Pedagogical approaches in online education

Sven Åke BjørkeFebruary 2014

When discussing pedagogical approaches in e-learning, we usually end up in debating instructivist vs constructivist ways of doing things. Here is “information in a nutshell”, with no ambition of covering the whole issue.

In pedagogy in general and online learning in particular, we talk about stages in learning processes and hierarchies of learning and understanding. Bloom’s taxonomy is a classic example of such a hierarchy of knowledge.  Bloom’s taxonomy of knowledge levels has in turn led to a whole system of questions to test the level each student has managed to attain. Bloom’s taxonomy mainly describes content and knowledge.

The British educator Gilly Salmon has made a pyramid depicting the typical online learning process; the five step pyramid. Progress in online learning means that we move in steps from mainly being an information exchange group eventually arriving through stages at learning in a community; sharing, supporting, challenging, critiquing, questioning the information presented in order to construct new knowledge, partly building on existing participant knowledge and experience.

Pedagogy is not an exact science, even though some pedagogues would like to look at it that way. As a consequence, exact definitions are not possible. The categories are more concepts, almost heuristics at times. It is easier to say something general, and then state what is typical for each category.

Three main pedagogical approaches in elearning.

Three main pedagogical approaches in elearning.


Instructivism or behaviourism ’in a nutshell’ 

Behaviouristic instruction is a traditional way of education delivery. Emphasis is on the transmission of theoretical units of information in a traditional classroom situation: The teacher in front lectures the students facing the teacher. There might be opportunities for dialogue between a student and the teacher. These opportunities are reduced with an increasing number of students present in the classroom. Communication between the students is discouraged.

The instructivist approach: The teacher prepares and serves the information for the student to ‘absorb’. Focus is on what the teacher

The instructivist approach: The teacher prepares and serves the information for the student to ‘absorb’. Focus is on what the teacher teaches

Emphasis is on “getting the message across”, where the teacher channels “objective truths” from the information source to the students. A good teacher dishes out the information in well structured “chunks”, using didactic skills. The main way of communication is one way. When students communicate with the teacher it usually is in response to control questions posed by the teacher. The teacher knows the answer – s/he has the correct answer, a ‘facit’. The teacher controls what is delivered, and decides pacing and process. We therefore call this approach teacher-centred. The information taught is often “decontextualised” i.e. the student studies for the sake of studying, or rather for the exam, in a classroom or school setting. This as opposed to ‘contextualised’ learning where the student has to learn something in order to solve a problem or assignment connected to real life, maybe even outside of the school situation.

The instructivist teacher - the sage on the stage

The instructivist teacher – the sage on the stage

The student able to repeat what the teacher has said and / or what is written in the text book gets good grades. Rote learning is often used. Own opinions are as a rule discouraged.

Metaphor: The teacher fills up empty vessels (the students) with knowledge.
From the student’s perspective: the teacher told me.
Assessment: Exam.
Associated pedagogical theory: behaviorism. Philosophy: positivism.
Research method: quantitative
Pedagogues: Skinner, Thorndike, Watson.


Many students focus on strategic, shallow learning, just learning the stuff necessary to get good grades on the tests. Critical, independent thinking and acting are often weak points. You risk getting people who without objections accept instructions, or what is written. You also get people who depend on instructions from somebody  ”who knows” to lead, motivate and correct. Some students also find that what they learn applies only to the school situation and is not very useful in a work situation in the context of the ordinary society.

Many students tend to focus on performance rather than learning. They think that their performance at a test is due to their ability, not effort. (“I can never learn maths”, rather than: “If I put in more effort, I will learn maths”).

It has been argued that behaviorism is a pedagogy for the industrial society depicted in the Chaplin movie “Modern Times“. In the Information age, by some called the rather unclear “postmodern age“, it is necessary to add the constructivist dimension to education.


The teacher controls what is  ”served”. The correct information is given. Time is not wasted on understanding why it is correct. Basic knowledge such as learn how to read, write, do simple calculations, grammar etc. can be efficiently taught by cramming, drilling, repetitions and tests. Pupils are e.g.  told about Archimedes’ law and Pythagoras rule. They don’t have to think this out by themselves. They also do not have to learn the difference between poisonous and edible mushrooms by trial and error. Discipline and correct individual behaviour in the learning situation are important values. It is fairly easy to control curriculum and content. The students’ ability to cram and reproduce to an exam can be externally verified, e.g. by standardised multiple choice tests and quizzes. Authorities can check whether the teacher has covered the curriculum or not.

