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Editor’s Note
:  In this article, Muhammad Betz relates classical learning theories and practices and information processing theories to online learning. He documents the importance of social aspects of learning and how social interaction and discourse differs between classroom and online environments.

Solo and Social Learning in Online Courses: Implications for Information Processing Theory

Muhammad K. Betz

The “online” revolution in higher education, which had grown to include over two million students in 2004 (Allen & Seaman, 2004), has led to debate among educators about the nature of learning in this new medium (Hiltz & Turoff, 2005; Pincas, 2000; Richardson, 2002). Invariably, this debate forms a demarcation between solo (individual) and social aspects of learning. It seems that the social aspects of learning have gained prominence in online courses, as stated here, “Online learning is a new social process that is beginning to act as a complete substitute for both distance learning and the traditional face-to-face class” (Hitlz & Turoff, p. 60). However, no one has said that social learning has eliminated solo learning, either. The purpose of this paper will be to examine solo and social learning and to offer a reconciliation of them in an overarching theory of learning that is useful but not pedantic.

Review of Important Literature

Piaget’s View

It is appropriate to begin any discussion about learning with a review of Piaget’s theories. Researcher Rheta DeVries explores both the role of solo and individual learning in Piaget’s views of development (DrVries, 1998). The author points out that there is an assumption that Piaget focused solely on the solo considerations of learning; however, Piaget cited the importance of peer relations in learning from his earliest writings. In fact, Piaget addressed individual development in terms of social interactions in relation to sociomoral development, affective and personality development, and intellectual development. As stated, “Piaget’s description of sociomoral development was expressed as movement from anomy (non-regulation by others or the self) to heteronomy (regulation by others) to autonomy (self-regulation)” (p. 4). With respect to affective and personality development, Piaget attributed a power to the affective side of students to motivate the intellectual side. In social learning, individuals form schemes for affective “knowledge,” simultaneously, as cognitive schemes are formed, through the aegis of social reciprocity.

Piaget is quoted thus, “In his early work, Piaget (1929/1995) insisted that ‘there area social elements in logical knowledge,’ that ‘social life is necessary condition for the development of logic,’ and that ‘social life transforms the very nature of the individual’” (p. 7). From the exclusively cognitive point of view, it is clear that Piaget identically valued individual and social operations.

Social Learning Online

One telling research study explored the social dimensions of online learning by varying instructional arrangements for a module in a graduate level course to weigh the importance of solo and social learning aspects. As stated, “The basic assumptions were that learners construct their own knowledge through active engagement with texts and through interaction and dialogue with others” (p. 271). Specifically, this study examined socialization, learner interaction, and text-based versus face-to-face communication, in dispensations of the instructional module. Some versions of the online course included face-to-face sessions while others did not. Students and instructors reported value-added perceptions for face-to-face sessions. However, they also cite the research of Salmon, who found that students were confused by switching from face-to-face to online formats in courses, based on the different ways that students socialize in the two environments. In face-to-face learning, students socialize in relation to personalities, but in online learning, students socialize in text-based interactions. The authors conclude, “The distinguishing features of the new online environment – lack of auditory and visual cues, asynchronicity and dependence on written text – have shown to result in the emergence of new types of interaction and discourse” (p. 278).

A Seminal View

Two prestigious authors, Gavriel Salomon and David Perkins, examine both individual and social learning in a comprehensive article that has important implications (Salomon & Perkins, 1998). The authors begin by admitting that until recent years, social learning has been underemphasized in relation to individual or solo learning and then acknowledge that the concept of individuals learning in isolation, apart from social and cultural influences, is decrepit. In an effort to examine solo and social aspects of learning they offer a paradigmatic view of learning from the viewpoint of information processing. As stated, “The information processes in question might occur within the mind of an individual or within complex webs of social interaction” (p. 2). In a familiar vein of discourse, the authors cite critical conditions which information processing must systematically elicit, in order for solo or social learning to occur.

