Summary of Anderson’s Theory of Online Learning

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Author Terry Anderson sets out to create a theory for online learning. As a starting point, he has developed a conceptual framework, referred to as the model of online learning, to understand key elements that make up an online learning experience and has applied them to the development and delivery of online learning environments. This paper will outline these key elements, the implications they have for the design of learning, and key perspectives from the author on how to apply the model of online learning.

Anderson’s Model of Online Learning

At the centre of the model of online learning is Anderson’s use of the attributes of learning (Bransford et al., 1999) to underpin how students acquire knowledge. The attributes of learning analyze learning through four distinct lenses: Learner-centred, knowledge-centred, assessment-centred, and community-centered. Using these four lenses in the design of learning takes into consideration the learner’s prerequisite knowledge and cultural expressions used to acquire knowledge; puts emphasis on what is taught, why it is taught, and what competent mastery will look like; assesses students to inform both students and teachers of learning and technology competencies and learning outcomes; and, harnesses collaborative interactions between students, teachers, and content to create deep knowledge. Anderson implies that the attributes of learning can be used to determine appropriate modes of content delivery in accordance to the learners’ needs. For example, a learner may prefer synchronous lesson plans over asynchronous lesson plans due to a perceived technological incompetency. By incorporating the concepts behind the assessment lens, educators can employ strategic assessments to identify such incompetence’s early in an online program, enabling the creation of a learning experience that is catered to the individual. As a second example, some learners may prefer group collaboration over independent study; the community lens illustrates that some learners require peer-to-peer interaction to formulate knowledge at an optimal level, while others excel at independent study. Once again, the attributes of learning can be harnessed to create a learning plan that accounts for the learner’s needs to provide a better learning experience.

The second key element is technology and affordances of the World Wide Web (Web). Anderson argues that technology affords the means by which knowledge can be provided and shared with students, as well as facilitate the connections between students, teachers, and knowledge itself. In addition, he points out that the Web provides great opportunity to create, modify, and repurpose educational content through manual and automated means, and that it affords an ever-growing medium of which communication and information exchange can be harnessed by students and teachers for optimized learning. Anderson identifies two key Web technologies used to facilitate learning: (1) The Semantic Web, which affords computed automation capabilities such as digital content search, record keeping, and automated marking systems that serve to improve productivity for students and teachers, and (2) social technologies, which add self-organizational strategies for users to track information and information usage through content tagging. By incorporating web-based technologies into the design of learning, Anderson argues that information is highly accessible, convenient, and ever expanding, thus providing a repository of unbounded content for students to access and a foundation for the development of effective online learning environments.

The third and final key element is interactivity. Anderson outlines Interactivity, or interaction, as a concept used to describe the common exchanges between students, teachers, content, and learning environments. He acknowledges interaction to be a critical component of the entire education process and that varying types of exchanges commonly exist between actors (students and teachers) and objects (content and technology) in the teaching and learning context. Student-student interaction embodies differing perspectives to create knowledge, can result in high levels of cognitive and social presence, and plays a critical role in the development of learning communities. Student-content interaction can be examined to identify how learning material is used and whether learning is passive or active. Anderson suggests learning content to be interactive to allow for optimal learning experiences; for example, content can respond to student behaviour to improve productivity for the learner. The level of student-teacher interaction helps determine the content delivery approach; for example, lesson planning can be delivered synchronously or asynchronously, depending on the level of autonomy the student requires. The many forms of student-content-teacher interactions support the fact that the implementation of online education can be complex. Anderson acknowledges that the Web affords many forms for interaction, through multimedia, and that such interactions can be substituted for one another depending on the following learner criteria: cost, content, learning objectives, convenience, technology used, and time available. Furthermore, Anderson argues that such substitutions do not negatively impact quality of learning; in fact, when experienced at high levels, any form of interaction can take precedence over all other forms of interaction without compromising the educational experience for the learner.

Anderson’s model of online learning acts as a conceptual framework to illustrate many of the key factors that interact in online educational experiences and forms the basis for a future theory of online learning. To develop effective online learning environments, Anderson argues that we need an e-learning theory which encompasses all four attributes of learning to capitalize on educational opportunities, such as the affordances of the web or student-teacher-content interactions, by creating learning systems that harness technology to cater to the needs of the learner, teacher, and learning objectives. Furthermore, Anderson advises that innovative technology, such as the World Wide Web, affords opportunity for learners to acquire deep knowledge through information that will become more accessible and affordable over time. Lastly, Anderson points out that his theory of online learning is merely conceptual at the time of his article and that his next step is to evaluate the effects of each variable on outcome variables including learning, cost, completion, and satisfaction.



Anderson, T. (2008). Towards a theory of online learning. In T. Anderson (Ed.), The theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed., pp. 45-74). Athabasca University Press. Edmonton, AB.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind experience and school. Washington, DC: National Research Council. http:/ howpeople1/

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