Learning philosophy

Authentic, engaging, connected learning experiences

The social-constructivist platform

The OpenLearning platform has been built from the ground up on solid educational foundations since its inception. The goal is to provide a social learning environment in which students feel empowered, deep learning experiences are fostered, students are intrinsically motivated, and passionate communities of practice flourish through well-designed constructive experiences. This has been realised with the latest social technology, and is designed for a global, connected society.

Additionally, OpenLearning is an innovator in the field, and extends existing educational theory to not only the platform mechanics, but by providing a launch pad for new academic research. We work with both educators and technologists in continual experiments with novel educational mechanics.

Educational foundations

The OpenLearning philosophy, which governs the design of the platform is based on the educational foundations of:

1. Student empowerment

to foster deeper learning through intrinsic motivation

2. Authentic, active learning experiences

which go beyond publishing content

3. Community and connectedness

to encourage sharing, build student rapport, and support collaboration

1. Empowering the Student

OpenLearning values student autonomy and giving students control over their learning in order to foster a love of lifelong learning. Much of traditional teaching practice establishes an environment where the student is not at the centre of their learning, but instead subordinate to a web of external authorities.

“A teacher at the head of a classroom is one of the commonest images conjured up by the word ‘authority’… Of course teachers’ authority is not the only manifestation of authority in the classroom even if it is the most obvious one; student life also takes in, among other things, the authority of administrators, of textbooks and textbook writers, of parents, of ‘successful’ peers – an entire web of authorities.” (Amit & Fried, 2005)

In an online community environment like OpenLearning, the power of the teacher and their materials (as an expert authority) is diminished, and the role of a teacher becomes more of a mentor, to guide, prompt and facilitate discussion. OpenLearning’s educational philosophy borrows from constructivist teaching methods (e.g. Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky) with a primary goal for students to learn how to learn, by giving students the power to take initiative for their own learning experiences. With this focus on heutagogy and self-directed, community-based learning over conventional pedagogies, OpenLearning provides the tools to effectively empower students in an online learning environment and is dedicated to transforming the way that we teach and learn online.

the emergence of new cultural tools transforms power and authority

Wertsch, 1998

Giving students the power and encouragement to take ownership over their learning promotes intrinsic, rather than extrinsic motivation which in turn leads to deeper learning and understanding of a topic. Furthermore, it gives students the opportunity and encouragement to connect to other students and teachers as peers, providing an encouraging and comfortable environment to share their voice and express their ideas.

good teachers join self, subject, and students… they manifest in their own lives, and evoke in their students, a capacity for connectedness

 Parker J. Palmer, 1997

Intrinsic and extrinsic are two basic categorisations of motivation used by educational psychologists. Intrinsic motivation comes from the desire to learn a topic due to it being inherently interesting. Intrinsic motivation brings about enjoyment, self-fulfilment, and a desire to achieve mastery of a subject. In contrast, extrinsic motivation categorises the motivation to perform and succeed for the sake of accomplishing a specific outcome, or to gain a particular result or reward. (Deci, Ryan, et. al., 2004).

Institutional teaching has traditionally relied on extrinsic motivation to push students towards higher grades and success in assessments. The teacher’s power is wielded in such a way that the student’s duty is to perform for the teacher, often motivated by a fear of failure. Grades are issued, and often valued (by administrators, parents, institutions, and often even the teachers themselves) more highly than the meaning gained from the learning experiences themselves. Doing well in information retrieval tasks to recall principles and factual details is often enough to provide a sufficient level of success, and this translates into these tasks becoming more highly valued than the process of building a passion for a topic. This encourages students to optimise the accumulation of extrinsic rewards and accomplishments, and all too often encourages students to shortcut key learning experiences to gain these extrinsic outcomes. As a result, the value placed on the extrinsic rewards in turn leads to plagiarism, resentment of the topic (and sometimes of learning institutions themselves), and surface learning.

Deep and Surface Learning

Learning experiences can be categorised on a spectrum of those that only motivate surface learning, to those that encourage deeper learning (Säljö. & Marton, 1976).

