How can the Situated Learning Theory be situated online?

The situated learning theory states that learning occurs as a function of the activity, context, and culture in which it occurs. This means that students learn content through activities rather than acquiring information organized by instructors.

In order for learning to occur, knowledge needs to be presented in authentic contexts, aka settings and situations that would normally involve knowledge. Or in other words, situations that are presented that challenge the intellectual and psycho-motor skills that students can apply at home, in the community, or the workplace. Social interaction is also a critical component of situated learning.

With what is known about the situated learning theory, can situated learning occur through online learning?  While most concepts of situated learning apply “in the classroom”, how can we define the same concepts and apply them to distance learning/online learning?

(Taking research from Edith Cowan University, and incorporating it with situated learning provides the following framework below:)

What do we know about situated learning?

The situated learning theory has four major premises guiding the development of classroom activities:


The facts and processes of the task. Learning should be grounded in the actions of everyday situations. Application rather than retention. 

How to incorporate content in online learning:

  • Compose activities/online instructions in realistic ways (i.e. in memos, emails, documents)
  • Provide other resources so students have access to sources of information at any time
  • Simulate virtual group activities
  • Relate online questions, and activities to real-life situations
  • Create realistic, problem-centered activities


The situations, values, beliefs, and environmental cues by which the learners gain and retain content. Knowledge is acquired situationally and transfers only to similar situations.

How to incorporate context in online learning:

  • Instructors should provide a variety of perspectives to examine different problems, and solutions
  • Have students virtually present their products (i.e. homework, class activities)
  • Ask students to question their answers, ask why/how they came up with that answer
  • Encourage student (self) reflection

Community of Practice

The group with which the learner will create and negotiate the meaning of knowledge, and encompassing ways of thinking, perceiving, problem solving, and interacting.

How to incorporate community in online learning?

  • Asking students to upload photos of themselves so students can see who else is in the “group”/class
  • Provide short clips/videos  as it pertains to the online course
  • Encourage students to subscribe to websites, lists, etc. that gives them access to experts on how it pertains to the course
  • Possibly compare and contrast different students answers in a forum
  • Have students observe an instructor, and how the instructor solves problems, so the students can develop their own solution paths


Learning becomes a social process dependent upon transactions with others. Learning is not separated from the world of action but exists in robust, complex, social environments made up of actors, actions, and situations.

How to incorporate participation in online learning?

  • Create discussion boards to enable students to reflect socially
  • Encourage engagement in discussions and issues presented
  • Require students to present/defend their arguments in forums, discussion groups, bulletin boards
  • Encourage students to engage in critical reflection with other
  • Instructors should continually assess the growth of the student, and let the student know


Overall, situated learning integrates content, context, community, and participation. Taking what is known about the concepts of situated learning, and incorporating activities, and ideas that correlate with the concepts, initial framework for virtual based situated learning can occur. The over -arching theme of situated learning is that instructors need to involve knowledge with the environment to create meaning, engage with learners in meaningful ways, and encourage students to transfer knowledge to other students by interacting with each other.

For more information about situated learning theory, click for research by Carnegie Mellon University.