The pedagogical challenge:

Do my students really learn, i.e. understand what I teach them? Do they just learn things by heart, forgetting them the day after the test? Do they use words they think I like to hear, even if they don’t understand them? What if I ask the test questions in half a year, will they be able to answer then? Is the knowledge they gain of any use in real life outside the classroom? Retention – the ability to remember knowledge – as a rule increases with the time used to work with the information, number of senses and emotions used, testing out ones own understanding and negotiate meaning in interaction with others, and level of understanding gained.

What is more efficient:

  • a) learning by heart, drilling, study a text for the sake of studying, testing etc or
  • b) active problem-solving, activities building up insight and understanding, critical reflexion?

The answer is probably: It depends. If you want your students to learn irregular French verbs, some types of theoretical maths and the latin names of plants and animals, you might consider  the instructivist method. If you rather want to develop information literacy – the ability to assess various types of information critically, develop skills that can be used in ‘real life’; independence, integrity, social awareness and interpersonal skills, communicate, solve unknown problems, use heuristics, take initiative, decision-making, responsible behaviours and ability to administrate own work etc; other methods might be more efficient.

More on behaviorism


The constructivist approach argues that people have to be active learners and construct knowledge themselves based on what they already know. The knowledge is seen as more subjective, dynamic and expanding rather than objective and static. The main tasks here are processing and understanding of information, making sense of the surrounding world. The learner has a clear responsibility for his / her own learning. This approach is therefore “Learner centred”. This approach can be summed up as “I made sense of…”.

Constructivism demands participation at all levels and moves responsibility and empowerment down the hierarchy, thereby flattening it. The teacher, the “instructivist “Sage on the Stage”,  will increasingly become a “Guide on the Side” in this setting. The approach is often Problem-Based Learning (PBL). The student is given a task or a problem to solve. E.g. “Make a vehicle for transportation of two persons that can go on land as well as water!”

The constructivist teacher - the guide on the side

The constructivist teacher – the guide on the side

  • a) the student must decide the process him/her self how to solve the problem or task. S/he must find the resources and tools and decide how to use these resources. The individual student may choose to learn in isolation or obtain interaction and feedback from peers. Mainstream constructivists such as Piaget, claim that learners learn best in interaction with peers (as opposed to interaction with teachers or other authorities).
  • b) the student may get some guidance with suggestions on how to solve the problem or task, and may be given some resources.
  • c) the student gets access to a mentor or tutor to ask when stuck. The tutor gives guidance but not the answer. Various resources are provided.
  • d) Assessment of product as well as process.


The student develops independence and creativity; s/he learns to be critical when choosing his/her resources. The problems or tasks are authentic, and the student as a rule sees that what s/he learns can be applied in the real world. The learning is contextualised: the entire society around can be used when learning, the student is not secluded in a closed classroom with an artificial setting.

Constructivism encourages learning rather than performance. (If you have failed now, go and put more effort into it! See Attribution theory and motivation  and article on performers vs learners )


It is time-consuming to find out by trial and error, going to the library, asking various people etc. There is a real danger of developing completely individual systems which in some cases may be useful and creative, but often are idiosyncratic; i.e. too individual to be communicated to others. Focus is on the individual or the individual learning in interaction with others. The student may risk becoming a “nerd”. Weaker students who are used to a lot of support will have problems. Undisciplined students may simply give up and do other things they find more amusing without the guiding hand of an authoritative teacher. This way of study may be best suited for elites of the resourceful and independent. External control of what has actually been covered is difficult, and standardised multiple choice testing is often less relevant.

Metaphor: Einstein. Computer freak. ”I found out”.

Associated pedagogy: Genetic epistemology, cognitive development. “Summerhill schools”

Pedagogues: John Dewey, Jean Piaget.

Research method: Qualitative.

Pedagogical challenge:

Make the student find the ‘correct’ information and use it properly by e.g. questioning reliability and relevance. It might also be difficult to decide when to guide and when to let the students get on with it. Making the less resourceful and dependent work well in this type of environment without disturbing the others, might be problematic. It takes some experience to find the correct balance between giving no resources at all and define, prepare and deliver all learning resources for the students. Another challenge may be pacing of progress.

