Learning In The Twenty First Century Education Essay

Looking into learning in the 21st century and all the tools that both educators and learners have access to we cannot forgot that education is still bound by a number of theories and that to look into learning we need to understand what relationship the new tools have to those theories and do those theories have an impact upon the tools. Knowing how that relationship works we then look at the new ways of thinking and how those tools affect the learning that happens in our schools, colleges and universities.

Learning Paradigms

Learning theories tend to fall into one of several perspectives or paradigms, including behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, and others. While investigating learning in the digital age and the use of digital tools for learning we need to look at these theories and how they influence the use of digital tools in the classroom.


Watson (2009) defines behaviourism as a learning theory as a conditional reflex, which he describes as “If you show a person a red light and the immediately or shortly thereafter stimulate the subjects hand with electric current and repeat the often enough, the red light will cause the immediate withdrawal of the hand. The red light is now the stimulus and will call out the response whenever it stimulates the subject.”

However Skinner (2008) defines learning is a function of change in overt behaviour. Changes in behaviour are the result of an individual’s response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. A response produces a consequence such as defining a word, hitting a ball, or solving a math problem. When a particular Stimulus-Response (S-R) pattern is reinforced (rewarded), the individual is conditioned to respond. The distinctive characteristic of operant conditioning relative to previous forms of behaviourism (e.g., Thorndike, Hull) is that the organism can emit responses instead of only eliciting response due to an external stimulus.

Leonard (2002) states that Thorndike believed that learning happened in small incremental steps rather that big jumps and he also concluded that the most successful forms of learning happen by trial and error, and Klein and Mowrer (1989) mentions that Hull was a theorist who believed in reinforcement to assist in learning.

The overall basic idea of behaviourism is that learning occurs from some sort of stimulus, and all learning is caused by an external stimuli and reinforcement of the learning is occurring however the learner is viewed as a passive in the learning process.


This theory replaced behaviourism as the dominant learning theory in the 1960’s; two theorists became the main founders to this type of learning. Cognitivism learning theory has been adapted and evolved over the years; Cognitivism as defined by Moreno and Mayer (1999) made three assumptions.

There are two separate channels (auditory and visual) for processing information (sometimes referred to as Dual-Coding theory);

Each channel has a limited (finite) capacity (similar to Sweller’s notion of Cognitive Load);

Learning is an active process of filtering, selecting, organizing, and integrating information based upon prior knowledge.

From this Mayer (1999) states that Humans can only process a finite amount of information in a channel at a time, and they make sense of incoming information by actively creating mental representations. Mayer (1999) also discusses the role of three memory stores: sensory (which receives stimuli and stores it for a very short time), working (where we actively process information to create mental constructs (or ‘schema’), and long-term (the repository of all things learned).

Cognitivism original founder was Noam Chomsky and modern theorists who support this idea believe that Cognitivism focuses on inner mental activities – opening the “black box” of the human mind. It is necessary to determine how processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving occur. People are not “programmed animals” that merely respond to environmental stimuli; people are rational beings whose action are a consequence of thinking. Throughout the process of learning in the cognitivism paradigm the learner is view as an Information processor, a useful metaphor used is that the mind is a computer: information comes in, is being processed, and leads to certain outcomes.


Kuhlthau, Caspari and Maniotes (2007) wrote about John Dewey who was one of the founders of constructivism that he called for education to be grounded in real experience. Dewey wrote, “If you have doubts about how learning happens, engage in sustained inquiry: study, ponder, consider alternative possibilities and arrive at your belief grounded in evidence.” Inquiry is a key part of constructivist learning.

Jean Piaget like John Dewey believed that learning was ground in real experience he believed that humans learn through the construction of one logical structure after another. He also concluded that the logic of children and their modes of thinking are initially entirely different from those of adults. The implications of this theory and how he applied them have shaped the foundation for constructivist education.

In recent years, constructivist theorists have extended the traditional focus the individual to include the collaborative and social dimensions of learning. It is possible to see social constructivism as this theory has been called is bringing together of aspects of the work of Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky (Wood 1998). The term Communal constructivism was introduced by A. W. As, et al. (2001) described this term as “in this model, students will not simply pass through a course like water through a sieve but instead leave their own imprint in the learning process”

Overall it is seen that Learning is an active, constructive process by the theorists and the learner is seen as the person who constructs the information they need and they actively construct or create their own subjective representations of objective reality. New information is linked to prior knowledge, thus mental representations are subjective.


