Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Models of learning appropriate to educational applications of information technology

Dr Rob Phillips
Curtin University of Technology
This paper will present a review of learning models appropriate for educational applications of Information Technology (IT). A range of models will be presented and their strengths and weaknesses discussed.

Firstly, two major and pervasive theories of learning in the field of educational psychology will be described. Objectivism and Constructivism are sometimes thought of as mutually exclusive, but in reality there is a continuum between the two.

Current thinking indicates that it is appropriate to develop computer-based learning materials which are biased towards the constructivist end of the continuum, but others contend that a well-designed piece of courseware should incorporate the most appropriate aspects of each learning theory. In this paper, four different models of learning which share aspects of constructivism and objectivism will be described. These are the Laurillardian model of Guided-Discovery Learning; the Situated Cognition Theory; Cognitive Flexibility Theory; and a recent "input, process and output" model by Reeves.

The four models have many similarities, but different emphases, and this paper will discuss ways in which these models can be applied to particular applications of educational technology.


Although there are many theories of learning in the field of educational psychology, two major and pervasive theories well represented in the literature are Objectivism and Constructivism. These are often portrayed as mutually exclusive (Marra and Jonassen, 1993), but Reeves (Reeves, 1992) has pointed out that there is a continuum between objectivism and constructivism.

In the objectivist theory (Marra and Jonassen, 1993), a nominalistic view of knowledge is held. Knowledge is thus regarded as existing independently of any human experience and the role of the learner is to acquire it. Objectivists place a strong emphasis on defining learning objectives and implicitly assume that the learner is an empty vessel, to be filled by the instructor (Reeves, 1992).

A strength of objectivism is its ability to address novice learning situations. However, objectivism is not a suitable approach to use for many aspects of university learning. Critics of objectivism claim that there is little scope for dealing with individual learner differences (Marra and Jonassen, 1993), and it is doubtful that complex knowledge structures can be adequately represented via lists of pre-defined instructional objectives. Marra and Jonassen also differ with "the objectivist's long-standing presumption that instruction can externally control what individuals learn". Laurillard (Laurillard, 1993) identifies a further problem with the objectivist approach, in that "the analysis into components of the teaching-learning process is not followed by any synthesis". At university, students not only have to learn knowledge and skills, they also have to learn how to think and make judgments. In this age of rapid change, students need to prepare themselves for lifelong learning (Candy et al., 1994).

The Constructivist epistemology (Marra and Jonassen, 1993) seeks to address these issues.

Constructivism posits that reality is more in the mind of the knower, and the knower constructs or interprets a reality from his or her perceptions and prior experience. In this view, the student constructs his or her own knowledge from the environment s/he is in. The task of the teacher is to provide material and guide the learner in ways that encourage students to synthesise their own knowledge and integrate it into an enlarged cognitive structure in the process.

The constructivist approach assumes that learners can build their own knowledge, so the student is viewed as an autonomous learner and inquirer. A major goal of the constructivist approach is that the learning environment is as rich as possible, and interactive multimedia has clear possibilities for producing rich learning environments which the student can explore at will. However, a drawback of the constructivist approach is that it assumes the student has research skills, which may not in fact be the case.

Current thinking indicates that it is appropriate to develop interactive multimedia learning materials reflecting the constructivist end of the continuum (Marra and Jonassen, 1993). Gillespie (Gillespie, 1995), contends that a well-designed piece of courseware should incorporate the most appropriate aspects of each learning theory. In this paper, four different models of learning which share aspects of constructivism and objectivism will be described. The four models have many similarities, but different emphases.

The four learning models


Laurillard (Laurillard, 1993, Laurillard, 1994) approaches the issue pragmatically from the viewpoint of student learning. She argues that there are four main aspects of the teaching-learning process, and she has analysed different educational media in terms of these aspects. The aspects are:

Discussion  between the teacher and learner at the level of descriptions
Interactionbetween the learner and some aspect of the world defined by the teacher
Adaptationof the world by the teacher and action by the learner
Reflectionon the learner's performance by both teacher and learner

Laurillard argues that the only use of technology which can meet these aims is the "multimedia tutorial simulation", characterised in terms of guided-discovery learning. Her schema is based on forming an information rich environment in which the student has control in discovering knowledge, but the discovery is supported and scaffolded by extra guidance functions (Laurillard, 1993) which provide support and feedback for subsequent learning. These functions are analogous to the coaching and scaffolding at critical times proposed in the Situated Cognition Theory.

Phillips (Phillips, 1997, Chapter 2) has analysed the guidance functions proposed by Laurillard (Laurillard, 1993), identifying those which may currently be feasibly implemented in an IMM program. These functions can also be classified as cognitive tools, as defined by Jonassen and Reeves (Jonassen and Reeves, 1996), who maintain that the computer is most effective in education when it is used as a cognitive tool to assist students to construct their own understanding.

The Laurillardian model is very general, and does not really specify how the various parts of the model may be achieved. For example, Interaction can be achieved in any number of unspecified ways. Situated Cognition Theory provides a more specific set of criteria.