More on constructivism

Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning

Bruner – constructivism in education

Social constructivism or socio-cultural pedagogy

A community of practice requires actitivity and questioning (DM studenst, F2F Sri lanka)

A community of practice requires activity and questioning (DM students, F2F Sri lanka)

Social constructivism means that the students join a knowledge-generating community; a community of practice (CoP), and in collaboration with others solve real problems and assignments in an authentic context as part of their study. In a social constructivist environment, the teacher will, though an “old-timer” (a master), to some extent be a learner together with his/her students, as the generic skills of collaboration, problem-solving and creating new knowledge are important goals by themselves.

In a community of practice the newcomer is regarded as a “legitimate peripheral participant”(LPP), “scaffolded” or guided and supported into the community, meets participants, take part in goal-directed activities and learn in “zones of proximal development (ZPD)”

In a community of practice the newcomer is regarded as a “legitimate peripheral participant”(LPP), “scaffolded” or guided and supported into the community, meets participants, take part in goal-directed activities and learn in “zones of proximal development (ZPD)”

Learning takes place in “zones of proximal development” (ZPD) where newcomers or novices meet and interact with more advanced peers; the More Knowledgable Other (MKO) and old-timers or masters. Newcomers become members of a community  by participating in simple tasks that are nonetheless productive and further the goals of the community. The MKOs will meet the newcomer at various stages and make “scaffolds” facilitating the newcomer to approach the centre of the community. Learning is defined as increased participation.

Through peripheral activities; legitimate peripheral participation,  novices become acquainted with the tasks, vocabulary, and organizing principles of the community. The more experienced may give advice and corrections, but as a rule there are few “correct answers” or “facits” in a learning community of inquiry. Everything is up for questioning.

Through this social interaction learning takes place and competence increases through socio-cultural development according to the Russian psychologist Vygotsky. The tasks will be processing and assessing knowledge, negotiate meaning and generating and co-constructing new knowledge. Learning is a social activity where the students have to use the information they gather actively by applying it in discussion with others. It is not enough to just state opinions; the students must support their statements by referring to reliable and verifiable sources. The demands to academic rigor are about the same as for instructivist courses. Studying for the sake of studying is avoided. Studies should be undertaken for a purpose, and the participants should critically assess information according to relevance and usefulness in solving the task at hand. Often,the educational institution requires that their students develop core values or characteristics like: courage, compassion, curiosity, respect, responsibility and integrity and work systematically to install such values in the daily studies.


The strengths are similar to those of constructivism. In addition: the participants learn synergistic collaboration and socializing.

Socio-cultural learning requires collaboration. The students are not competitors. Group work and a grade in common for the group.

Socio-cultural learning requires collaboration. The students are not competitors. Group work and a grade in common for the group.

The constructivist approach emphasizes the individual learner cooperating with others in order to learn. In socio-constructivism, focus is more on the group and group learning than on the individual.

It is much easier to keep up the study motivation together with others. Communication skills improve. The student uses the information gathered by formulating and stating arguments. The knowledge gained is actively used and modified in confrontation with the opinions of others, and thus understanding and insight increase with the discussions.

Constructivist approaches as a rule promote insight, understanding and deeper learning more than cramming information instructivist style..


Constructivism is as a rule time-consuming and demanding. Best suited for resourceful and independent students.

Pedagogues: Vygotsky. Engestrøm. Lave, Wenger, Bruner, Biggs. Saljø.

Research method: qualitative.

More on socio-constructivism

In a learning situation, the various methods can be used in combination. The challenge is to find the right balance. The tutor can see these approaches as tools. Metaphorically: At times it is appropriate to use a hammer, at other times a saw. The same is the case with pedagogical approaches. The good pedagogue knows when to choose what tool and how long to use it.

 Pedagogical theories relevant for online learning

Cognitive load theory

The theory claims that learners have a limited working or short term memory, but an unlimited long-term memory. The short term memory can only process a limited amount of information at the same time.  As a consequence, learners have a limited and selective attention span. If the learner gets many tasks to learn or is distracted by other items, the working memory becomes overloaded and learning stops. The Cognitive load should be considered when planning a lesson to avoid overloading.

As a rule of thumb, the brain attention span for receiving information – or information processing – is limited to around 10 minutes.  Teaching should therefore be given in small chunks. Online video lectures should as a rule be of limited length.

