Hrastinski, S. (2009). A theory of online learning as online participation. Computers & Education, 52(1), 78–82.
The article by Hrastinski provides a theory of student participation in distance learning and CSCL (Computer Supported Collaborative Learning) environments, how this participation actually drives learning in online education environments, how the social aspects of participation have positive effects on achievement and learning by providing further learning opportunities outside of the virtual classroom. He also compares online learning to more traditional learning. Also, he discusses how the inter student and teacher interaction and cooperation helps improve learning in online settings. He provides a literature review on such things as constructivism, which aims to transfer knowledge objects from teacher to learner, in the construction of knowledge. Participation activities in online courses also involve developing, establishing, and nurturing social relationships, dialogue and discourse, utilization of various tools, and involves activities that engage students. However, online learners are usually physically isolated from other learners, the instructor and the source of the content. He also provides data on a study by Morris, Finnegan and Sz-Shyan that measured learning outcomes (i.e. perceived learning, grades on tests, quality of assignment completion) based upon such variables as number of discussion posts, seconds spent viewing content pages and discussions. In addition, the author reflects on the types of interactions that learners have (i.e. learner to instructor, content and to other learners). He also refers to how Haythornthwaite and Kazmer found that support systems were important, such as from family, and colleagues. Also, he ties the article to Wenger’s definition of participation, involving sense of and attachment to community, which becomes cyclical (Palloff and Pratt) because participation drives attachment to the community and attachment to the community drives a higher likelihood to help others.
The participation activities utilized in online learning contribute to student satisfaction and retention. When students take part directly, synchronously and asynchronously in online learning activities, the participation duration is finite, so the student then has then go off to individually integrate and synthesize when they are not online. This may appear to be a completely independent learning model, but students in online courses continue their learning outside the classroom through social interactions with other students and the instructor. Equipped with psychological tools (language, engaging activities) physical tools such as the Internet, hardware, software, the LMS, the student has opportunities to perform work such as reading and writing (doing), interact with others (talking), reflect on the content (thinking), make choices and judgements on the content and experience (feeling), and be part of a group socially (belonging). The social interactions form interdependency and intimacy that is generated among students in online courses through participation. This builds trust, shared values and a sense of belonging.
This article is essential reading for researchers in learning science who want to understand the effects of various types of participation by students in online learning settings. It gives the some theoretical footing on the value of such things as discussion boards, interactive assignments and online content, with respect to constructing knowledge. It also gives a rationale as to how the social aspects of online learning can provide reinforcement and strengthen the acquisition and retention of knowledge through interactions. These interactions occur between the students, instructors, social support structures such as family members and work colleagues. The article also may help researchers and teachers to develop and/or locate and implement tools for online and distance learning.