theory for eLearning

There has been much written about eLearning practice however little attention has been given to eLearning theory. After arguing that a lack of established theory will hinder further development in eLearning, this paper presents ten hypotheses for eLearning in an attempt to focus attention on the underlying principles that apply to eLearning in all situations. Over twenty years ago, Perraton remarked that “distance education has managed very well without any theory” (1981:13). The same can be said today of eLearning, though whether or not it has ‘managed very well’ may not be so accurate. Still, the incredible weight of published articles, institutional investment in practice and uptake of Web-based education tools in the past decade testifies that eLearning practice has achieved a momentum that will make it a central part of future education.
However the vast bulk of literature in eLearning is practice-based and is typically presented in a descriptive format. The majority of conference presentations consist of a ‘here’s what we did and here’s the evaluation’ format which do little for transferability to other institutions or even other courses. In addition, the body of literature appears fragmented and there are few common terms used consistently. It is unlikely that eLearning practice will continue to evolve unless the theoretical underpinnings of eLearning are explored and debated, providing a wider platform and a common philosophy for eLearning development. There are few examples of academic literature specifically concerned with eLearning theory and unfortunately the use of technology in education has tended to be technology-led rather than theory-led (Ravenscroft 2001). It is well stated by Watson (2001:251) that “the cart has been placed before the horse.” Keegan (1983:3 cited in Holmberg 1997) suggested that theory could serve as a “touch-stone against which decisions – political, financial, educational, social – when they have to be taken, can be taken with confidence”. Keegan’s comments related to distance education, which now has a firmly established theoretical basis thanks to the efforts of such theorists as Moore and Kearsley, Lockwood, Holmberg, Peters, Rumble, Rowntree and Mason. At present there is no such ‘touch-stone’ for eLearning and there are few theorists who can be readily identified as authoritative. If literature is likened to a ‘tree of knowledge’ about a particular subject the dire need for more eLearning theory becomes clear. Practice based research can be likened to the branches of the tree, those parts that are readily visible and most easily appreciated. Theoretical principles can be likened to the roots; they do not provide any practical things for people like shade or fruit and neither are they aesthetically pleasing. However it is the root system that determines the health of the tree and also the extent to which it can grow. Unless attention is given to eLearning theory, the branches cannot stretch out for fear of toppling the entire structure. Unless attention is given to eLearning theory, eLearning practice cannot develop fully. Without further debate and development in the theoretical underpinnings, we will be left with bonsai eLearning. The truth of theory’s central role in the development of practice is recognized across all fields of activity. As Berger (2000) points out, “we tend to conduct life based on many theories that are below the level of conscious thought and accepted without examination. But, being conscious of theories and subjecting them to examination is essential because they are particularly important to change and learning.”

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