Theory and research cannot explain everything: a case study.

My husband and I are both teachers. I teach English while he teaches Architecture. Our content only matters because it helps to determine how we approach actually teaching it. Teaching English is a little tricky because it involves such a variety of skills that require loads of abstract thinking then turn that thinking into a physical product. Most courses do that as well, but in English, we typically start with the abstract then move to the concrete. In architecture, my husband’s students get to start with the concrete and move into the abstract. What I mean by this is, in an English class we may start with a big idea worth reflecting on like is love stronger than hate? The thinking part is abstract, the discussion part is still abstract, and then the writing part becomes the concrete version of those abstract ideas. Whereas in Architecture, students will learn how to measure, learn how to draw lines, then learn how to draw a house. All of those skills are concrete. Once the concrete skills are in place, then students are asked to design their own house using those concrete sills. Their design they have in their head is the abstract version of their concrete skills before they create the final product. Neither way of learning is right or wrong; they just make sense for the kind of content being taught. But, what happens when a student doesn’t respond to either method? We have to dig deeper.


There are 3 typical views of learning: behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. Each theory of learning determines how we approach students, content, and mastery. Behaviorism focuses on the behavior of the student. If the student behaves/responds to the curriculum in the right way, they will be more successful in learning. For example, if a student repeats their times tables over and over, they will finally know it. If a student listens quietly, they will learn whatever the teacher is teaching. This approach always shocks a teacher when a well-behaved, obedient, and respectful student falls  behind or fails mastery. Cognitivism relies on what students already know to add on new knowledge. If we go back to the multiplication tables example, cognitivism would use a student’s ability to add and expand that pre-existing knowledge into multiplication. What happens though, when your student can’t add yet when they are supposed to? Finally, constructivism focuses on discovery of knowledge through social interaction. An example would be to provide those same math students with tootsie rolls in equal groups and have them figure out the fastest way to determine the totals. In this method, some students will count one at a time, some will add the groups, and some may discover their version of multiplication. The trick with constructivism is that not all students are willing to do the more complex thinking to answer the questions. They are only willing to do what is easiest.


So, how much theory and how much research can actually explain what happens in a learning experience? I don’t think I can quantify it, but I will say theory and research cannot explain everything in a learning experience. How do I know this? Experience.


I started playing World of Warcraft four or five years ago. The game has been around much longer, since 2004. When I started playing, I was part of a small group who had been playing for years. One player specifically has been playing the game for over ten years. It has been one of her hobbies for a decade, and yet playing together now is a strange experience. She doesn’t know how to quest, how to follow the map, or how to do basic troubleshooting in the game. It’s been over ten years and she still gets lost in zones she has played a million times. So, what’s going on? Behaviorally, when she is in a group she looks like she knows what’s going on. She has the right gear, the right skills set up, and picks up then turns in quests with the group. She knows the language of the game and has all the hardware to play with voice chat and no lagging. However, if she plays alone, she regularly calls for help to do basic things in the game. Cognitively, she should be able to use previous experience in the game to build on when new content is released. However, what really happens is that she Googles directions on how to do specific quests or how to get a certain pet and then forgets what she was told to do as soon as she has completed the task she was needing help on. Collaboratively, when we are in a group together, the group will answer her questions and support her sometimes confusion with the expectation that next time, she will have learned how to do things on her own. For example, just last night, she couldn’t turn in a quest that the group could. So, we waited and waited and waited. Finally someone asked what was going on. She just said she couldn’t turn it in. So she just sat there waiting on the problem to solve itself or for someone to tell her exactly what to do. The group leader told her to log out and in. No fix. Then, he just said to abandon the quest and pick it up again. She did. Then she got mad that we had to run the quest again for her to turn it in. So, the point here, is that after ten years, and with group support, this player hasn’t’ seemed to have learned anything. There is no theory listed here which has provided useful to her in created transferable skills. She functions off of directions like a recipe card for pumpkin muffins. If she can follow direction, she never has to learn anything.