Situated cognition theory

The Situated Cognition Theory of Brown, Collins and Duguid (Brown et al., 1989, Herrington and Oliver, 1995) seeks to reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real-life by providing authentic context which:

has authentic activities;
gives access to expert performances and the modelling of processes;
provides multiple roles and perspectives;
supports collaborative construction of knowledge;
provides coaching and scaffolding at critical times;
promotes reflection;
enables tacit knowledge to be made explicit;
provides for integrated assessment of learning within the tasks.

This approach attempts to place the learning activity in an environment that closely parallels a real world situation, essentially in an authentic context that reflects the way that knowledge will be used in real-life (Herrington and Oliver, 1995). It is sometimes called a Cognitive Apprenticeship.

For example, the Birds of Antarctica project (Maor and Phillips, 1996, Phillips and Maor, 1996) seeks to teach secondary students scientific inquiry skills by allowing them to interact with actual observations taken by Australian Antarctic Division staff on board supply and research vessels travelling to and from Antarctica. Therefore, we chose to situate the learning in a simulated ship-board environment.

Part of the Situated Cognition approach is to provide coaching and support to students at critical times (Herrington and Oliver, 1995). Gradually, the support is removed until students are able to stand on their own. In the Birds of Antarctica project, the amount of data available and the range of behaviour of the data lead to a very complex environment.

While the program was designed to simplify this complexity, the complexity is still present, and therefore students need guidance in coping with it. A range of measures was provided whereby students could be supported. A guided tour was designed especially to help novice students use the different options of the program and to navigate through the program. After the user becomes familiar with the technical use of the program and can easily navigate through the various data (e.g. observational data and display data), the user is introduced to the steps of scientific investigations suitable to the constructivist learning environment. This guides them in planning and conducting investigations. The expert user, by now, is able to explore and design any investigation within the simulated learning environment.

Cognitive flexibility theory

Not all learning problems can be treated using an 'apprenticeship' model. In abstract fields it is not sensible to use a Situated Learning approach. We cannot experience a chemical reaction at the molecular scale, so we cannot simulate this real world environment.

The Cognitive Flexibility Theory (Feltovich et al., 1989, Spiro et al., 1988, Spiro et al., 1987, Jacobson et al., 1996) shares some similarities with Situated Cognition Theory, and is applicable to abstract situations. Cognitive Flexibility Theory advocates a learning environment which includes:

using multiple knowledge representations
linking abstract concepts in cases to depict knowledge in use
demonstrating the conceptual interconnectedness or web-like nature of complex knowledge
emphasising knowledge assembly rather than reproductive memory
introducing both conceptual complexity and domain complexity early

As an example, the SarcoMotion program (Phillips et al., 1997) meets most of the requirements of the Cognitive Flexibility Theory, as well as fulfilling most of the criteria for a Laurillardian Guided-discovery Learning Environment. Specifically, this project seeks to investigate understanding of skeletal muscle contraction by first year tertiary human biology students. The process of muscle contraction is sub-microscopic, dynamic, three-dimensional and involves complex interactions between the component parts. Observation of students over several years, who studied this material in a traditional lecture/tutorial setting, indicated that, while they could identify the components, they had difficulty in visualising the underlying processes at work.

The program is based on an animation of the muscle contraction process. Students observe and manipulate the animation to identify components and examine how the components interact with each other. At a second level, students inquire deeper into the material by clicking on elements of the animation. Detailed information on each component is accessed by questions typically asked of lecturers and tutors, for example "Why do you need it?". This facilitates a non-linear navigation through the information space.


Reeves (Reeves, 1997) has recently proposed a model for interactive learning on the World-wide Web based on the input, process and output of the learning event. Essentially, Reeves is saying that students bring certain attributes to their learning, go through a process of education and this process has a set of outcomes, The parts of the process identified by Reeves are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Components of the Reeves 'Process' model of
interactive learning on the World-wide Web.

InputProcess Output

Cultural habits of mindOpportunity to construct learningKnowledge and skills
Aptitude and individual differencesTask ownershipRobust mental models
Origin of motivationSense of audience
Collaborative support
Teacher support
Metacognitive support
Higher order outcomes

While Reeves conceived of this model with respect to online learning, reflection on the model indicates that it has a wider applicability to education in general. While this model will surely mature with time, its strength is that it addresses some of the more human aspects of learning, in particular Cultural Habits of Mind and Origin of Motivation. It also goes beyond the traditional Knowledge and Skills measure of outcomes of the educational process, which is particularly important in a tertiary education environment moving ever more into lifelong learning.


There is a tendency for newcomers to this field to simply take the traditional Objectivist, or Instructivist, approach used in the classroom and put it on the computer. This is a particularly easy trap to fall into with the world-wide web, where it is so easy to simply convert existing materials. However, computers just are not as good as teachers at doing what teachers do best. They are also not as good as books at doing what books do best. It is therefore necessary to critically reflect on the most appropriate way to use educational technology.

The purpose of this paper was to concisely describe various alternative models of teaching and learning suitable for use in online and computer-based environments. The models share similarities, and have restrictions of applicability. The sensible approach is to take the most suitable aspects of each, and use them appropriately.

It is hoped that this information can be of use to practising academics seeking to use information technology in their teaching.


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Please cite as: Phillips, R. (1998). Models of learning appropriate to educational applications of information technology. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 264-268. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/phillips.html

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