3 theories why digital learning access is good for students

Front view of two elementary students working at different desktop computers

Digital learning resources are becoming increasingly common in classrooms. They bring huge potential for increasing learning in part because they can be constantly updated to meet students’ needs. Digital resources allow for faster updates than textbooks and offer a wider variety of sources to all students, including those with disabilities. The benefits of the increased access to more resources is not only good for students, but is also supported by formal theories and philosophies of learning.

One theory that supports increased access to quality digital learning resources is the Behaviorist philosophy of learning. According to this philosophy, teaching should emphasize ways to increase desired behaviors, which can occur through connectionism or operant conditioning. Connectionism stresses that learners form associations between sensory experiences and neural impulses often through trial and error practices. One key component of this theory is that learning should involve practice and rewards that increase desired behaviors, which is what many educational technology applications are built around. Many apps serve to increase drill practice such as learning a foreign language, doing math drills or spelling practice, which all help a student’s overall learning.

Operant conditioning, the other component of behaviorism, refers to training voluntary responses by the consequences they induce. Apps and other ed tech that provide incentives for desired behaviors, like earning coins or tokens for correct answers, are a couple of examples of operant conditioning.

Another theory that supports increased access to digital learning resources is Social Cognitive theory, which is a formal theory of learning that asserts people learn from observing others in their social environments. This theory has three key themes: modeling, selfefficacy, and tutoring and mentoring. Modeling, which refers to learners observing others perform actions in context, is central to learning, so teachers often incorporate it into their own teaching practice. Before technology, students’ access to models were limited, but now it can increase educators’ abilities to provide models and increase students’ access to models by providing opportunities for all students to observe teachers explain and demonstrate concepts and skills. Students are no longer bound to just classroom walls, either. They can easily reach out through computers, tablets, and apps to see instructors around the globe model different skills and problems.

Selfefficacy, or the belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals, is increased when students are able to watch a model of a skill and then practice it themselves. One example of how technology is increasing access to this type of learning opportunity is software programs with already downloaded avatars or recorded teachers that model a desired skill or behavior, after which the student is provided an opportunity to practice and perform. Many other types of educational technology can increase students’ access to opportunities to increase their self-efficacy.

The last component that the Social Cognitive theory stresses is the importance of tutoring and mentoring for learning. Technology provides access to tutors or mentors that many students may not have otherwise. Students are no longer bound to receiving help solely through their school community, and can communicate with tutors and mentors from all over the world whom they would not otherwise be able to reach with technology, increasing their learning potential.

Another influential formal learning theory is Information Processing theory, which focuses on students’ abilities in the areas of attention, perception, encoding of skills and information, storage of knowledge in short and long-term memory, and retrieval of knowledge. This theory stresses that individual students have different information processing capacities, meaning students differ in how much information they can attend to, encode, retrieve, and retain in their short and long-term memory.  According to Information Processing theory, students must be able automate some function, like a simple math function, in order to free up cognitive resources to learn effectively. Apps that provide students with drills and practice follow this theory and can provide students with increasingly changing and innovative ways to automate essential skills.

Explore more resources to guide you through online and blended learning models. According to the learning theories above, increased access will continue to improve teaching and increase learning.


About the Author
Liane Wardlow

Liane Wardlow, Ph.D.

Liane Wardlow, a former Pearson research scientist, focused on designing and implementing research studies examining e-learning in on-ground and on-line K-20 classrooms. She also worked collaboratively across research centers on a multi-state research project measuring the use and effects of digital technology on teachers’ instructional practices and students’ learning outcomes. Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Wardlow worked as a research scientist at the University of CA, San Diego in the Department of Psychology, and for the US Department of Education in the Institute for Education Sciences. Dr. Wardlow holds a master’s degree in Education from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. Follow her on Twitter: @LianeWardlow