504: Reflections on Theory and Knowledge

June 21, 2010 Justin Miscellaneous

I’ve been reading about theories of knowledge and learning, and it’s been a sometimes frustrating but mostly intriguing experience. I have to admit, I’ve never been good with theories. Not because I don’t like to think, but because I don’t think my cognitive faculties are as elevated as the great thinkers I should be appreciating. But I’ve already come to realize that without a good, strong theoretical foundation, educational technology would be a dead-end.

Spector (2005) outlines four theoretical foundations for educational technology research: (1) learning psychology, (2) communications theory, (3) human-computer interaction (i.e. how humans learn from computed-based instruction), and (4) instructional design and development. Spector mentions an instructional theory I wasn’t familiar with beforehand: component display theory. The theory provides “guidelines for when control should pass from the instructional computing system to the learner and what should be included in that control” (p. 25).

I researched component display theory (CDT) a little more, and learned that the theory outlines four main forms of presentation: rules, recall, practice, and example. Learning itself consists of interaction between two areas: concepts (e.g. the facts and concepts one learns), and performance (i.e. how the learner uses the learned material). An important aspect of the CDT model is that it allows for the learner to control the instructional strategies that are used. In other words, the learner can adapt them to meet his own learning style.

This really interests me. The main area of focus in my job has traditionally been in human-computer interaction, and CDT applies quite directly to this foundation. Lately, I’ve been musing over how we can improve our district’s online learning. Currently, our only source of purely online learning is our self-directed professional development portal on Moodle, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s woefully inadequate. We do provide some good tutorials on our technology tools like the staff blogs and our employee leave reporting program, but proper assessments are not performed (I don’t count taking a simple five-question multiple choice quiz with the correct answer being the only “serious” one in the set an “assessment”). In other words, we’re not doing a very good job of evaluating learning. What’s more, our online instruction isn’t subject to revision. Our employees have very different preferences for learning. Our district does quite a good job of trying to accommodate them all, but we can be doing more. The way I see it, our staff should have their choice between online self-directed learning and live webinars. We could also explore the possibility of hosting an online conference for our district. Giving users multiple options is the key.

Dede (2008) offers an interesting article, in which he argues that we are seeing a shift in knowledge, from an organized system dictated by recognized experts, to community-oriented and collectively-approved. Wikipedia, which is one of the top 10 most visited sites on the Internet (according to Alexa), has blurred the line between academically-approved knowledge and information deemed acceptable by a worldwide social network. People have settled for knowledge that’s just “good enough” and no longer turn to the “sages on stage” delivering their incontrovertible wisdom from their ivory towers.

Two things occur to me. The first is that students must be taught how to recognize potentially false information, and how to recognize bias. They need to learn how to correlate any community-approved “knowledge” with other sources. Students use social media every day, creating their own communities and sharing knowledge that’s relevant to them. The Internet has made everyone a potential expert with a worldwide audience, and we must teach our students that not every self-proclaimed “expert” out there necessarily speaks the truth. There is still value to peer-review among established scholars, though even they have their own biases and are prone to misinformation. However, there is an undeniable gradient of reputability, and the established scholars still occupy the top. The question is, will they stay there?

The second is that we need to actually encourage students to form their own knowledge-sharing communities. Rather than sweep this under the rug, we can use this to our advantage. In my own district, I would like to see online student learning networks take hold and become hubs for the sharing of information, stimulate thoughtful inquiry, and help foster budding content experts. I think few teachers would deny there are many things they can learn from their own students. We need to encourage students to continue learning the things they are passionate about, and guide them to correspond more with established academicians. The world wide web has made it easy to reach out and communicate to anyone, and I think our schools are only beginning to explore the massive social possibilities the Internet has to offer.


Dede, C. (2008, May/June). A seismic shift in epistemology. EDUCAUSE Review, 80–81.

Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopaedias go head to head. Nature, 438(7070), 900-901. doi:10.1038/438900a.

edtech504, knowledge, theory,

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