This example seems isolated because I am talking about a video game experience. But, as teachers, my husband and I experience similar things with our own students. No method we practice applies to all students. There is always at least one student who does not respond to any method. There is no research or theory that can solve the problem of refusing to learn, of always taking the easy road. Learning is a struggle. You must grapple with concepts and skills in order to figure them out. There is no amount of research or theory that can force a student to do the work of learning if they can just follow directions and then forget. It is the easiest way.


Being an Educator

I’ve spent the last ten years formally teaching as either a high school English teacher or adjunct faculty at the community college. When I think about it, I’ve always been some kind of teacher, but I haven’t always been an Educator.

When I was younger, I was one of those kids who caught on fast to concepts. I could anticipate answers before the question was fully asked, and I laughed at jokes before they were fully told. It’s because of my quick thinking that I was often called on to re-explain concepts ot the class or asked to tutor classmates one-on-one. But, none of this made me an Educator.

When I enter the work-world, I was quickly identified as a capable employee who could then train others. I was known to be hard-working, patient, and practiced integrity on the job. More often than not, I was a responsible employee on the clock and a positive influence off. But, these qualities still did not make me an Educator.

After years of being the tutor, trainer, and general “smart girl,” I found out what it really meant to be an Educator.  I was teaching English 1301 at the community college as an adjunct. My final paper assignment was to write a research based argument for or against legalizing gay  marriage. This was at a time before many states had legalized it and in the midst of a religious and conservative community. The one condition for the paper was that he resources had to be academic. One student, Kevin, showed up for his paper conference confused and disgruntled the last week of the semester. He revealed to me almost immediately that this assignment had caused heated arguments between him and a his wife. He explained that because he had to make an academic-only argument, he’s discovered that the more logical stance was counter to his and his wife’s moral beliefs. He didn’t know what to do to both appease his wife and to finish the assignment with integrity.

It was in that moment that I discovered what it meant to be an Educator. It wasn’t  about curriculum, content, or right answers. It wasn’t about being in charge or in control. Being an Educator was about drawing out the reality of life to create a human experience. In these moments of self-discovery, of challenge, and of wrestling that we are genuinely shaped in meaningful ways. Having an Education means discovering in yourself a whole person that has many identities.  As an Educator, I must attempt to design environments that allow for that experience then facilitate when it happens. It is more than just teaching.

I’m lucky to be called into this profession. It allows me to witness some of people’s greatest moments in life; it also creates, if I am lucky, those same experiences for me.

Unintended Outcomes

     During our group activity, I was driving. I had a family emergency in Oklahoma and got started late on my return home. Thanks to technology, I was able to login on my phone to attend class since I was not at my computer. Driving and listening was actually a really positive experience because there wasn’t much else to distract me in the quiet hills of Southern Oklahoma traveling I-35 south. But then, we were put into groups for a shared activity. I was worried because I thought driving would prevent me from really participating in the activity and that my group would be disappointed they got me in their group. Once again though, technology saved the day.

     Once I got my phone unmuted, I was able to explain my situation, and the ladies in my group assured me it would be ok. One member opened a Google Doc, we all shared our emails, and she shared her screen so we could see what was happening. I of course was driving, and the only screen was my tiny iPhone. which doesn’t make for a good visual. A second member in my group asked if I’d like her to read everything out loud so I could hear what was being written. The minute she did that I was instantly able to contribute more than just ideas. I could give feedback and participate like my usual self instead of being held back by my circumstances. This definitely made me consider how important universal access is in designing online content for classes. Technology should be an affordance, not a hindrance.

Out of the whole experience, I think what is most important is the connection I was able to make to students with disabilities that are constantly bombarded with roadblocks due to poor design. I know I have been guilty of this in the past. I hope this experience will affect both my empathy and design strategies in the future.

Critical Thinking Fail

     My group created an extension activity for math students. The original assignment for students was learning the order of math following PEMDAS rules. While I am not totally clear on the concept because I teach English and not math, I was still able to help create an extension activity for the lesson. The lesson consisted of students using a common image found on Facebook which uses images to represent a math problem. Students had to learn to solve the problem using PEMDAS in order to turn those images into the numbers they represented. The extension activity then asked students to create their own version of the Facebook post. They basically had to demonstrate they knew how to solve a problem using PEMDAS, but then to turn it back into images for others to solve. This process requires critical thinking.