Humanism or humanistic learning theory is the theory that we learn and gain knowledge via observation (watching others) and seeing the results of that observation, what is interesting is that learning or knowledge gained doesn’t have to involve a change in the behaviour, the learning comes from the result of the observation according to Barrett (2006).

Edwords (1989) defines humanism is school of thought that believes human beings are different from other species and possess capacities not found in animals, Kurtz (2000) makes the assumption that human beings behave out of intentionality and values. Huitt’s (2001) system framework for human behaviour basis is the human beings have three major aspects (Mind, Body and Spirit) and that these aspects have been studied since the ancient Greeks. The primary purpose of this theory is that leaner is central to the act of learner and that lecturers role is one of facilitator, cognitive needs are key and the goal of the learning is one to develop a self-actualised learner in a cooperative, supportive environment.

The role of teaching in the humanism theory is that as a role model for the student, the educator or teacher shows appropriate behaviour to student in order for that student to replicate that behaviour. Huitt (2001) also mentions that the teacher that uses this theory must provide the reason behind and the motivation to the given task, they also must try to teaching learning skills and try to generate a group working environment as well. Huitt (2001) gives the student within the humanism theory as that of an observer. Students use be using self-evaluation to monitor their own behaviour and make any changes when necessary, the student is also required for the own learning and keep track of their goals and keeping the said goals realistic.

Tennant (1997, p12) observes the concern over ‘self’ as a ‘hallmark of humanistic psychology’ and also the reaction against people being seen as objects in the rational for humanistic learning.

The most popular examples of humanistic learning is that of Maslow’s (1943) hierarchy of needs, the lowest level of the need being physiological and the highest being self actualisation. The idea is that only when the lower level needs are met it is possible for that person to move to the next level and so on, when is interesting is that a motive (or need) at the lower level is stronger than the ones above it.

Tennant (1997) makes the summary of the level of need as:

Level one: Physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, sex, sleep, relaxation and bodily integrity must be satisfied before the next level comes into play.

Level two: Safety needs call for a predictable and orderly world. If these are not satisfied people will look to organize their worlds to provide for the greatest degree of safety and security. If satisfied, people will come under the force of level three.

Level three: Love and belonginess needs cause people to seek warm and friendly relationships.

Level four: Self-esteem needs involve the desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery and competence. They also involve confidence, independence, reputation and prestige.

Level five: Self-actualization is the full use and expression of talents, capacities and potentialities.

Learning inside this model is seen to be at the top of the needs (self-actualization) and has an effect on the mental health of the leaner (Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 133) however self-actualization is a primary goal a number of the other goals (linked in the other stages of needs) are also affected. This includes accomplishment and controlling impulses (Maslow 1970: 439)

Humanism or humanistic learning theory has had much criticism aimed at the core, for example,

Do the lower needs on the hierarchy have to be fulfilled before the ones above can come into the picture? And example is that people my well put the need of love in front of a physical need.

As individuals we are all conditioned to the qualities that Maslow indentifies on level 5 (the top of the pyramid – ‘self actualization’) but to wait extent are those qualities specific to culture?

The most interesting facts about Maslow’s ideas about needs is that he had a major influence on writers and specialist such as Malcolm Knowles who specialised in adulkt education literature. The idea of humanism theory is a positive one and views people and the control they have over their own destiny gives people endless opportunities for personal development.


M. A. Chatti, et al. (2010) quotes Siemens (2005) [the founder of connectivism] saying about the old learning theories that “these theories were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology. Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn. Learning needs and theories that describe learning principles and processes should be reflective of underlying social environments.”

Siemens (2005) makes this assertion in the theory that “connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.”

Siemens (2005) goes on to say that “connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.”

Connectivism a learning theory that uses networks and complex environments that are forever changing has drawn its critics. Verhagen (2006) in his paper makes the argument that this theory is not as effective as Siemens states due to the fact that connectivism is positioned on an “unsubstantiated philosophising”, Kerr (2007) in his presentation takes the position that the older types of learning theory (behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and humanism) address the needs of today’s technological connected learners and Bonk (2007) questions can connectivism be seen as a learning theory in the traditional sense of the term or does it belong in a more social or anthropological concept of learning.