Most learners have a limited and selective attention span. When the learner works, she is selective, and can ignore other stimuli. However, it is still easy to be distracted by e.g. phone calls, e-mails, facebook updates and peers popping in for a chat. We can attend to only a limited number of stimuli at the same time – the attentional capacity. This capacity should not be overloaded. Instructional design should not overload the working memory. A learner should complete one task before proceeding to the next. Learners and instructors must be aware of these limits and discuss how to handle them.

Peer instruction

According to the physics professor Eric Mazur, lecturing is often a waste of time. Students tend to store the information in their short term memory and forget it all when the exam is over. Mazur found that when he asked the students to form dyads – groups of two – and instructed them to explain the concept to be learned to each other, learning retention was much higher. Someone who had just learned the concept understands the conceptual difficulties  others might have. The expert teacher learned this a long time ago, and might not remember what he went through to achieve understanding.

Mazur proceeded to ask his students to read the material beforehand, and then gave them a multiple choice online quiz upon arrival in class.  The answers were stored on a computer or LMS. Then the students were asked to discuss the question with the neighbour. After some minutes, the students were asked to answer the same quiz. This entailed deeper learning and three times better understanding compared to just lecturing. Students who have to formulate their understanding in their own words, and explain or negotiate meaning with another learner, seem to learn more and achieve deeper understanding.

Flipping the class

Based on the experience of peer instruction, the process was developed into a theory of the flipped classroom.  Students are asked to view online video lectures at home. Problems that previously were done as homework, would be discussed in the class. Learners were consequently working on problem solving with others, thus applying higher level thinking skills rather than just passively listening to a lecture in class.

Typical for the flipped classroom are:

  • learners actively engage in the learning process
  • learners apply what they learned from watching the video lesson
  • learners may review content by repeating the video lecture
  • learners receive personal assistance and attention needed to proceed to the next level of understanding
  • learners learn from each other
  • instructors guide in the learning process
“It is what the teacher get the students to do in the class that emerged as the strongest component of the accomplished teacher’s repertoire, rather than what the teacher, specifically, does” (Hattie, 2009, p.35) “It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner’s construction of knowledge and ideas that is critical”…So often learners become passive recipients of teachers’ lessons…but the aim is to make students active in the learning process – through actions by the teachers and others – until the students reach the stage where they become their own teachers” (Hattie, 2009, p.37)

“It is what the teacher get the students to do in the class that emerged as the strongest component of the accomplished teacher’s repertoire, rather than what the teacher, specifically, does” (Hattie, 2009, p.35) “It is not the knowledge or ideas, but the learner’s construction of knowledge and ideas that is critical”…So often learners become passive recipients of teachers’ lessons…but the aim is to make students active in the learning process – through actions by the teachers and others – until the students reach the stage where they become their own teachers” (Hattie, 2009, p.37)

Backwards design

Rather than starting out with content and what the teacher wants to teach,  the teacher focuses on the intended learning outcomes (ILOs).  What are the learners expected to have learned and be able to do on completion of the lesson? Going from a teacher centered to a learner centered approach means that the lesson must focus on the outcomes and what the learners must do to achieve those outcomes.

Backwards design have three stages in the design process.

  1. Identify what the students are to learn and be able to perform on completion of the learning session
  2. Define the evidence that will show that the desired or intended  learning ourcomes have been achieved
  3. Plan the lesson so that learners are able to produce the evidence showing that the intended learning outcomes have been achieved. Various learning activities leading to appropriate reification are usually needed

Choosing the pedagogical approach

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn
Alvin Toffler

Choosing the pedagogical approach obviously is related to what we want to achieve. If we want our students to become champions in doing quizzes and reproduce the correct answers in standardized tests; pure instructivist teaching is probably sufficient. The students then need to copy, cram and reproduce information fragments. Deep understanding or higher levels of understanding in Bloom’s taxonomy of knowledge are not required.

The 4 Cs: Four key qualities for the Information Age:   Be Creative,  efficient Communicator, Critical thinker and Collaborator

If we want our students to be creative, critical thinkers with collaborative skills, if we want them to communicate efficiently with others, be proactive and take independent initiative, we have to do something in addition to train our students in copy, cram and reproduce.

