learning. Oliveira and Viccari (1996) have proposed that there are two perspectives that one can choose when applying Distributed Artificial Intelligence (DAI) to teaching/ learning which they call distributed and social [6]  The most common application of the former, the interaction between AI and the task of computational support for human learning, has been the so-called Intelligent Tutoring Systems (ITSs) such as an online help system or CBT application. Oliveira sees a limitation to the "paternalistic style of tutoring action, where the initiative and control of the interaction are prerogatives of the system."  These limitations have pushed the research toward more cooperative learning environments, where the initiative of the interaction may change dramatically.

According to Oliveira and Viccari, when computer scientists apply DAI to teaching/learning, the approach is to consider teaching a "task" (a problem to be solved). From this viewpoint, teaching is defined by a goal to be achieved (competencies to be acquired), and there is a set of strategies to achieve this end. These strategies generate "plans" (sequences of actions). In this way the teaching task is reduced to the problem of generating a plan to achieve the goal or set of goals defined by the designer.

This is typical of the architecture of authoring tools, where the system’s organization is fixed, and the overall teaching plan is generated by combining the contributions from different aspects of the system. But, there is one central communication channel, so the student sees the system as an individual.

If we regard the teaching/learning environment as a social phenomenon in the constructivist manner, the students become a society made up of various autonomous agents (both human and electronic) where some play the role of tutors, some the role of learners, all playing a part in building a common corpus of knowledge about some particular content. Synchronous and asynchronous platforms in current usage provide opportunities for the instructional designer to create programs that incorporate the collective zone and build societies of cooperative learning.

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Cognitive Apprenticeship and a Model for E-Learning Design

Constructivism breathes new life into the traditional apprenticeship model, and provides a rationale for e-learning design strategy. In traditional apprenticeship, the expert shows the apprentice how to do a task, watches as the apprentice practices portions of the task, and then turns over more and more responsibility until the apprentice is proficient enough to accomplish the task independently. The four key aspects of apprenticeship are:

Modeling is a master demonstration of the different components of a behavior, and experiencing the work or attempts at mastery by others.

Scaffolding is the support the master gives apprentices in carrying out the behavior.

Fading is the notion of slowly removing the support, providing escalating responsibility for the behavior on the part of the apprentice.

Coaching is the thread running through the entire apprenticeship experience; diagnosing problems, providing feedback and generally overseeing the learning.

It is the social context of apprenticeship that makes it powerful. A participant occupies a subculture in which most members are engaged in the same learning activity. As a result, learners have continual access to models of expertise-in-use against which to refine their understanding of complex skills.

If we can accept the view that focus in teaching should be on the individual’s active construction of knowledge (Stevenson 1994),  [7]  then, the essential role of education is to facilitate construction of knowledge through experiential, contextual, and social methods in real-world (face-to-face and virtual) environments.

Cognitive apprenticeship differs from traditional apprenticeship in three ways:

  1. Since the desired learning is not always directly observable, the teacher’s thinking must be made visible to the learner.
  2. Since the abstract nature of some behaviors may not appear tangible and motivating in the same way as an apprentice in the workplace is inherently motivated to learn, the challenge is to situate the abstract tasks and behaviors in contexts that make sense to the learners.
  3. Traditional apprenticeship generally requires little or no skill transfer to other settings or applications (a tailor doesn’t need to know how to frame a window). In cognitive apprenticeship, the challenge is to present a range of tasks, varying from systematic to diverse, and to encourage learners to reflect on and articulate the elements that are common across tasks.

When applied to e-learning, there is a three-stage design process:

  1. Identify the processes of the task and make them "visible" in some manner to the learners.
  2. Situate abstract tasks in authentic contexts, so that learners understand the relevance of the work and how it will be directly applied to what they do.
  3. Vary the diversity of situations and articulate the common aspects so that learners can transfer what they learn

To meet the requirements of the constructivist view, the design elements need to contain opportunities to exploit the collective zone.

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Guiding Principles

Future articles may delve into specific applications of the cognitive apprenticeship model, however, here are a few guiding principles for e-learning design work that we are currently engaged in.

  1. Learning is an active process. E-learning designs need to engage the learner with sensory input. The learner needs to do something.
  2. People learn to learn as they learn. Each meaning we construct makes us better able to give meaning to other scenarios that fit a similar pattern.
  3. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental. We need to model both the behavior and the thinking that generates the behavior.
  4. Learning is contextual. People learn new things developmentally in relation to what they already know. So, interventions must be scaled to a particular group or be flexible enough to accommodate differing levels of expertise.
  5. Learning is a social activity. Designs need to encourage interaction among the participants either synchronously or asynchronously.
  6. Motivation is a key component of learning. Learners need to know why they have to learn, and how it will be applied.

The goal of e-learning should be to develop independent self-directed learning environments leveraging a wide range of cognitive structures in order to transfer learning to new contexts.

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1.  Cisco E-Learning Glossary [Access Glossary online] | [Back]

2.  S. Billet, "Towards a Model of Workplace Learning: The Learning Curriculum," Studies in Continuing Education 18/1 (1996): 43-58. [Back]

3.  L. S. Vigotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of the Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).   [Back]

4.  L. C. Moll and K. F. Whitmore, "Vygotsky in Classroom Practice: Moving from Individual Transmission to Social Transaction," in E. A. Forman, N. Minick, and C. A. Stone (Eds.), Contexts for Learning: Sociocultural Dynamics in Children's Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).  [Back]

5.  D. Johnson and R. Johnson, "What We Know about Cooperative Learning," Cooperative Learning 13/3 (1993).  [Access study online] | [Back]

6.  F. M. Oliveira and R. M Viccari, "Are Learning Systems Distributed or Social Systems?" (Paper read at the European Conference on AI in Education, Lisbon, Portugal, September 30 - October 2, 1996).  [Access paper online] | [Back]

7.  J. Stevenson, ed., Cognition at Work: The Development of Vocational Expertise (Leabrook, Australia: National Centre for Vocational Education Research, 1994).  [Back]

About the Author

Dr. Marvin Gottlieb is the president of The Communication Project, Inc. in Greenwich, Connecticut. This consulting group provides instructional design for workshops, seminars, self-instruction and computer distance learning, human resources development, and basic target market and organizational research. Dr. Gottlieb is also an Associate Professor of Communication at the City University of New York, a frequent speaker on communication issues, and the author of five books: Getting Things Done in Today’s Organizations: The Influencing Executive (1999); Managing the Workplace Survivors: Organizational Downsizing and the Commitment Gap, with Lori Conkling (1995); Making Deals: The Business of Negotiating, with William J. Healy (1990); Interview (1986); and Oral Interpretation (1980).

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