How Learning Paradigms/Theories Differ From One Another:







Learning theorists

Thorndike, Pavlov, Watson, Guthrie, Hull, Tolman, Skinner

Koffka, Kohler, Lewin, Piaget, Ausubel, Bruner, Gagne

Piaget, Vygotsky

Maslow, Rogers

Siemens, Downes

How learning occurs

Black box-observable behaviour main focus

Structured, computational

Social, meaning created by each learner (personal)

Reflection on personal experience

Distributed within a network, social, technologically enhanced, recognizing and interpreting patterns

Influencing factors

Nature of reward, punishment, stimuli

Existing schema, previous experiences

Engagement, participation, social, cultural

Motivation, experiences, relationships

Diversity of network, strength of ties, context of occurrence

How Learning Paradigms/Theories Differ From One Another Continued:







Role of memory

Memory is the hardwiring of repeated experiences-where reward and punishment are most influential

Encoding, storage, retrieval

Prior knowledge remixed to current context

Holds changing concept of self

Adaptive patterns, representative of current state, existing in networks

How transfer occurs

Stimulus, response

Duplicating knowledge constructs of “knower”


Facilitation, openness

Connecting to (adding) nodes and growing the network (social/conceptual/biological)

Types of learning best explained

Task-based learning

Reasoning, clear objectives, problem solving

Social, vague

(“ill defined”)


Complex learning, rapid changing core, diverse knowledge sources

Evolving Literacy, the Digital Student and Digital Natives

Literacy in the current paradigm has grown from it having the emphasis on comprehension to include a much wider tool set which are more activity-based. While sitting in a classroom the mainstay of learning and knowledge transfer falls into the didactic model which adopts the idea that learning is of secondary importance to memory where information and the transfer of the knowledge from the lecturer to student is predominate. However it has been show that other learning styles are suited best for learning within an online experience thus new forms of literacy aka ‘Digital Literacy’ that promotes a different collection of skills for the digital age has started to emerge and the generation of learners that use the internet for learning are being defined as ‘Digital Natives’

Literacy in the 21st century demands that the learner has some ability to use technology including images, audio and hypertext thus allowing them to communicate with other learners and teachers more effectively in the classroom. As students become are more and more technology aware the normal idea of literacy seems to now encompass more than just reading and understanding the text (Brown, 2000).

Some research by (Bernard, Abrami, Lou, & Borokhovski, 2004; Bernard, Brauer, Abrami, & Surkes, 2004; Clark, 2001; Russell, 1999; Smith, Clark, & Blomeyer, 2005) has indicated that there was no difference between an online course and a traditional course in the way that act of learning had changed; in either case the idea of learning in that context is still classed as logical. In 2003, a group of US parents partaking in a survey requested information on the computer usage of those families found that it seemed to begin with the child sitting in the lap of their parent whole in control of the mouse etc. and this was happening around the age of three years (Calvert et al., 2005).

Prensky (2001) defined ‘digital natives’ as a generation that has grown up with digital technology, operating at “twitch speed”, and performing multiple activities simultaneously. He also states that changes in activity during development may (“almost certainly”) have resulted in different neural wiring via processes of neuroplasticity.

He claims that digital natives have acquired different ways of thinking, thanks to different cultural practices. He makes the suggests that while digital natives have shorter attention spans, and less ability to reflect on topics, they instead have greater visual skills, the ability to concentrate on different media simultaneously, and the ability to monitor changes and make inductive discoveries. He writes: “While these individual cognitive skills may not be new, the particular combination and intensity is. We now have a new generation with a very different blend of cognitive skills than its predecessors-the Digital Natives”.

Prensky (2001) makes the assumption that the learners who seen to fall into the notation of a digital native translate information at fast of “twitch speed” this means they translate hard and fast and then move on. He also states that these learners prefer graphics or process graphics first and then use text associated to support any unclear content, this is unlike a “digital immigrant” who is defined as some who grew up before the digital age and is fairly new to the internet who would process the text and use the image to support that.

The whole idea or concept of 21st century learning is that they see information as fluid and is updated instantaneously who a new discovery is made. Brown (2000) defines the digital learner as “Bricoleaurs” a term that was first used by Claude Levi-Strauss, a Bricoleaurs learner has the ability to take information (whether that is a large or small piece) and then use what they have found to create something that is meaningful to that leaner. Brown (2000) makes a mention that leaner’s in this digital age have move the importance of knowledge acquisition from non-ownership to semi-ownership or even self-ownership, thus moving from being nonresponsive when they don’t understand the information to a ‘lurker’ and trying to gain some self understanding.

Brown (2000) importantly states that “digital natives” are network builders and thus social learners; they reach out for knowledge and contact with anyone at any time or place with a wide variety of tools (e.g. computer, cell phone or blackberry), this type of learner in an excellent position to create a community of learning more naturally. Learning in the digital age seems to bring a collection of elements together, “Active learning” describes the leaner taking an active role in the own learning, “metacognition” is when a learner monitors their own learning and “knowledge transfer” is where the information that has been gathered or learned is applied to a multiple collection of settings or tasks, all of these elements are now a common part of the educational process according to (Huffaker et al. 2003).