     I think it’s tough trying to elicit critical thinking from students because I am not sure we all know the components of critical thinking itself. We only generally talk about needing to use critical thinking skills but we never really talk about what that means. So, we are left with different teachers teaching “critical thinking” in ways that don’t always align. I am not even sure that they have to align really, but what I am actually thinking about is just teachers not knowing the difference between actual critical thinking and students just coming up with the right answers. Right answers do not always reveal the thinking behind it. So, it is tough to actually teach students to think critically, to become independent thinkers, rather than “critical thinkers” that require high teacher supports. For example, when my group was creating the extension activity, I actually came up with the idea for having students create their own example of the Facebook post. I know that students will need critical thinking skills to break down the thing they need to create into its parts. Then to continue to use critical thinking skills in order to put the parts back together for others to solve using a set of student created rules. The issue for me was that my group decided when designing the activity that the teacher should provide step by step directions on how to create the student version, providing all the rules. For me, this cuts out a huge part of critical thinking. I am not saying that the teacher cannot support student thinking in real-time, but to have the directions for the how-to part is asking them to not think, only follow directions. Following directions is a thinking skill but I wouldn’t call it critical.

So, this all relates to the idea that there is only one way to do things. I think if genuine critical thinking is at play, there will never be just one way to do things. Students (and adults) who can critically think, do so independently. A result of this independence is that individuals can creatively solve problems according to their own ways of thinking. If the teachers provide the steps, it implies that this is the “right” way and that there is a “wrong” way. However, this seems silly in light of critical thinking because critical thinking begets free thinking. Free thinking does not need rules to work. Now, with math there is typically one right answer, but the thinking required to get to that answer does not have to be uniform. Just because there is an accepted process to get to the mathematical answer, doesn’t mean some people cannot find another way. That is how math evolves. We need critical thinkers to do that.

     So, yeah, critical thinking is tough to actually teach because the adults “teaching” it don’t always understand what is really needed to actually teach it.

Artificial Intelligence

I recently saw Blade Runner 2049 for the first time. Released in 2017, it was a sequel of the original Blade Runner where issues around Artificial Intelligence (A.I) are explored. In thinking about A.I. and the role of A.I. in our lives, movies like Blade Runner tend to come to mind because they seem to not only represent of what could happen as A.I. development progresses, but these neo-noir, science-fiction movies reveal human’s fears of the doom and gloom of the inevitable Singularity. However, doom and gloom are not the only possible outcomes on A.I. development.

According to Margaret Boden (2018), “Artificial Intelligence seeks to make computers do the sorts of things minds can do, which involves psychological skills such as perception, association, prediction, planning and motor control” (pg. 104). She goes further to define the “main aims” of A.I. as both technological and scientific (pg. 104). One concept of heated debate, though, it whether or not A.I. is really intelligence or just programming. This debate plays out in practical settings like using A.I. to diagnose and treat medical issues. A.I.’s perceived weakness in real life situations is that it does not have the ability to explain why it made the decisions it makes. However, I wonder how well doctors can explain the same diagnoses. If A.I. processing is meant to imitate the human brain’s processing, then I wonder if a doctor’s explanation would actually be similar to the A.I.’s? Specifically, A.I. should be able to list out the rules it followed to make the diagnosis just like a doctor would list out the same process of elimination for his or her diagnosis. I know the algorithms of artificial intelligence are far more complicated then how I have described them, but the same could be said for the human brain’s processing. What A.I. cannot account for is a doctor’s decision based on other aspects than just book knowledge like the senses and gut responses. But, at the end of the day, no one really can know if A.I. is truly intelligent or now. In fact, Boden makes the same claim: “Since genuine intelligence involves understanding, that’s another reason why no one knows whether our hypothetical AI would really be intelligent” (pg. 120).