Surface learning is characterised by:

  • Learning facts and information in order to repeat them (e.g. in assessment)
  • Making use of rote learning
  • A narrow concentration on detail
  • A failure to distinguish principles from scenarios, applications, or examples
  • A tendency to stick closely to the course requirements, rather than passionately exploring or researching the topic further

In contrast, deeper learning involves the critical analysis of new ideas and experiences, linking them to already known concepts and principles, the synthesis of new concepts, and longer-term retention. Deep learning has been shown to be facilitated by fostering interest and providing intrinsic motivation driven by enjoyment, interest, empowerment and autonomy within the experience (Schiefele, 1991).

Deeper learning also:

  • builds transferrable skills that can be used for problem solving in unfamiliar contexts,
  • increases the likelihood of building a passion for the topic, and
  • ultimately encourages a practice of life-long learning.

OpenLearning believes that good teaching is the encouragement of a deep approach to learning.

OpenLearning designs motivational mechanics that produce intrinsic motivation whenever they are linked to learning experiences. This ensures that we are always encouraging deep learning wherever possible. OpenLearning is constantly under development and focuses on how each change and update to the learning platform’s mechanics affects both individuals and the community as a whole to enhance this effect.

If implementing extrinsic motivational mechanics, it is likely that students will inevitably try to maximise any rewards which have extrinsic value, and bypass the underlying meaning in the experience. On an educational platform this is a problem because much of the learning stems from the users’ online experiences. While extrinsic motivators are sometimes used on OpenLearning to give students a small push in the right direction, intrinsic motivation is always preferable. Furthermore, as demonstrated by many institutional teaching policies which uses grades as an extrinsic reward, the negative impact of extrinsic motivation is compounded by how easily the value of an extrinsic reward can be transferred to other power structures. For this reason we discourage teachers from using OpenLearning student metrics to influence a course’s grading scheme, or the results issued in an educational institution.

Learning experiences can instead be made more intrinsically rewarding by adding a narrative arc, making an experience beautiful visually, in sound, or feel, by adding a fantasy element, being subversive, providing opportunities for ownership, allowing self expression, encouraging innovation, adding elements of discovery, encouraging rapport building amongst peers, and in many more creative ways which ultimately add to the learning community as a whole.

2. Authentic, Active Learning Experiences

Building on the constructivist research of Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey, Vico, Rorty, Bruner, and others, OpenLearning views learning as a constructive, active process. OpenLearning does not view the online classroom as a place where a teacher’s role is to “pour” expert knowledge into passive students who sit in rows of virtual desks (Dewey, 2004). Instead, OpenLearning encourages students to be actively involved in their own process of learning, through meaningful interactions with both the platform itself and the community of students and teachers that it connects.

A teacher who is an expert in a topic may try to “transfer” their understanding to students via lecture videos, readings, and other forms of learning content published online. While these learning resources are often useful for the motivated student, OpenLearning places greater value on providing interactive community experiences which encourage meaningful reflections. Such reflective experiences help students to build and share their own conceptual models, inspiring them to take a more active role in their own learning process as well as assisting the learning of others. For example, students who learn in order to share their understanding and to teach others are more intrinsically motivated, have higher conceptual learning scores, and perceive themselves to be more actively engaged with the environment when compared to students who learn concepts in order to be examined (Benware & Deci, 1984).

Taking inspiration from Experiential Learning (Kolb, 1984), OpenLearning encourages learning experiences and online activities which help students to become familiar with situations, problems, or scenarios so that they can reflect meaningfully, construct and discuss their own solutions and concepts, and then creatively apply this new knowledge in meaningful ways. Instead of transferring knowledge to students, experiential learning allows students to construct their own meaning by:

  • situating learning experiences in an application, problem, or scenario
  • providing a meaningful learning experience within this situation, with an opportunity for experimentation
  • encouraging reflection on these experiences
  • guiding these reflections into meaningful concepts
  • promoting the use of these new concepts to make decisions or to solve problems in new contexts and situations.

While it is useful for the teacher to be present in order to clarify and resolve misunderstandings, the teacher’s focus throughout this process is instead one of mentoring the learning community: guiding, and facilitating meaningful learning experiences and discourse.