Six distinct meanings of social learning are identified as:

  1. active social mediation of individual learning, in which a person or group of persons help an individual to learn;

  2. social mediation as participatory knowledge construction, which is learning that results from the act of participating in group effort towards learning;

  3. social mediation by cultural scaffolding, which is learning that derives from social artifacts or media;

  4. the social entity as a learning system, which is learning that derives from large group or organizational participation;

  5. learning to be a social learner, learning to learn from social participation; and

  6. learning social content, which is comparable to service learning or apprentice type learning in a social context (p. 3).

In reviewing these six points, conclusions are offered related to the superiority of social versus solo learning for each distinction.

Finally, three relations between solo and social learning considerations are articulated. The first relation is captured so: “While almost all individual learning is social in some sense, the degree of active social mediation may vary considerably form situation to situation” (p. 11). The second relation identifies three points on the continuum including individual learning on one end and social learning on the other. These three points would be: individuals learning solo, to individuals learning in groups, to individuals learning though social participation. The third relation posits a “reciprocal spiral relationship” (p. 12), in which the two polar forms of learning complement each other. The authors comment in closing that the implications for instructional design are clear, in that structures that encourage the reciprocity of solo and social learning must be built in to learning environments.

Information Processing Theory of Learning*

The Information Processing Model of Learning, like all models of learning, offers a metaphor that explains the process of human learning, and in this particular case, learning is compared to the way that a computer processes and stores information (Gagne, 1985). The process of learning is compared to the sequence of information processing, i.e., inputting data, processing data, and storing data for later retrieval. The steps of information processing are also related to concepts of human memory, implying that humans process data for learning in a manner similar to the way that computers process data (see Figure 1). Of course there are complicating factors, not the least of which is the human mind (Betz, 2001).

Figure 1. Computers and Humans: Information Processing

 Human Memory and the Information Processing Model

The mind continually receives data from the five senses into the sensory memory. When motivated or activated, the mind can selectively focus on target data for input into the short-term memory. After selecting data for input into the short-term memory, the data is held for a few seconds of time. If during those few seconds, the learner begins to manipulate the data, with the working memory, at least some of the data can be retained. The short-term memory holds data long enough so that the working memory can attempt to assimilate and accommodate, in Piaget’s terms (Woolfolk, 1998), the new learning into the long-term memory for permanent or long-term storage. Although data in the long-term memory is not altogether permanent and is thought to evolve and “fade” (Garry, 1999), data in the long-term memory can be retrieved for use long after initial learning.

Human Memory

Sensory Memory

Short-Term Memory

Working Memory

Long-Term Memory

Receives data

Holds data

Processes data

Stores data

Computer Operations

Basic input of data

Input of data into applications

Manipulation of data

Storage of altered data

Figure 2.
Human Memory and the Information Processing Model


Information Processing Theory and Online Learning

How does the information processing theory of apply to online learning? There are several dimensions to consider in answering this question. A paramount consideration is that offered by Salomon and Perkins above (1998), that learning in an educational environment is characterized by solo and social aspects. It is clear that the application of information processing theory in online learning must address both of these aspects. The other dimension warranting attention relates to the essential constructs of information processing, i.e., sensory memory requiring input, working memory requiring processing, and long-term memory requiring storage for later retrieval (Woolfolk, 2004).

Sensory Memory

At the level of sensory memory requiring input, online learning offers distinctive forms for both solo and social learning. Solo learning involves individuals reading course materials and completing course assignments. In addition, solo learning also occurs in a recessive way when students participate in small group (team) activities and in large group (whole class) activities. A consideration of the various platforms for online courses such as Blackboard, WebCT, e-College and Outlook Express (used exclusively by the University of Phoenix, the world’s largest online university) gives a clear indication of the dominant milieus for sensory input in online courses. All of these platforms have Discussion Boards for whole class participation, Team Areas for small group interaction, Course Documents and Materials for vital information; and Announcements for course navigation. The input of information takes place in these platform structures for both solo and social learning.

Working Memory

The course constructs related to working memory for processing information are the same as those listed above for sensory memory, but at this level, student activities are required. For example, students complete assignments at the individual level thereby creating solo learning in a direct sense. Students participating in whole class discussions engage in solo and social learning by answer discussion prompts and responding to classmates’ postings on whole class forums. In those classes with small group or team activities, students participate in informal discussions related to completion of team assignments, act together to create strategies that divide the tasks necessary to complete the assignments, and combine and edit individual contributions into a final product. In the small group work, social learning is emphasized, but solo learning outcomes can also result.