So, is this a problem? No, I don’t think we can know or must  know how closely artificial intelligence mirrors human intelligence. It is and will be a form of intelligence. Human’s need to know 100% seems to be an attempt to control the future of A.I. development. I know Stephen Hawking described A.I. as being a future threat to humanity that we cannot ignore, but I wonder why? Is the only option of A.I. development to be a threatening one? I don’t think A.I. needs or can replace the entire human being. Instead, it would redefine the roles of humans and computers. We can look to science fiction again to see other possibilities for A.I. development that do not put the existence of humanity at risk. For example, the Enterprise computer on Star Trek the Next Generation as well as Data both provide different stages of A.I. that both work hand in hand with humans on board. First, the computer aboard the Enterprise contains a massive amount of information, but it isn’t just an information storage unit. It can do more. Man times, the Captain Picard asks for information form the computer, then asks is to extrapolate, or draw a conclusion about that information, for him. Sometimes the computer complies, and sometimes there isn’t enough information to extrapolate from. The computer possesses a higher processing function than my current PC in that it can make associations, predictions and plan courses of action, but it isn’t as advanced as the character Data. Data is a created artificial life form that definitely has a superior intelligence that that of his colleagues on board. Data is unique in that he has been created to be both computer and consciousness. It is this version of A.I. that seems to create the most problems in the minds of humans today, but if we look at the intricacies of the Data character, it is clear that Data serves no real threat to the other life forms on board. It works with and for the Academy, but has a personal life of his own. What Data and the Enterprise computer are both missing is human emotion. But, I wonder if human emotion is require for this form of intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence is already here. It will continue to advance. How we perceive A.I. is just as important as how we use A.I. If we are careful to curb the human responses and interaction with A.I., then maybe we can avoid the doom and gloom of the Singularity.



Boden, Margaret A. Artificial Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2018.


So far, the theories we have discussed so far, make sense. I can see some of these different theories, or lack of theories, at play in my own work as well as from my coworkers.

How I view teaching has changed. I have known in my head that theories of teaching and learning exist, and that they don’t always work practically in the classroom like they have been described. This does not necessarily negate the theory; it just means that there needs to be more than just a theory in place. Specifically, what comes to mind is behaviorism. Ertmer (1993) claims that “Behaviorists equate learning with changes in either the form or frequency of observable performance” (p.55). This theory makes sense. In essence, we know someone has learned when their behavior demonstrates the change that matches the intended outcome.

However, evaluating students simply on behavior does not demonstrate learning. I have students how play the part of a good student really well: body language shows they are listening, they ask questions, and when work is assigned, they dive in. However, the product of all their pretense is not always what it should be. I have noticed that English Language Learners in particular are able to mimic the behavior of the learner, but who also struggle to comprehend the task in front of them. This example shows how I think now after being exposed to a variety of learning theories. Before the exposure, I was just confused about how the product didn’t match the behavior. Now, I just think that I need to apply a different theory to reshape my approach with this particular set of students.

Overall this has shaped my understanding of the expectations of the PhD student: to know the theories and know when and how to apply them in writing as well as research.

Technology’s Impacts on Learning Communications

Whether we realize it or not, using technology subtlety changes the processes of learning and how we communicate while learning.  Instinctively, we accept that technology empowers us to reach out at any time, share what we are thinking while we are thinking it, and read what others are thinking at any given moment. At first glance, this seems ideal. However, if we look at how the processes of learning and communication are quietly changed with the use of technology, we should wonder if what is lost in that process has any value.


First, technology impacts learning communications by slowing down our response time to others. Regardless of whether it is the instructor or student response time; it is rarely immediate. This is an important factor because in a face to face classroom, many revelations of learning happen in the extemporaneous exchanges that happen in the moment between teacher and student as well as between student and student. These moments of discovery are key to reshaping our understanding and ideas. Technology may prevent these epiphanies from happening at all. Instead, the curiosity that unpins a question may be lost in the time it takes for an emailed response or discussion forum reply. Without that curiosity, often times, the value of the moment is lost. The art of teaching and learning is lost.


