Understanding Quality of Learning in Digital Learning Environments: State of the Art and Research Needed

Bernadette Charlier, Laurent Cosnefroy, Annie Jézégou and Geneviève Lameul

Introduction: Towards a Theoretical Framework to Understand Teaching and Learning in HE


Over the last two years, the press, blogs and social networks have heralded a tsunami by Massive Open Online Courses[2] in Higher Education (Cisel and Bruillard 2013; Daniel 2012; Grover et al. 2013). Many universities and colleges in the United States, Europe and also in Switzerland are providing such courses. For a longer period, since the generalization of Learning Management Systems in most universities, teachers have progressively organized and taken into account distance activities alongside face-to-face activities, to the extent that traditional learning courses are often called 'hybrid' or 'blended learning' courses (Charlier et al. 2006a).

Faced with these changes, actors can rarely call upon research that goes beyond feedback from experience, case studies or satisfaction surveys to guide their action (Deschryver 2008). However, existing research in educational technology, cognitive psychology, adult education and university education, if they are considered together, provide a potentially relevant theoretical and methodological framework to answer the two fundamental research questions:

• How do student characteristics and those of digital learning environments interact?

• What are the configurations emerging from these interactions that can lead to

quality learning?

These research questions reflect a systemic perspective in which human learning is part of a circular causality system between three sets of characteristics (Fig. 1):

(1) relating to individual students, (2) relating to the digital learning environment, and (3) resulting from the interaction between the two. These so-called 'process' features generate learning outcomes (4) that in turn influence individual and environmental characteristics.

This perspective reflects a circular (i.e. non-linear) systemic model of learning developed by social-cognitive learning theory (Bandura 1986); (Zimmerman 2002). This theory sets the act of learning in a system of reciprocal causality between personal characteristics (cognitive, emotional, and biological, i.e. unique to each learner) and environmental factors (organizational, human, cultural, material, etc.). Such circular causality models, now widely recognized in Adult Education (Cross 1981) and in higher education studies (Tinto 1975), (Biggs 2003), should necessarily guide research methods aimed at understanding the effects of digital learning environments (characterized and differentiated) on the learning of individuals. In what follows, we briefly summarize recent research results that could lay the foundations for this research.

Fig. 1 Systemic perspective of circular causality as proposed by INTENS

  • [1] This framework has been developed for the submission of a research proposal submitted in April 2014 to the FNS (Swiss) and to ANR (France): the INTENS project
  • [2] Today, policy makers have rapidly committed their institutions to new educational projects (since January 2014, 21 MOOCs have been offered in France by the major schools and universities under the banner of France Digital University. In Switzerland, 21 MOOCs are proposed by the EPFL, 3 by the University of Lausanne as of September 2014, and five by the University of Geneva. Data from March 2014.)
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