Long-Term Memory

The completion of solo and social assignments in online courses in conjunction with instructor feedback characterizes the nature of long term memory acquisitions. As the course evolves, the instructor, or facilitator, adds formative and summative feedback to solo and group efforts. In many cases, the feedback reflects monitoring of group work and participation in group activities that is intended to guide student learning. The provision of feedback for solo and group assignments and efforts is another important element of finality to learning. It is important at this stage of online courses that instructors hold learners equally accountable for both solo and social aspects of the course. Tacit monitoring cannot be assumed to have any effect, particularly in the online medium. For this reason, both extent and quality of student participation in large and small group activities should be assessed and related feedback provided or important learning outcomes could be lost.


That there is a continuum between solo and social aspects of learning is congruent with John Dewey’s call for a establishing two major principles for learning, in a general sense, and they are the principle of continuity of learning experiences and the principle of the continuity of growth (Dewey, 1938).  Salomon and Perkins (1998) have identified the relationship between solo and social learning as a reciprocal spiral, which too is in accord with Dewey’s two principles of continuity and growth. It fully seems that the question as to how online learning can evidence the reciprocity of solo and social learning is best answered by considering the information processing of learning. As stated by McAlpine (2004), “The instructional implications of this theory emphasize: well-organized instruction, extensive and variable practice, and learner control of the information being processed. This theory links particularly well to routines as well as problem-solving and knowledge building of words” (p.124). This description points to the most common, extant form of online courses. These courses work best for knowledge building and problem-solving. They work best when they are highly organized. They work best when they provide for both solo and social learning experiences that work in reciprocity to create quality learning.


Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2004). Entering the mainstream: The quality and extent of online education in the United States 2003 and 2004. Needham, MA: Sloan Consortium, 2004.

Betz, M. (2001). The instructional plan for learning and curriculum alignment: The iplca. Learning Technology Newsletter, 3(4), retrieved from http://lttf.ieee.org/learn_tech/issues/april2001/index.html#4

DeVries, R. (1997). Piaget’s social theory. Educational Researcher, 26(2), 4-17.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan. 91.

Hartley, J., & Davies, I. (1976). Pre-Instructional strategies: The role of pretests, overviews, behavioral objectives, and advanced organizers. Review of Educational Research, 46(2),

Hiltz, S., & Turoff, M. (2005). The evolution of online learning and the revolution in higher education. Communications of the ACM, 48(10), 59-64.

Gagne, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning and theory of instruction, fourth edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. xv+359.

Garry, M. (1999, November). Reinventing yourself. Psychology Today. (Retrieved on-line at: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m1175/6_32/56883560/print.jhtml.)

Nicol, D.J., Minty, I., & Sinclair, C. (2003). The social dimensions of online learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 40(3), 270-280.

Northrup, P., Lee, R., & Burgess, V. (2002). Learner perceptions of online interaction. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED477075)

Pincas, A. (2000). New literacies and future educational culture. Association for Learning Technology Journal, 8(2), 69-79.

Richardson, A. (2002). An ecology of learning and the role of elearning in the learning environment. Global Summit of Onlien Knowledge Networks 2002. (papers)

Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. (1998). Individual and social aspects of learning. Review of Research in Education, 23, 1-24.

Woolfolk, A.E. (1998). Educational psychology, seventh edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. xxiv+593.

Woolfolk, A.E. (2004). Educational psychology, ninth edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon. xxxiii+669.

* Contents from these two sections of the paper have been used with permission by the Editor of the Learning Technology Newsletter.

About the Author

Muhammad Betz

Muhammad Betz Ph.D. has taught almost 150 courses online in many different platforms. He has been a high school English teacher and football coach, a corporate trainer, and is now a Professor and departmental Chair in Teacher Education.

His degrees in field are: B.S., Ball State University; M. Ed. and Ph.D., University of Texas-Austin.

His specialty areas include Instructional Technology, Curriculum and Instruction, and Teacher Education.


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