Plasticity: the online learning environment's potential to support varied learning styles and approaches

Susan Greener

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose – “I can't do online learning”. This is a surprisingly common response from professional postgraduate students who have a narrow view of what online learning might comprise. Images of screen-gazing at mega-bytes of text or childish multi-choice quizzes on CD-ROMs have encouraged strange reactionary responses from many otherwise engaged learners. This paper aims to address these issues. Design/methodology/approach – This paper reports a qualitative study which, among other things, aimed to explore the views of higher education (HE) teachers experienced in the use of virtual learning environments (VLEs) about the variation and value of specific learning styles and approaches in relation to effective learning in those online environments. University teachers speak readily about learning style preferences, cognitive strategies and andragogical principles (based on Knowles) of self-directed or self-managed learning, but often in terms which suggest that VLEs favour certain individual styles. Findings – The findings from a detailed grounded analysis of interview data from ten enthusiasts for online learning suggest a potential plasticity of online learning environments which can accommodate any style or strategy. There was a sense in the transcripts of a different kind of learning space, which could mould itself to these differences in a way which could not be achieved in a traditional classroom. Some authors, including Palloff and Pratt, identify the importance of differing learning styles and approaches to learning in HE and tackle the issue of how to accommodate such differences online. Research limitations/implications – This research suggested that the plasticity of the online learning environment compensated for such variety of style, without the need for engineering learning activities online to cater for specific styles. Online, the time flexibility and potential for learner control can support multiple styles and strategies, provided the teacher has designed the environment to allow this, and of course that the relevant technologies are available to the teacher. Practical implications – So, rather than the environment dictating design, within the limits of available technologies, the teacher's approach to design may dictate the degree to which the plastic potential of the online environment is available to the learner. Originality/value – The concept of plasticity is borrowed from other scientific disciplines. Applying this to the virtual learning space opens up the pedagogical perspective.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)254-262
Number of pages9
JournalCampus-Wide Information Systems
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • Learning, Learning styles, Plasticity


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