Constructive, active, experiential teaching methods provide students with increased engagement by adding authenticity to how they learn: a teaching practice which stimulates students to learn in the way that they want to learn, rather than making students face abstract, artificial, or contrived processes. OpenLearning values authenticity in teaching to provide learning experiences which are situated in the same, or an analogous context to that in which the learning is then applied. For example, providing students with situational problems with interesting solutions related to the learning outcomes will add relevance to the learning process. This will furthermore create reflective discussion and promote community participation and student engagement. Rather than assuming that only the reception of factual knowledge is at the core to learning, this Situated Learning approach values the process of learning as participation in a community of practice, a participation which increases gradually in engagement and complexity (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

3. A Focus on Community

At its core OpenLearning is a social platform for building effective educational communities and takes inspiration from current social media practices. As such, OpenLearning provides a social media platform specifically designed for education, producing student networking and sharing tools far beyond the functionality of the standard learning management system (LMS). OpenLearning therefore focuses on a user experience which is familiar to social media users, and designs its tools to fit in with common online habits to provide a contemporary social media workflow.

In both OpenLearning’s experience, and in supporting research (Madge, Meek, Wellens & Hooley, 2009) significant numbers of students value the separation of personal social networking (with friends and family) from the social learning interactions that they have within their educational institution, especially in regard to interactions with teachers and staff. Furthermore OpenLearning is both a meeting place for students with common learning interests (especially in the context of massive open online courses, or MOOCs), as well as an online environment where students can become an engaged member within a community of practice.

Building rapport between both learners and teachers, promoting social appreciation, and encouraging self-expression are core elements in OpenLearning’s dedication to providing a platform that builds effective learning communities. Traditional LMS systems have been reported to give students the feeling of being “very lonely”, with the expectation that peers would not respond. These systems also give the perception of a lack of presence or regular activity (Deng & Tavares, 2013). OpenLearning brings social media inspired feeds“microinteractions” (such as the “like” button), and ubiquitous commenting facilities into the online learning environment, so students have minimal barriers and maximal encouragement to show appreciation for others and to participate within the community. OpenLearning also extends wiki and blogging features to advance the ways in which knowledge sharing, collaboration, self-expression, and personalisationcan be used to ensure a vibrant and engaged community within courses. OpenLearning builds a platform and encourages activities that are designed to empower a diverse community of learners by providing a safe and welcoming space to have a voice. OpenLearning facilitates this community based on the building blocks of social software, by:

  • creating a personal, online identity,
  • giving a sense of presence and fellowship,
  • promoting a community of sharing,
  • facilitating the formation of learning relationships,
  • building a user’s reputation within a community,
  • fostering collaboration in groups, and
  • encouraging meaningful discourse and conversations

Inspired by connectivist approaches which focus on nurturing and maintaining connections (between people, as well as information sources) to facilitate continual learning (Siemens, 2004), community also plays a core role in the interactive design of learning activities on OpenLearning.

OpenLearning encourages course activities to embrace this connectedness and collaboration, to build rapport between students, and to promote dialogue, discovery, exploration, and the sharing of diverse new resources. This makes OpenLearning a communal online space where the student community aggregates resources and personalises their own learning environment. Online learning systems have traditionally entirely relied on submission drop-boxes or quiz-like assessments. More advanced systems have started to introduce isolated interactive experiences with simulations and virtual environments. While this is all possible on OpenLearning, the OpenLearning platform takes an additional step of encouraging teachers to create activities that facilitate community interaction. OpenLearning activities are able to provide interactive collaboration and sharing, mediated by the tools of the OpenLearning platform. It is this focus on community which keeps OpenLearning students the most engaged and immersed in their courses.

Related Topics

  • Social Constructivism
  • Experiential Learning
  • Virtual Communities
  • Affective Learning
  • Situated Learning
  • Emotional Design
  • Learner-Centred Design & Environments
  • Distributed Scaffolding
  • Deep (rather than surface) Learning
  • E-Learning theory & Cognitive load theory (e.g. coherence, contiguity, segmenting, signalling, learner control, personalisation, pre-training, and redundancy)
  • Heutagogy


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