Vygotsky: The Time Traveler

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I have been asked to state my personal theory for online learning and teaching. I am solid with Lev Vygotsky (1980). My personal learning theory, whether online, face-to-face, blended, or hybrid, will always be the Social Development Theory.

Jeremy Sawyer (2014) wrote an article about the life and works of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) for the International Socialist Review. While working at a school for disabled children, Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, sought to understand and explain the deeper meanings of human nature and psychology. He later theorized that learning and development are social, that individuals need collaboration with others to develop, and social, cultural, and historical experiences are the foundations of knowledge. Vygotsky’s central premise was that human consciousness springs from material, social activity and that by transforming the world we also transform ourselves psychologically (Sawyer, 2014, para. 13).

In his work, Mind, and Society, Vygotsky theorized there are three levels of human development: evolutionary, sociohistorical, and individual. Vygotsky argued that, to understand psychology, one must first understand human society.  While examining Vygotsky’s works, learning-theories.com (2016) identified three of his three fundamental philosophies:

  • Social Interactions (SI). Vygotsky considered social interactions as the dominant process in cognitive development. In other words, he felt a child’s education began long before he came to school.  Through the child’s interactions with society and people (interpsychological), the child takes the first steps toward cognitive thinking, logic, and problem-solving. The child later builds on this foundational knowledge after he starts school and begins his formal education (intrapsychological).
  • More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). Vygotsky theorized that children would learn from teachers, coaches, or any other social contact the child feels is more knowledgeable and skilled at performing a task, process or concept than they are.
  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Vygotsky argued there is a distance between what a child already knows and what they need to know to perform a task or master a learning principle. He coined this as the ZPD.  Vygotsky argues an MKO is required to guide and support the learner progressively using worked-out examples and coaching while the child is within the ZPD. But, Vygotsky stipulates the guidance and coaching should progressively decrease as the learner builds skills until the child can complete the task independently (“Social Development Theory (Vygotsky),” 2016).

Vygotsky wrote many works on the psychology of Marxism at the onset of the Russian Revolution. His publications regarding oppression and exploitation of the masses, the society collaborative, and social struggle got his works banned and burned after Vygotsky died at the age of 39 years and Joseph Stalin rose to power. Vygotsky remained relatively unknown in the West until his first work was published in 1962.  Modern translations and critical analysis of his works have now propelled Vygotsky to the forefront of contemporary psychology, and he is considered the Father of Social Constructivism.  In fact, Vygotsky’s work has come to be so respected, entire schools of thought are grounded by his theories – with Vygotsky at center stage.

To me, Vygotsky’s theories are just as relevant today as they were 84 years ago.  As I read his works and grow into an understanding of his theories,  I am convinced he was a time traveler who found final rest within the era he was needed most: today.

I plan to conduct a meta-analysis of pertinent qualitative and quantitative literature and data from several selected studies to develop my assumptions regarding the effectiveness of integrating Vygotsky’s learning theories into synchronous and asynchronous distance learning platforms.  I identified examples of the literature I will examine in the list of References that follow this blog. The citation tools I will use to organize my literature review are RefWorks and Citefast.

Research on learning theories has become very exciting to me these days. I’m having a blast too.


Morgan, H. (2013). Maximizing Student Success with Differentiated Learning. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues, and Ideas, 87(1), 34-38. doi:10.1080/00098655.2013.832130

Palincsar, A. S., Fitzgerald, M. S., Marcum, M. B., & Sherwood, C. (2017). Examining the work of “scaffolding” in theory and practice: A case study of 6 th graders and their teacher interacting with one another, an ambitious science curriculum, and mobile devices. International Journal of Educational Research. doi:10.1016/j.ijer.2017.11.006

Rodgers, E., D’Agostino, J. V., Harmey, S. J., Kelly, R. H., & Brownfield, K. (2016). Examining the Nature of Scaffolding in an Early Literacy Intervention. Reading Research Quarterly, 51(3), 345-360. doi:10.1002/rrq.142

