Theories and Frameworks for Online Education: Seeking an Integrated Model

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

This presentation examines theoretical frameworks that focus on the pedagogical aspects of online education. A proposal for an integrated Multimodal Model for Online Education is provided based on pedagogical purpose.  The model integrates the work of major theorists and attempts to address the question:  Can we build a common integrated theory of online education?


Anthony G. Picciano is a professor in Education Leadership program at Hunter College, the Ph.D. Urban Education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He has held several administrative appointments at the City University and State University of New York. Dr. Picciano started his career working with computer systems in the late 1960s. He taught his first college-level course in computer programming and systems analysis in 1971. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was involved with developing computer facilities, computer-assisted instruction (CAI) laboratories, and data networks at the City University of New York. He started teaching online in 1996. In 1998, Dr. Picciano co-founded CUNY Online, a multi-million dollar initiative funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that provided support to faculty using the Internet for course development. He was a founding member and continues to serve on the Board of Directors of the Online Learning Consortium (formerly the Sloan Consortium). Dr. Picciano's research interests are education leadership, education policy, Internet-based teaching and learning, and multimedia instructional models. With Jeff Seaman, Dr. Picciano has conducted major national studies on the extent and nature of online and blended learning in American K-12 school districts. He has authored numerous articles and frequently speaks and presents at conferences on education and technology. He has authored sixteen books including: The Community College in the Post-Recession Reform Era: Aims and Outcomes of a Decade of Experimentation. (in press, Routledge, Taylor & Francis) Online Education: Foundations, Planning, and Pedagogy (1st Ed). (2018, Routledge/Taylor & Francis). CUNY's First Fifty Years: Triumphs and Ordeals of a People's University (2018, Routledge/Taylor & Francis) Educational Leadership and Planning for Technology, 5th Edition (2011, Pearson) Data-Driven Decision Making for Effective School Leadership (2006, Pearson) Distance Learning: Making Connections across Virtual Space and Time (2001, Pearson) Educational Research Primer (2004, Continuum) The Great Education-Industrial Complex: Ideology, Technology, and Profit (2013, Routledge/Taylor & Francis) Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 1 (2007, The Sloan Consortium) Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2 (2014, Routledge/Taylor & Francis) Conducting Research in Online and Blended Learning Environments: New Pedagogical Frontiers (2016, Routledge/Taylor & Francis). Online Education Policy and Practice: The Past, Present, and Future of the Digital University (2017, New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, Publisher). Dr. Picciano was elected to the Inaugural Class of the Sloan Consortium Fellows in recognition of outstanding publications that have advanced the field of online learning. Dr. Picciano was the 2010 recipient of the Sloan Consortium National Award for Outstanding Achievement in Online Education by an Individual. Visit Dr. Picciano website at:

Extended Abstract

In a provocative chapter of The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Terry Anderson (2011) examines whether a common theory for online education can be developed.  While recognizing it is a difficult and perhaps fruitless task, he nonetheless examines possibilities and proposes his own theory which he admits is not complete.  He approached this undertaking from a distance education perspective, having spent much of his career at Athabasca University, a major higher education distance education provider in Canada.  While he acknowledged that many theorists and practitioners consider online learning as “a subset of learning in general” (Anderson, 2011, p. 46-47), he also stated:


“online learning as a subset of distance education has always been concerned with provision of access to educational experience that is, at least more flexible in time and in space as campus-based education (Anderson, 2011, p. 53).


These two perspectives (subset of learning in general and subset of distance education) complicates any attempt at building a common theory of online education.  Blended learning models, for instance, do not easily fit into the distance education schema even though they are evolving as a prevalent component of traditional face-to-face and online education environments.


The purpose of this presentation is to examine theoretical frameworks relevant to the pedagogical aspects of online education. It starts with a consideration of learning theories and funnels down to their specific application to online education. The presentation concludes with a proposal for an integrated model for online education (see Figure 1) based on pedagogical purpose. 


This presentation is based on an article published in the Online Learning Journal in September 2017 and was named the 4th most important article on online education published that year by  the National Institute for Digital Learning.





Figure 1:  Multimodal Model for Online Education