If we expect students after three or five years of tertiary education to be self-disciplined, diligent, demonstrate critical inquisitive curiosity and deep subject understanding, we probably have to plan for that in our study programs as well. We cannot expect these qualities to be intuitively developed. On the contrary, if we are not conscious about these issues we risk limiting their creativity. If we want our students to be innovative, we might have to consider going beyond Bloom’s taxonomy, and think in a hierarchy of creativity:

“Ultimately, in order to progress to a culture of innovation, it is necessary that something is created which has value. This fits very well with the habits of the mind shown below:

  1. Creating, Imagining and Innovating
  2. Thinking Interdependently

In an online course, all the tools of the Internet, especially those that allow a student to create an environment depend upon the characteristics above and are part of the students’ way of learning” (Turner, 2014). Creativity is not enough. Critical thinking must also be added to the list of skills to be trained.

Online lecturing might not be as important as teachers would like to think. Emphasis must be more on customised, collaborative learning, less on lecturing. Broadcast learning does not go well with the Net Gen students. Students must be empowered to collaborate. Students are collaborators, not competitors. Online lecturing is not the only appropriate tool in modern education.

Skills for the information age

The Pearson 2014 Learning report emphasises that the three “Rs” (“reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic in learning are important but no longer enough.

21st century skills (Pearson)

21st century skills (Pearson)

“…social understanding is also integral to a new range of abilities which educationalists have identified as ‘21st century skills’, including communication, working in teams and problem-solving”.
“As Andreas Schleicher, OECD deputy director for education, puts it: “The world economy no longer pays for what people know but for what they can do with what they know.” So far, however, understanding how best to teach these skills has suffered from even poorer data than those available for traditional ones, or even from a lack of outcomes definitions. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is seeking to fill the void. In April 2014 it released the results from a problem-solving section included for the first time in the 2012 test, and in 2015 it aims to test collaborative working”.  No doubt, teamwork and collaborative studies will be an important part of the 21st century skills, no matter how they are defined.

Information literacy

We have to train our students in information literacy; the ability to search, assess and sort valid and relevant information, find new aspects, construct new knowledge and apply it in concrete problem solving. They should be able to spot the difference between facts, science, best available knowledge and practices on one hand and speculations, unsubstantiated opinions, fiction, fantasy, fairytales and deceitful propaganda on the other. They need training if we want our students to be able to apply gained knowledge and heuristics in solving hitherto unknown problems. They will undoubtedly have to “venture into unknown terrain” throughout their professional careers.

The DIKW-pyramid: Data - Information - Knowledge - Wisdom: Data can be structured to information. Data and information can be disseminated. Knowledge and understanding must be built in each person or within a group

The DIKW-pyramid: Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom: Data can be structured to information. Data and information can be disseminated. Knowledge and understanding must be built in each person or within a group. Wisdom – or the classical Greek expression: Phronesis: Sufficient and adequate Knowledge and insight  to apply it in problem solving and make the right decisions. 

If we want our students to be capable in cross-cultural communication, to use various communication media and build personal, international networks for later professional use, we should plan for it and integrate it in our educational infrastructure.

Summit primary school in Silicon valley, California, systematically works on attitudes in their education

Summit primary school in Silicon valley, California, systematically works on attitudes in their education

Furthermore, intrinsic motivation for dynamic, life-long learning ensuring continuous currency in information and knowledge must be encouraged from the very beginning in tertiary education. We cannot expect students to develop these attitudes just because somebody happens to mention it in the next anniversary speech.

Integrity, high ethical standards, self-direction and good abilities in arts and aesthetics must deliberately and systematically be integrated in the educational system if we think these qualities are important. There is no standard way to achieve this. Solid pedagogical insight, experience and deep subject knowledge are necessary for any faculty to develop and deliver high quality education.

Pictures: Å. Bjørke. (Click on picture to get full size)

Learning for the future?

Links to various other pedagogical approaches:

Challenge based learning:

Problem and Project Based Learning

Transformative pedagogy

Bloom’s taxonomy

Blended learning

Pedagogical theory

This article has also been posted at HASTAC

About svenaake

University Teacher.
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7 Responses to Pedagogical approaches in online education

  1. DiScoro says:

    In designing a course there seems the option to start from the content or from the learning objectives (backward design). I miss the option to start from what the learners wish to learn. So the true learner centered approach. Both content and learning objectives are teacher centered unless the learner can set the learning objectives.


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  7. says:

    This is the perfect blog for anyone who hopes to
    find out about this topic. You know so much its
    almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want to…HaHa).
    You certainly put a brand new spin on a topic that has been discussed for a long time.
    Excellent stuff, just excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

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