Applying social learning theories to the online environment


Published: June 15, 2012 by Dr. Michelle Holschuh Simmons

Many of you reading this will know that I teach Information Literacy and that my own background before I moved into the field of academic librarianship was as a high school English teacher. Thus, my whole professional life I have been interested in the teaching and learning process. Now that I teach for SJSU SLIS, I have become especially interested in how vibrant learning communities can be cultivated in an online educational environment. Specifically, I am interested in examining how social learning theories can inform online pedagogy and how an awareness of these theories can improve online instruction.

My theoretical perspectives are rooted in Lev Vygotsky’s theories of social constructivism, as he put forth in his book Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Mental Processes (1978), in which he argues that learning is a social, collaborative activity. Vygotsky’s conception of learning requires that instructors cultivate a sense of collaboration among the students and between the students and the instructor, which may be perceived as difficult to achieve in an online environment.

Additionally, I turn to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, who theorize that learners are members of numerous communities of practice, and within these communities, learning is situated within activity, context, and culture. A community of practice according to Lave and Wenger is an environment in which members have a common goal, and they learn normative ways of relating to each other from the experience of being part of the community. Additionally, members of a community of practice have a shared repertoire of communal resources, such as a shared vocabulary (Wenger, 1998; Lave and Wenger, 1990). Undoubtedly, our online classrooms within SLIS are communities of practice, where we share a common goal of becoming library and information science professionals, and we share common vocabularies and habits of mind.

In response to the many people who erroneously believe that online education is akin to correspondence courses in which the relationship between the instructor and student is severely limited and the relationship between the student and other students is virtually non-existent, I am attempting to place our work as online educators within a theoretical context that highlights the rich learning communities that are developed within our online classrooms.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.


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