What is interesting is that according to Gee (2005) all the above elements can be found in digital gaming and good games can create good learning, however Calvert, et al. (2005) make the suggestion that when a young person is at a computer most of the time they are playing games. It made be the assumption of the ‘digital immigrants’ that gaming online (via a pc or console) is a waste of time Gee (2005) has demonstrated that good game design and content can contain multiple elements of learning theory, these games will contain the player or learner with stimuli and responses to help reinforce what they are learning by playing. This seems to fall squarely into the behaviourism theory for learning.

Green and Bavelier (2003) state that the evidence they have shows that learning from action-gaming has led to improvements in visual attention, when the same group of students were assessed for static and dynamic spatial ability, gaming led to improvements at a significant level in dynamic ability in specific subjects. What is interesting is that Crawford (2006) made the note that there was a difference in multi-tasking ability in those who undertook an online course compared to those who didn’t, the suggestion was that those who took the online course had a higher ability.

Dickey (2005) research into gaming found that game development for the modern video game moved the player from being a spectator to being placed inside the game and due to the online gaming communities, the player or learner has a broadened his or her access to engaging in constructive learning. What is interesting is that the educational community has yet to brace this on a wider scale.

Web 2.0, Concepts and Educational Ideas

Web2.0as a term for many is a very short answer and is a reference to a group of technologies which facilitate greater social connectivity where people are able to add and edit the space that information is sorted, blogs, wikis, podcasts, and RSS feeds etc., are all associated to the web2.0 term. A longer response to the question what is web2.0 is a much more complicated and includes economics, technologies and ideas on how society is connected via the web. Web2.0 as a term was first mention by Dale Dougherty, vice-president for O’Reilly Media Inc. at a conference about the future of the web (O’Reilly, 2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c)

Any learning activity that encompasses playful, expressive, reflective and exploratory areas of knowledge building is going to be drawn to using a web2.0 service due to the power that the resource offers the learner and educator (Becta, 2008). What is also an interesting fact is that the educational environments learners come to (be it a school, college or university) can make the assumption that most of their learners have heard about or come into contact with those tools. What is interesting is when those tools are aim at the learning process web2.0can have a direct impact upon a number of principles of the learning experience (Ullrich, 2008).

Both Ullrich (2008), Becta (2008) along with O’Reilly (2005a, 2005b, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c) all mention a number of ideas that web2.0 can facilitate, Becta (2008) and Ullrich (2008) also highlight the process in learning that web2.0 can support those are;

Collaboration: Web2.0 can allow the learners to coordinate effectively their activities; the level of participation can range from trivial and anonymous to in-depth and interpersonal. The idea is that web2.0 can offer learners and educators a strong set of tools to support classroom communities where learning has been shown to effectively take place (Franklin, 2008).

Publication: The expectation is the classroom is that work the learners create will be on display. Web2.0 allows for the publication of that work to be open to the world to allow for discussion by the students at anytime during the learning process (Franklin, 2008).

Literacy: As mentioned before the term of literacy now includes digital media, as learners engage more and more with this whether it is written, audio or visual media educators must address its use. Web2.0 allows for lecturers to allow for the relevant types of media to be accessed by their learners (Franklin, 2008).

Inquiry: These forms of tools allows for new forms of research to take place, it allows for the learner to construct new ways to organise their research data, allows for different forms as sources to refer to, and gives both the learner and educator a rich space to allow for interrogation of the information that have researched. This allows for the leaner to gain the feeling of empowerment and thus move towards become a truly independent leaner (Goodyear, 2010).

How is Education Responding to Web2.0 boom?

Over the last decade the forever changing nature of the web has made it and interesting vehicle for education as both a talking point and platform for learning. What is interesting is that education has remained very cautious to some of the claims made by the proponents of these technologies Bigum, and Kenway (2005) talk about the ‘booster’ and ‘doomster’ mentality of growing up around previous technology waves while Hargreaves, et al. (1998) make references to some of the scenarios which include social impact and educational reform.

A number of proponents of web2.0 have talked about how they hope that the technologies that fall within the concept of web2.0 (blogs, wikis etc) have some sort of transformational effect onto education, they also talk about how the hope that the technology would have the effect of ‘rebooting’ teaching and learning. However the doomsayers have used the web2.0 boom to generate a panic about how young people are interacting with the web and the death of education how we know it, Tapscott and Williams (2007), Anderson (2007), Shirky (2008), Weinberger (2007), Leadbetter (2008), Keen (2007) and Surowiecki (2004).

