Re-Imagining Online Teaching & Learning: A Cognitive Tools Approach

By Matthew J. Kruger-Ross, PhD (Assistant Professor, Educational Technology, West Chester University of Pennsylvania)

I regularly teach an online graduate courses for educators on teaching and learning online. Unfortunately, almost every version of the course that I’ve taught or seen begins with the assumption that we can take what we know about teaching in the physical classroom and directly apply it to the online environment. The best versions of this type of class acknowledge that you cannot just copy and paste from the face-to-face to the digital. What’s more, most (if not all) approaches to understanding online teaching and learning rarely consider what conception of education is being assumed.

Underlying Premises Matter

Educational philosopher Dr. Kieran Egan (1997) identifies four general ideas, or conceptions, of education. Each one has particular aims and, thus, each one drives different educational initiatives and practices. The first three he traces through the history of philosophy (and politics) through the work of Plato (Academic Rationalism), Rousseau (Individual Development), and the more general idea of Socialization. The fourth, a theory Egan (1997, 2005) has developed called Imaginative Education, focuses on how cognitive tools help us learn by engaging emotion and imagination. This approach corresponds in important ways with the work of social psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

By distinguishing these conceptions, Egan provides us with some language to talk about the work we do. Egan (1997) notes that in our everyday, lived experience all four conceptions of education are enacted to varying degrees day to day in our classrooms. Through the lenses Egan offers, we can look at the assumptions that build these conceptions. We may, as an example, be able to see a conflict with a colleague as two competing conceptions of education or be able to distinguish for parents the different aims of an activity we are utilizing.

Re-Imagining OnLine Learning

Why bring online teaching and learning together with Imaginative Education? My hunch is that the principles and practices of Imaginative Education provide ample possibilities to think, re-think, imagine, and re-imagine what has become the pretty straightforward field of teaching and learning online. In what follows I begin to explore how Imaginative Education philosophy and pedagogy might be able to help us, quite literally, re-imagine teaching and learning online.

The foundations of Egan’s Imaginative Education approach lie in his studies of history and cultural anthropology with particular attention paid to the development of language. Imaginative Education also aligns with Vygotsky’s insight into the role of mediating intellectual tools. Put simply, education is the process of learning and mastering sets of cognitive tools. A few examples of these tools include story, binary opposites, and metaphor (Click the links to learn more about how to employ each in teaching to engage imagination.) As mediating devices, these tools are truly what we as human beings think with rather than simply think about. These cognitive tools shape what he calls “kinds of understanding.” I think we can use cognitive tools to enrich and better understand online learning.

Below I offer three examples of how I have used story, metaphor, and binary opposites in my own efforts to re-imagine online graduate education focused on preparing in-service educators to be successful in online teaching.

Story: Much of online learning seems to revolve around behavioural objectives and measurable outcomes. By simply drawing on students’ inherent meaning-making capacities, the primary tool of story could offer ways to personalize and contextualize lessons and activities. Digital storytelling with its multimodal approaches to sharing knowledge and information would be a good first step. Apps such as Voicethread or Adobe Spark are two I have my pre- and in-service teachers use to generate storied lesson plans. I also have my students use a simple concept mapping tool like to introduce and tell the story of their lives.

Binary Opposites: Given that I teach pre- and in-service teachers who may or may not have experience with online teaching and learning, establishing what exactly “online” includes is a key first step in my courses! This conversation taps into an ongoing debate within educational technology circles between what exactly an “online” classroom is versus a face-to-face classroom—a lively debate given advances in augmented and virtual reality technologies. Within Egan’s Imaginative Education, we would recognize this debate as exemplifying the cognitive tool of binary opposites. Using the abstract binary oppositions cognitive tool as an entry point into learning, I engage my students’ imaginations by recasting the debate as an ongoing conversation to clarify gradations in new and emerging learning environments. Somewhere between online and face-to-face exists new kinds of classrooms: the hybrid and the blended. Both are gradients that allow for greater nuance in student understanding in online teaching—engaging students in ways that have them feel a dramatic tension between these ideas and work to mediate middle ground is powerful for learning.

Metaphor: Our lives are overflowing with metaphor! Given the challenges and losses inherent in text-only communication that predominates in online teaching and learning, greater attention to the metaphors that form (and often de-form) our ability to understand one another online is paramount. At the most basic level, we talk about our technologies as having “memories” and refer to the chips that power our devices as “brains.” We also define ourselves using the metaphors of technologies: we speak of needing “down time” to “reboot”, of “networks” as communities of colleagues, and the variety of ways we can “connect” and “unplug.” These are not simply expressions but metaphors for how we live our lives. Consider that we talk about the online world in terms of physical places/spaces: meeting “online,” in Google Hangouts, or via Blackboard Collaborate. I constantly remind my graduate students to critically examine the metaphors that form, inform, and deform their grasp on teaching and learning online.

For Imaginative Education the aim of education is to provide all learners with opportunities to experiment with, play with and, ultimately, to become deft at using cognitive tools. Consider how we might think, or rethink, online teaching and learning using some of these tools: How could we think and plan and structure teaching and learning online to exercise these cognitive tools? If teaching and learning online were not about simply training for skill development or meeting outcomes and objectives, what might we imagine it could be?


Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Contact the author: [email protected]

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