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What is learning?
Saturday, January 09, 2016
Someone asked me for my definition of learning a few days ago. We often hear different definitions of learning depending on what theoretical point of view we associate with, be it, behavioral (classical or operant conditioning), social learning (ala Bandura), cognitive, constructivist, connectivist, etc. With the vast resources and opportunities in front of learners today, a particular theory or perspective may no longer apply. So what is learning then?

Defining learning?
According to Merriam-Webster’s, learning is “the activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something: the activity of someone who learns.” Synonym discussion of learning noted by Webster’s: “knowledge, learning, erudition, scholarship mean what is or can be known by an individual or by humankind.”
But I did not look at Webster’s or any learning theory book when responding. Instead, when asked, I simply thought about it and I said:

Learning (per Bonk) is: “The accumulation of ideas, experiences, concepts, facts, insights, and awarenesses that enable a sentient creature to react to and live within one’s surroundings in a more intelligent, thoughtful, appropriate, artful, empathic, and/or reasoned way than previously possible.”

How’s that for off the top of my head? “Accumulation” may be the wrong word, but oh well. I guess I was attempting to be inclusive as today learning is best thought of from the standpoint of multiple theoretical approaches and models or perhaps no learning theory. As instructors, we are creating learning environments that are often highly blended ones, combining aspects of face-to-face and online environments.

Final note that I double majored in both Human Learning and Human Development in the educational psychology department when at UW Madison in the late 1980s (I minored in educational technology); hence, there is some aspect of human/creature development in the definition of learning above. As noted by Vygotsky and many other sociocultural researchers, learning and development overlap and are highly intertwined constructs. As the pool of learning resources expand, we can begin to think not just about some small or short-term aspect of learning (e.g., behaviorally shaping someone who wants to learn to dance or shoot a pool stick), but take a more macro lens on how we develop over time. I will end there…for now.

What is your definition of learning and why? (By the way, it is great to see that the School of Education (and the educational psychology department) at Wisconsin remains #1 among public universities. I sure "learned" a ton when there.)

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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 6:58 PM  
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About Me

Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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Click here for information about my recent book, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

Visit the Indiana University Home Page of E-Learning Expert Curtis J. Bonk.

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