The theoretical foundation of modern forms of online distance learning can be traced back more than a century to the writings of Dewey (1910) and Vygotsky (1962, 1978), both of whom argue in one way or another that learning is a social activity. Dewey was the first to describe the importance of a learner’s social context and the active construction of meaning in the learning process, and it was Vygotsky who provided educators with a research-based model that explained how people learn in social contexts.
Among Vygotsky’s significant contributions to the study and practice of teaching and learning was the idea that the best learning takes place in the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 84), which is the theoretical space between what a learner can do independently and what a learner cannot do, even with the help of a more capable peer or adult. A learner operating in the ZPD would be able to solve complex problems, but only with the assistance and coaching of someone else.
An important implication of the ZPD as described by Driscoll (2005) is that, while the lower boundary of the zone is fixed by the learner’s cognitive abilities, the upper limit can be moved through the effective design and implementation of learning environments. By providing appropriate scaffolds for learners, so that they are being challenged to do something that they are unable to do alone, effective learning environments lead the learners into higher levels of mental development (Glick, 2004).
Also important to note is the necessity of a more capable peer or adult in the learning process. Much like Dewey’s assertion that learning happens in the social world of the student, Vygotsky’s theory recognizes the importance of the learner’s social world in the learning process. Vygotsky asserts that learning first happens in a social context, when a learner interacts with a more capable peer, and then within the individual, when the learner has mastered and internalized the skill (Glick, 2004).
Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory is not the only social constructivist theory, but it has been very fruitful in terms of providing a basis for learning theories in contemporary times. One such theory, cooperative learning theory, has been studied extensively since the 1970s and may provide a good foundation for exploring the characteristics of the study buddy activity in this study.