Sawyer, J. (2014). Vygotsky’s revolutionary theory of psychological development | International Socialist Review. Retrieved from https://isreview.org/issue/93/vygotskys-revolutionary-theory-psychological-development

Social Development Theory (Vygotsky). (2016, September 8). Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/vygotskys-social-learning-theory.html#contributors

Warren, S. J., & Wakefield, J. S. (n.d.). Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions. Handbook of Mobile Learning. doi:10.4324/9780203118764.ch7

Warren, S. J., Wakefield, J. S., Knight, K. A., & Alsobrook, M. (n.d.). Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions. Cases on Educational Technology Implementation for Facilitating Learning, 193-213. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-3676-7.ch012

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

What Teachers Can Teach Us

Is online learning as efficacious as face-to-face learning?


Good Question.

(Is it? I honestly don’t know.)

Eric Fredericksen (2015) is one of the many researchers that struggled to answer this question. Having been a face-to-face teacher for over 25 years, Fredericksen warned we should not romanticize traditional classroom because not all conventional learning experiences meet the learning needs of all students. As usual, Fredericksen noted the benefits of online learning including flexibility that enables learners to reflect, expand upon, and participate in discussions with peers. Whether this is done real-time or not, it could still lead to an increased depth of understanding regarding new learning concepts (Fredericksen, 2015). Frederick also walked the well-threaded path of attempting to refute general perceptions that online learning is not as engaging for learners with research conducted by the University of Rochester (2006). After studying over 1,000 online instructors, 1,500 online plus courses, and more than 25,000 students enrolled in online classes at 53 colleges, the study concluded the same level of satisfaction, learning and engagement can be attained in online group learning environments as those in face-to-face classrooms (Shea, Peltz, Fredericksen, & Pickett, 2006).  After attempting to respond to the question, Fredericksen, as usual, concluded his article, as usual, by advising additional studies and research is warranted. Therefore, after reading Fredericksen’s article, I am still left with an unanswered question…

Is online learning as efficacious as face-to-face learning?  

Considering the numerous literary reviews I have conducted over the last two years, I am now wondering if we are asking the right question.  Can the broad-range concepts, constructs, and frameworks affiliated with online education, whether synchronous or asynchronous, even be compared as equitable to traditional face-to-face instruction?

To me, to answer the question requires an examination of the subjective opinions and perceptions of the actual influencers and evaluators of this paradigm: classroom teachers.

Jan Van den Akker (1994) made this point precisely when he advised that the implementation of change in the classroom (distance learning, distance education, synchronous and asynchronous online instruction- by any name – represents change) is subject to four distinguishable variables:

  • The inherent challenges and nature of innovation;
  • School politics and personalities;
  • Teacher self-efficacy related to the innovation; and
  • External influences that are beyond the control of the other variables

Van den Akker explains that, while external factors can make or break online learning programs, all instructional materials and presentation, regardless as to whether the delivery mode is synchronous, asynchronous distance, or face-to-face, fall under the control of the teacher. Van den Akker wrote that most educational innovations fail because instructional designers, learning management systems, and software programmers often do not see the teachers as partners during the design, development, and implementation of changes that impact classrooms and students (Van den Akker, 1994). This can be a huge error that cost them dearly later.

Van den Akker also considered the challenges evaluators face while trying to measure innovation effectiveness.  He argues it is hard for evaluators to determine if the various iterations of technology into course curriculum were implemented as designed. How can evaluators measure whether the blended and hybrid methodologies were employed according to the design plan? What questions should evaluators ask to measure whether the ideals and intentions of the instructional design documents were apparent or whether the teacher adhered 100% to its precepts and intentions? How can evaluators confirm the teacher did not find the implementation plan so complex, he or she was unable to integrate the change without impeding student learning or normal classroom practices?  In other words, how can evaluators accurately access the success of technological innovations in the classroom without asking teachers?

In my opinion, Van den Akker drove home his point. Regardless how great something appeared during design and development, it is the teacher’s perception of the need, relevance, quality, and practicality of that innovation that influences its value.  This makes it clear to me that, if the teacher feels the change did not lead to increased learner development, whether their view is right or wrong, the change from face-to-face to synchronous or asynchronous instruction could end up labeled as “no good” (Vygotsky, 1978).