One of the interesting things that both the advocates and doomsayers seem to agree on is the links between learning theories and web2.0, the main one is that learning can take place within the communal environment that web2.0 allows to forum (the argument is over what type of learning is taking place and how good is the knowledge that is being transferred). The whole message coming from the supports is that web2.0 tools (blogs, wiki’s etc.) seem to offer the learners of any age a more engaging experience and it allows those that would participate inside a normal classroom the opportunity to do just that also opening up a world of new learning resources.

Tapscott and Williams (2007), Leadbetter (2008) mention that web2.0 learning theories seems to come for the constructivist school and thought which is at the heart of web2.0 practices, folksonomies, mash-ups and wikis and well as being central to such popular web2.0 ideas such as ‘Smart Mobs’, ‘We Think’ and the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’. The other element of constructivism and participation comes in the form and the cultures that seem to form inside of virtual communicates and online games as mention by Kemp and Livingston (2006).

Wales (2008) mentions that web2.0 and the collaborative nature of those tools allows or is shown that even a tool like Wikipedia seems to lead individuals to learn, Wales (2008) says “what works and what does not in a way that was not possible with books. You wouldn’t have even joined the debate”. What is also mention by Wales (2008) is that the nature of web2.0 activities has given the uses a sense that “the internet has created greater opportunities for access, debate and transparency in the pursuit of knowledge than ever before”.

Learners in the Digital Age (Hopes and Fears for Education)

With the advent of Web 2.0 that has been some shifts in the nature of learners. Prensky (2001) came up with the most popular characterisation of learners for the digital age that being ‘digital natives’ see page 6 for an explanation of Prensky’s explanation, Prensky (2001) also coined the phrase ‘digital immigrants’ however others have used other terms to categories the new generation of web users ‘homo-zappiens’, ‘net savvy’, ‘power users along with the terms ‘internet generation’, ‘generation M’ (media), ‘generation V’ (virtual) or ‘generation C’ Veen and Vrakking (2006) and Urry (2007) and the users that fall into one of those terms seem to live their lives in the digital world this includes they ways that they learn and educate. These learners have a very specific expectation when it comes their own learning, this includes ideas to do with personalised learning, on-demand access, and anytime availability of the knowledge they want. Prensky (2001) made the warning that “our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach”.

All the hype and enthusiasm to do with the use of this tool set in teaching and learning is being dampened by a collection of concerns and misgivings, Brabazon (2007) makes an assumption that some of the fear comes from that fact that all these tools could contribute to a ‘google generation’ in which learners are not capable of critical or independent thought, Ziegler (2007) uses the term “the mis-education of generation M” to describe the same fear. What is interesting is that even with the popularity of these tools especially social networks the critics still think that they can distract the learner from their studies, Cassidy (2006) mentions that these types of engagement can often be too distracting and the student sometimes finds it difficult to distinguish between the social aspect and formal education.

Bugeja (2006) fears that learners using the tools while on campus could be seen as a misuse of resources by some educators, he makes the statement that “information in the classroom was supposed to bridge digital divides and enhance student research. Increasingly, however, our networks are being used to entertain members of ‘the Facebook generation’ who text-message during class, talk on their cell phones during labs, and listen to iPods rather than guest speakers in the wireless lecture hall”.

Web 2.0 Role in Education (Opportunities for Change)

What is interesting in all the reading and research seems to confirm the assumption that there is potential value in web 2.0 to support educators and learners in education (whether it be further or higher education), however what is interesting is that learners don’t always use those tools in straightforward ways to learn and that they ways they use those tools are in a very limited range. What is puzzling is that the use of web 2.0 technologies are not getting used in education as widely as one might expect despite a number of best practice cases that educators can highlight Musser (2006) and JISC (2009). With a growing interest in the use of web 2.0 commentators are urging institutions and educators to show and interested in the use of the tools however remain detached, they need to recognise that web 2.0 as a space that informal learning takes place, Kitto and Higgins (2003) and Boyd (2007).

One thing that the advocates for using web 2.0 is the opportunities to embed pedagogy and good educational practice into the spirit of those tools, this might involve adopting new ways of educating to fall inline more with a sense of play, reflection and collaboration rather than just having the learners consuming the information that the taught. If the tools support the learning process through the practices of collaboration, publication, multiple literacy’s and inquiry, then the ways the students learn will change also the assessment of the learning that is taking place will also change.

For all the opportunities that come with using web 2.0 th

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