Book Review: The Theory and Practice of Online Learning

During the fall term, I taught a graduate course called Introduction to Online Teaching. For this course, I had the graduate students read and discuss two books, The Theory and Practice of Online Learning edited by Terry Anderson and Emerging Technologies in Distance Education edited by George Veletsianos. The threaded discussions for the course were some of the most engaging I had been a part of, and I believe it was primarily due to these two books. The learners in the course had an opportunity to explore the topic of teaching online in great depth. In this post, I will talk about The Theory and Practice of Online Learning book.

When preparing for the course, I wanted to keep costs down for the students, and I specifically chose books that were available online for free. I was pleased to find these two books. After briefly reading them, I was happy with the content they provided; however, when I read them during the class, I was more than pleased with what they had to offer. I believe they complemented each other well.

The Theory and Practice of Online LearningIn The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Anderson collected eighteen articles focusing on different aspects on online teaching. These articles were arranged into four major groupings:

  • Role and Function of Theory in Online Education Development and Delivery
  • Infrastructure and Support for Content Development
  • Design and Development of Online Courses
  • Delivery, Quality Control, and Student Support of Online Courses

As Anderson pointed out, the book was written primarily by authors from Athabasca University, an open university. This fact shaped the content of the book. They wrote extensively about open-access and sharing knowledge. They practiced what they preached by making this book available for free under the Creative Commons license.

Role and Function of Theory in Online Education Development and Delivery

Anderson began the book by pointing out the various theories that shape online learning such as behavioralist, cognivist, constructivist, and connectivist theories. As I read the book, they seemed to strongly emphasis the constructivist and connectivist theories. I found this to be very positive because I am also very much in favor of these theories. This also seemed to challenge students in the class who seemed more comfortable with a teacher-centric mode of instruction. This first section also addressed the use of technology and how it related to learning theories and learning over time.

Infrastructure and Support for Content Development

Chapters 5 through 9 focused on infrastructure and support for content development. One theme seemed to ripple throughout the book, “All teaching and learning systems should be built from two vantage points: the needs of the intended students, and the intended learning outcomes of the course or program” (Anderson, 2008, p. 123). The authors talked about the resources necessary to deliver quality online instruction in terms of hardware, software, and human infrastructure. They provided tips for a smooth implementation. A number of different online technologies were explained along with links to examples. As to be expected with a book referencing online sources, a number of the sources no longer exist because of the volatility of the Web. During my class, I, as well as the authors, stressed the power of blogs, RSS feeds, and wikis in an online learning environment. These elements can be the foundation of a lifelong personal learning environment. This section also explored the increasing presence of mobile learning, as well as the need to develop for this learning platform.

“All teaching and learning systems should be built from two vantage points: the needs of the intended students, and the intended learning outcomes of the course or program”

Design and Development of Online Courses

In relation to the course I taught, this section was perhaps the most relevant. In both, “The Development of Online Course” chapter and “The Quality Dilemma in Online Education Revisited” chapter, the authors provide quality takeaways in the form of tables or bulleted lists that instructors could use to guide in the development of online courses. The authors point out the reality that most online instructors do not have instructional design teams at their disposable; however, they did outline the composition of a course development team along with responsibilities.

“Instructors and other members of the online course development team should strive to create learning environments that exploit the features inherent in computers and the Web, to promote active learning that resides in the control of the student, and that can effectively lead to the development of high-order and critical thinking skills” (Anderson, 2008, p. 123).

Delivery, Quality Control, and Student Support of Online Courses

The last section of the book focused on supporting learners as they are engaged in the course. This topic was addressed from the individual, course, and institution level. Key points included making instructions as clear as possible. The instructions should be able to stand on their own. Rubrics should be used to help learners create the right artifact the first time. At the institution level, the authors provided guidelines for developing help centers, tutorials for online learning, and library support. Taking the mystery out of online instruction before a course begins helps put learners at ease. This is something I believe many institutions could do better.

As I mentioned earlier, this was a great book to introduce the topic of online teaching to future online instructors. I would recommend it to anyone who is planning to teach a similar course.  I would also recommend it to anyone who is involved with online instruction.

References

Anderson, T. (Ed.). (2004). Theory and practice of online learning. Athabasca, Alta.: Athabasca University.

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