I feel Van den Akker did well in outlining the steps instructional designers should take to ensure they support teachers as they strive to move from one instructional platform to the next. Plans are needed to help the teacher implement and integrate change – including how to incorporate the new online instructional materials and methodologies – into their everyday.  His recommendations included embedding motivations and incentives within the implementation plan that moves the teacher from “self-oriented” powerless target to “task-oriented” champion.  Unless teacher make this this transition in beliefs, attitudes, and self-efficacy, Van den Akker warns teachers, as the ultimate subjective factor, will determine whether face-to-face or online synchronous/asynchronous are better for their students and their learning environments.

Is online learning as efficacious as face-to-face learning?

I honestly don’t know. But, I plan to find out. I plan to ask the teachers.



Fredericksen, E. (2015, February 4). Is online education good or bad? And is this really the right question? Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/is-online-education-good-or-bad-and-is-this-really-the-right-question-35949

Means, Barbara, 1949-. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service.

Shea, P., Peltz, W., Fredericksen, E. E., & Pickett, A. M. (n.d.). Online teaching as a catalyst for Classroom-based Instructional Transformation. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/download/44490548/faculty01.pdf

Van den Akker, J. (1994). Designing innovation from an implementation perspective. The International Encyclopedia of Education.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. From: Mind and Society (pp. 79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Why online? I don’t know.

I dont know

Seaman, Allen, & Seaman (2018) studied trends in distance learning. The researchers found the phenomenon is comprised of three core components: distance education, described as the instructional design including the technologies or learning management system used to deliver instruction to learners; distance learning course, described as the instructional content; and distance education program, described as all coursework required to complete the course. That given, the researchers then separated distance education into three categories: “exclusively distant,” “some but not all” and “at least one” distance education course. Total enrollment in distance education courses decreased by 3.8% 20,928,443 in 2012 at degree-granting colleges and universities. Distance learning enrollment for undergraduates decreased 4.8% from 17,978,048 in 2016 to 17,110,008 in 2016.  But, larger public colleges and universities (those with more than 15,000 students) continue to see positive trends in distance education enrollments. Statistics indicate that 68.9% of students enrolled were taking at least one distance education course at a public university. In fact, 299,855 students enrolled in public institutions in 2016 were taking at least one distance education course. Other revealing statistics were that 56.1% of the students enrolled in distance education courses within their state; 84.2% of public institution students were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses, and 88.3% of these students were enrolled in public institutions within their state (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). 

What this infers is that distance education does have a future. But, that future appears threatened by the lack of understanding, confusing terminologies, and gaps in research.

For instance, confusing and contradicting arguments have not precisely defined what constitutes “online learning,” “digital education” “emerging technologies” “emerging practices,” “adaptive systems:, “self-organizing systems” …  What?  How can you advocate for something when you don’t even know what to call it (Veletsianos, 2016)?  Then there is the argument regarding the driving force. Is it classroom teachers? Institution administration? Policy makers? External stakeholders? Marketing?

Why online? I truly just do not know.

What I do know is that I am in full agreement that additional valid, reliable, and unbiased research is needed. Where are the reliable qualitative and quantitative impact studies and cost-benefit analyses on  the conceptual frameworks for distance education (macro level), the management, organization and technologies of distance and online learning (meso level), and teaching and learning in technologies-enhanced or exclusive learning environments (micro level)  (Guri-Rosenblit & Gros, 2011)? Where are the observations and scales measuring the relationships between social relativity, social comparison, social contextuality, and social network identities and their connections to relative deprivation theories and inequality (Helsper, 2016)? Did I miss the valid and reliable quantitative research regarding the use of learning technologies to change achievement gaps within the Zone of Proximal Development (Gauvain & Cole, 2009) or the ramification of using technology to create differentiated learning environments (Morgan, 2013)?

In other words, why online? Where is the business case?

I can hardly wait to find out.

Never to late to know better than that!