Second, technology impacts learning communication by giving student response to assignments more time for pre-planned and constructed thoughts. While having deeper and more thoughtful responses is typically best, but what is forgotten is the mess of constructing ideas, and more importantly, the reconstruction of ideas. As a social constructionist, it matters that students are able to observer the messiest version of peer work so as to empower their own messy work. Sometimes students learn more from the work in progress rather than the final product. This is the equivalent of only knowing your friend through Instagram. If you only see the final, created selfie, then you start to think these people never get sick, have a bad day, or are human at all. It is isolating. Online classes already have so much potential to disconnect students from other students, and always having time to have pre-planned and constructed thoughts is part of the problem.


A third, and more positive, impact of technology on learning communications is the added ability to construct new knowledge with others almost simultaneously. In a classroom, student collaboration still means everyone taking turns to share out and possibly discuss how the new knowledge reshapes what it already known. It takes time, and ultimately only one speaker can speak at a time. However, with technology like Twitter, multiple responses can happen at the same time. Multiple voices can share out literally at the same time. The benefit of this is that everyone feels heard. There is time for individuals to go back read all responses and continue the thread, and at some point, someone can encapsulate final new thoughts on the topic in an attempt to incorporate the most influential ideas. This is a unique opportunity because it is unique to what technology can do for learning.


Technology in and of itself is not bad. Awareness of how it impacts and reshapes learning and learning communications is mandatory if we want our students to continue on experiencing the process of learning.

Personal Learning Theory

Personal Learning Theory


Generally, my personal theory of learning is that learning is social. Learning is a complex process that requires both knowledge and social interaction to help break it down, evaluate the pieces, then put it back together. At the heart of it, we need social interactions to emotionally support what is shaping in our mind. If we limit ourselves to content only, we actually close ourselves off to other perspectives and different interpretations. Without outside contact, we are sometimes left uncertain of achievement, disconnected from course goals, and ultimately self-reliant to a fault.

This perception of learning is definitely connected to the current research in distance learning. According to Kang and Im (2013), “learners who felt they had a higher degree of interaction with their instructors and other peer learners had higher satisfaction and higher perceived learning outcomes than learners to felt they experienced a lower degree of interaction.” While this isn’t speaking directly to actual course outcomes, the perceptions of students regarding their success in class matters as a selling point at minimum for online learning. If students get an ‘A’ but are not happy about how they earned it or are dissatisfied by the experience, then it is less likely they will continue with online classes. Similarly, Gutman (2001) lists as her number five barrier of “Six Barriers Causing Educators to Resist Teaching Online,” as “Interpersonal Relations” (pg. 54).  Gutman states that “for some [teachers], the lack of direct interpersonal contact with both students and faculty is an issue” (pg. 54). The role of social interaction is not just important for the student experience; it is important for instructors as well. These are just a few of the current voices on social learning. However, the concept has been around for decades. Both Lev Vygotsky (1978) and Albert Bandura (1971) theories on the social aspect of learning are really the foundations of the current research surrounding the topic.


Research Problem

The idea that the social interaction/interpersonal connection is the missing piece for online learning is also repeated idea, article after article. Not only is this a topic of ongoing research, but it resonates with my own experience as an online student as well as an online instructor. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s findings from the “Evaluation of Evidence Based Practices,” there is no real difference between the online learning success rate and the traditional face-to-face success rate. The article specifically says that K-12 students “in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction” (pg. xiv). This is because of the ongoing complaint that online learning has a missing piece, the social interaction. In the Horizon Report for Higher Education (2017), it was noted that “higher education continues to move away from traditional, lecture-based lessons toward more hands-on activities, classrooms are starting to resemble real-world work and social environments that foster organic interactions and cross-disciplinary problem-solving.” This shift recognizes the need to create “social environments that foster organic interactions” because those environments mirror the real world. Social interactions are not just ways to create meaningful learning experiences; they also teach us how to function in the real world.


Online Learning/Theory Model

As a Social Constructivist, I want to research current definitions of social presence in online learning. Social presence is a gateway to social learning. I want to do a small-scale confirmatory qualitative study on a proximately 10-12 university students who have experience as an online student. Using Patrick Lowenthal and Chareen Snelson’s seven selected definitions of social presence from their article “In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence,” I would like to create an open ended survey to see how students define social presence in online classes today.

