This is a chapter by me and Terry Anderson for Springer’s new Handbook of Open, Distance, and Digital Education that updates and refines our popular (1658 citations, and still rising, for the original paper alone) but now long-in-the-tooth ‘three generations’ model of distance learning pedagogy. We have changed the labels for the pedagogical families this time round to ones that I think are more coherent, divided according to their epistemological underpinnings: the objectivist, the subjectivist, and the complexivist. and we have added some speculations about whether further paradigms might have started to emerge in the 11 years since our original paper was published. Our main conclusion, though, is that no single pedagogical paradigm will dominate in the foreseeable future: that we are in an era of great pedagogical diversity, and that this diversity will only increase as time goes by.
The three major paradigms
Objectivist: previously known as ‘behaviourist/cognitivist’, what characterizes objectivist pedagogies is that they are both defined by assumptions of an objective external reality, and driven by (usually teacher-defined) objectives. It’s a paradigm of teaching, where teachers are typically sages on the stage using methods intended to achieve effective learning of defined facts and skills. Examples include behaviourism, learning styles theories, brain-based approaches, multiple intelligence models, media theories, and similar approaches where the focus is on efficient transmission and replication of received knowledge.
Subjectivist: formerly known as ‘social constructivist’, subjectivist pedagogies are concerned with – well – subjects: they are concerned with the personal and social co-construction of knowledge, recognizing its situated and always unique nature, saying little about methods but a lot about meaning-making. It’s a paradigm of learning, where teachers are typically guides on the side, supporting individuals and groups to learn in complex, situated contexts. Examples include constructivist, social constructivist, constructionist, and similar families of theory where the emphasis is as much on the learners’ growth and development in a human society as it is on what is being learned.
Complexivist: originally described as ‘connectivist’ (which was confusing and inaccurate), complexivist pedagogies acknowledge and exploit the complex nature of our massively distributed cognition, including its richly recursive self-organizing and emergent properties, its reification through shared tools and artefacts, and its many social layers. It’s a paradigm of knowledge, where teachers are fellow learners, co-travellers and role models, and knowledge exists not just in individual minds but in our minds’ extensions, in both other people and what we collectively create. Examples include connectivism, rhizomatic learning, distributed cognition, cognitive apprenticeship, networks of practice, and similar theories (including my own co-participation model, as it happens). We borrow the term ‘complexivist’ from Davis and Sumara, whose 2006 book on the subject is well worth reading, albeit grounded mainly in in-person learning.
No one paradigm dominates: all typically play a role at some point of a learning journey, all build upon and assemble ideas that are contained in the others (theories are technologies too), and all have been around as ways of learning for as long as humans have existed.
Beyond these broad families, we speculate on whether any new pedagogical paradigms are emerging or have emerged within the 12 years since we first developed these ideas. We come up with the following possible candidates:
Theory-free: this is a digitally native paradigm that typically employs variations of AI technologies to extract patterns from large amounts of data on how people learn, and that provides support accordingly. This is the realm of adaptive hypermedia, learning analytics, and data mining. While the vast majority of such methods are very firmly in the objectivist tradition (the models are trained or designed by identifying what leads to ‘successful’ achievement of outcomes) a few look beyond defined learning products into social engagement or other measures of the learning process, or seek open-ended patterns in emergent collective behaviours. We see the former as a dystopic trend, but find promise in the latter, notwithstanding the risks of filter bubbles and systemic bias.
Hologogic: this is a nascent paradigm that treats learning as a process of enculturation. It’s about how we come to find our places in our many overlapping cultures, where belonging to and adopting the values and norms of the sets to which we belong (be it our colleagues, our ancestors, our subject-matter peers, or whatever) is the primary focus. There are few theories that apply to this paradigm, as yet, but it is visible in many online and in-person communities, and is/has been of particular significance in collectivist cultures where the learning of one is meaningless unless it is also the learning of all (sometimes including the ancestors). We see this as a potentially healthy trend that takes us beyond the individualist assumptions underpinning much of the field, though there are risks of divisions and echo chambers that pit one culture against others. We borrow the term from Cumbie and Wolverton.
Bricolagogic: this is a free-for-all paradigm, a kind of meta-pedagogy in which any pedagogical method, model, or theory may be used, chosen for pragmatic or personal reasons, but in which the primary focus of learning is in choosing how (in any given context) we should learn. Concepts of charting and wayfinding play a strong role here. This resembles what we originally identified as an emerging ‘holistic’ model, but we now see it not as a simple mish-mash of pedagogical paradigms but rather as a pedagogic paradigm in its own right.
Another emerging paradigm?
I have recently been involved in a lengthy Twitter thread, started by Tim Fawns on the topic of his recent paper on entangled pedagogy, which presents a view very similar indeed to my own (e.g. here and here), albeit expressed rather differently (and more eloquently). There are others in the same thread who express similar views. I suggested in this thread that we might be witnessing the birth of a new ‘entanglist’ paradigm that draws very heavily on complexivism (and that could certainly be seen as part of the same family) but that views the problem from a rather different perspective. It is still very much about complexity, emergence, extended minds, recursion, and networks, and it negates none of that, but it draws its boundaries around the networked nodes at a higher level than theories like Connectivism, yet with more precision than those focused on human learning interactions such as networks of practice or rhizomatic learning. Notably, it leaves room for design (and designed objects), for meaning, and for passion as part of the deeply entangled complex system of learning in which we all participate, willingly or not. It’s not specifically a pedagogical model – it’s broader than that – though it does imply many things about how we should and should not teach, and about how we should understand pedagogies as part of a massively distributed system in which designated teachers account for only a fraction of the learning and teaching process. The title of my book on the subject (that has been under review for 16 months – grrr) sums this up quite well, I think: “How Education Works”. The book has now (as of a few days ago) received a very positive response from reviewers and is due to be discussed by the editorial committee at the end of this month, so I’m hoping that it may be published in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space!
Here’s the chapter abstract:
Building on earlier work that identified historical paradigm shifts in open and distance learning, this chapter is concerned with analyzing the three broad pedagogical paradigms – objectivist, subjectivist, and complexivist – that have characterized learning and teaching in the field over the past half century. It goes on to discuss new paradigms that are starting to emerge, most notably in “theory-free” models enabled by developments in artificial intelligence and analytics, hologogic methods that recognize the many cultures to which we belong, and a “bricolagogic,” theory-agnostic paradigm that reflects the field’s growing maturity and depth.
Dron J., Anderson T. (2022) Pedagogical Paradigms in Open and Distance Education. In: Zawacki-Richter O., Jung I. (eds) Handbook of Open, Distance and Digital Education. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-0351-9_9-1