In the article "A Theory of Online Learning as Online Participation" Stefan Hrastinski (2008) presents empirical evidence that shows that online participation drives online learning. As evidence, Hrastinski points to numerous studies that have shown that interacting with others has more benefits than individualistic approaches to participation (Alavi, 1994; Brown & Palincsar, 1989). Benefits include spending more time on synthesizing ideas, integrating new concepts, problem solving, and critical thinking. In addition to these skills, time spent working cooperatively during online participation is linked to having a significant positive impact on student achievement. According to several studies, greater interaction amongst peers equated to more favorable outcomes as well. In addition to the benefits of cooperative learning online, evidence suggests that online learning is better when learners participate and collaborate. Evidence also suggests that learners who participated in collaborative or group learning were connected to high or higher learning outcomes than traditional settings. In summary, Hrastinski (2008) states that "the research reviewed here suggests that online participation drives better learning outcomes, at least when learning is measured as perceived learning, grades, tests, and quality of performances and assignments" (pg. 79).
So what is online learner participation? Following the presentation of evidence, Hrastinski discusses what online learner participation is and how one might conceptualize it. Hrastinski notes that Wenger (1998) and Webster's definitions of the concept align. Participation is then defined as "to have or take a part or share with others." While researchers agree that participation is an integral part of online learning, how the term is defined in this context differs greatly. While some scholars argue that participation is simply the number of times a learner engages in an aspect of learning, others argue participation is a "complex phenomenon" and "is a process of learning by taking part and maintaining relations with others" (pg. 80).
Regardless of what definition one prescribes to, Hrastinski notes that there are several key characteristics of online learner participation. First, participation is a complex process that require one to maintain relations with others. Second, participation is supported by physical and psychological tools. Third, participation is not synonymous with talking or writing. And finally, participation is supported by all kinds of engaging activities. Hrastinski concludes with a call to action of sorts stating that if want to improve online learning we need to improve online learner participation.