As I move forward with research, I will continue to refine my search terms. I have already adjusted my focus from “social learning” to “social presence” in the online classroom. My next steps are to finish compiling relevant studies on the influence of social presence in online learning and to follow that with peer reviewed articles defining how to incorporate or build social presence in online classes. This last part might be too much for this paper though. Despite this, I intend on using the references from class assignments to help guide my choices. So far, many of the class readings have been relevant to this topic, namely: Stodel, Thompson, and MacDonald’s (2006) article,  “Learners’ Perspectives on What is Missing from Online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework;” Lowenthal and Snelson’s (2017) article, “In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence;” and Gutman’s (2001) article, “Six Barriers Causing Educators to Resist Teaching Online, and How Institutions Can Break them.” However, after reading Lowenthal & Snelson’s (2017) article, there is a new claim that “social presence might not be essential for a meaningful educational experience.” They go on to specify that certain types of instructional design would benefit from building social presence into the course, but that not all online learning requires social presence. Therefore, I need to expand my research a little more to see what other studies have been done on this front. It also makes me curious about my own research results, if those results would support this new claim.



Allen, Elaine I., and J. S. (2016). Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 1-62.

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2007). Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning. The Sloan Consortium, 1-31.

Bandura, A. (1971). Social learning theory. Social Learning Theory. New York City: General Learning Press.

Gutman, D. (2001). Six Barriers Causing Teaching Online, Can Break Them. Distance Learning, 9(3).

Kang, M., & Im, T. (2013). Factors of learner-instructor interaction which predict perceived learning outcomes in online learning environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(3), 292–301.

Lowenthal, P. R., & Snelson, C. (2017). In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence. Distance Education, 38(2), 141–159.

New Media Consortium. (2017). Horizon Report – 2017 Higher Education Edition. Horizon Report, 1-60.

Stodel, E. J., & Thompson, T. L. (2006). Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 7(3), 1–15.

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning,” 1-94.

Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in society : the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.


Final Thoughts

There are two main things I have learned in Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMDA): 1. There is a lot of theory to help refine the process. 2. I don’t have to work alone through the process.

The first part of the course, we were asked to find both research and theory in the literature that used or discussed CMDA. This really helped demonstrate the kind of information that is out there. This seems like a big DUH, but honestly I just don’t know what I don’t know. What I mean is that I really don’t know what kind of information is out there because I am so new to the field.

Once we finally got to actual coding, our class discussions were a reminder that we all need help doing the coding. Part of the help we need is to help avoid as much bias as we can, but also we are all so new to CMDA that collaboration is the only real way we will be able to effectively do the work.


CMDA and Qualitative Research

First and foremost, the most important quality of Qualitative Research is that hypotheses come from the research rather than having to come up with my own hypothesis and test it. That was a misconception that I’ve had, that I have to be the expert going in to research. In reality, doing qualitative research allows me to be more of an explorer rather than an expert.

So far in my education, the only real distinction between Qualitative and Quantitative Research is really about the results they produce; however, that limited information does not inform my decision-making when designing a research plan. Also, until now, I have been thinking my research will be predominately multi-strategy, incorporating both. But after this new adjustment, I feel a little off-the-hook for designing more complicated research plans. As of now, in order to help grow my knowledge in the field, I can primarily focus on Qualitative Research, and more specifically Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis.  Outside of knowing coding methods, there is not much I really need to already know before doing research outside of ethical and rigorous research methods. So, I will be in a constant state of discovery when it comes to research, and honestly that is less stressful.


After my initial practice with gathering coding, I am confident that I will need help coding in the future. I have always been one to notice small details in the world around me, but that doesn’t mean that I will notice the details in CMDA. Further, I don’t exactly know what kind of information, broad or specific, we should be looking for. I imagine that will come with time. So, I definitely need to know more about this process. I mean, what’s the point of coding information if the code doesn’t make sense? Then, once we gather that information, what do we do with it? Still not sure what the next steps are. Experience will help.