This presentation will examine the significant discrepancies between constructivist learning theories and actual pedagogical practices in online higher education (HE). I will critically analyse the paradigm shift rhetoric that has steadily gained traction in online HE and discuss its discursive effects on creating and widening the theory-practice gap in a specific HE setting. I perceive that rhetoric, like all theory, not as universal or scientific truth but as a historical and discursive product (Foucault, 1970). From this perspective, the theory-practice gap is both the result and the evidence of the disjunction between the common theoretical understandings (i.e., discourses) about online HE and the actual state (i.e., realities) of it. The theory-practice gap is, therefore, a much more complex social and educational phenomenon than simply a pedagogical issue of how to apply the legitimate pedagogical theories to teaching (or instructional design) practices. To better grasp the complexity, I first describe the evolution of pedagogical theories of distance education, a predecessor of online education. Second, I analyse one example of the wide-spread academic discourse that has propagated online education as a new learning paradigm in HE and which has suggested (social) constructivist theories-informed pedagogical practices as a better way of doing online HE. This analysis is followed by a qualitative case study of the actual instructional design and teaching practices and circumstances in the two open universities: one in North America and the other in Asia. By examining the gap between pedagogical theories and practices in this particular HE context, this study provides insights about how the gap has come into being and has progressively widened and also suggests some valuable lessons for future research. I suggest that, at this moment, we are witnessing how the rhetoric of the learning paradigm shift in HE has become a doctrine we pursue, thereby creating an imperative of providing online education across all HE institutions including residential universities. That generalist doctrine fails to account for the historic priorities of the specialist sector of distance education. Unless we challenge the social press of this rhetoric and deconstruct our current perspectives on online education, we can neither slow down this seemingly inexorable shift to online education nor fully grasp the actual state of online HE in which the theory-practice gap will likely continue to increase. Thus, this study ultimately aims to question our current taken-for-granted assumptions about legitimate online HE practices largely influenced by the rhetoric and come up with a more helpful lens to approach the theory-practice gap.
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