Online Development Theory

Online Development Theory


The purpose of this paper is to outline and showcase a theory of online development. The theory was constructed using a variety of student development theories. Psychosocial and Cognitive Development theories form the basis for a stage based model which incorporates challenge and support in an online context. Student affairs applications are given which utilize the model as way to understand a student’s experience as well as to increase the viability of online programs and services. Further study will be required to validate the theory and its subsequent model. Qualitative analysis and the development of stages will allow continual discussion, reflection, and synthesis.

I believe that student development theories exist to provide student affairs professionals with frameworks for the creation of programs and services. The majority of the theories which have been written for student development are written in a brick and mortar context. This is most likely due to a pre-Internet origination. The irony that is inherent in this lack of an online theory of student development is the realization that most student development theories can be modified to work in an online context. For example, a student’s interaction environment can be altered from on campus in the classroom to online on the campus web site. Another example can be altering of the traditional authority figure i.e. a professor to an information portal acting in place of a real, authoritative figure.

In this paper I will attempt to incorporate theories from Chickering, Astin, Sanford, and Perry to create an online developmental theory which is stage based but is inclusive to all students regardless of age, socioeconomic status, and physical/cognitive ability. I will refer to online users as students or as universal users (UU) but both will contain the same interchangeable meaning. The UUs will be ranked in terms of their level of web sophistication and their position on an online involvement model. The online environment is defined as information portals, interactive web sites which include utilitarian and educational functions, blogs, online communities, and web based classes.

Student Development Theories

Chickering’s Theory of Identity Development and its seven vectors of development provide a psychosocial framework for the online identity of a UU (Evans, Forney, and Guide-DiBrito, 1998). The seven vectors are: developing competence, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, establishing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity (Evans et al.). Published in 1969, Chickering’s vectors were written for a brick and mortar reality. However, the vectors are extremely fluidic and I will attempt to map each vector to the traits of the developing UU.

Developing Competence

Although Chickering’s vectors are not stage based, it is important to note that developing competence is a primary vector for the UU. According to Chickering and Reisser (1993), competence is divided into three distinct areas: “intellectual competence, physical and manual skills, and interpersonal competence” (as cited in Evans et al., 1998, p. 38). A UU needs to develop competency within an online context in order to have an identity. Intellectual competency can range from basic knowledge of computers and internet services to enhanced browsing skills which include searching and multi-tasking. Physical and manual skills are core skills for the online student. In a classroom or campus-based environment these skills would include being able to navigate the physical world regardless of physical ability. At times, this can be very difficult for students due to a disability. Fortunately, the online environment, if appropriately constructed, provides ample navigation aids and cues for all users. The third area of competency is interpersonal competency. Interpersonal skills are extremely important for a UU. According to Evans et al., interpersonal skills are useful for “communication, leadership, and working effectively with others” (p. 38). Online communities like thefacebook, friendster, and xanga necessitate the need for interpersonal competency by providing a communal atmosphere where students can fail or flourish with their peers.

Managing Emotions

Online emotional management can be defined as the internal emotions of the UU and the way that they express those emotions in an online context. Students can become highly emotional when faced with a web site that is not user-friendly or when someone “flames” them in an online community.

Moving Through Autonomy Toward Interdependence

Autonomy and Interdependence are extremely important for UUs. According to Evans et al., students develop “self-direction, problem-solving ability, and mobility” within this vector (1998, p. 39). At first it would seem that autonomy would be of higher importance than interdependence but the balance of being self-reliant and connected to the community factor into a fully formed online identity is crucial for the online student.

Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships

The key to this vector is the appreciation of differences. The only commonality which defines all UUs is that they are online.

Establishing Identity

As stated by Evans et al. (1998), establishing identity is constructed on the previous vectors. In the online environment, individuals can have multiple identities i.e. a quiet, infrequent poster in an online class versus an aggressive persona in an online community. This is similar to the possibilities which exist within a brick and mortar context but it is considerably easier to create multiple online identities.

Developing Purpose and Developing Integrity

The final vectors are fairly similar. According to Evans et al. (1998), purpose involves intentionality, choice, and decision. Integrity focuses purpose by overlaying it with a sense of values. Although not meant to be linear, these vectors are difficult to parlay into an online context. A UU would have to be extremely developed to reach these final vectors.


The five postulates of Alexander Astin’s Theory of Student Involvement provide a basis for any theory which involves involvement. According to Astin, “student involvement refers to the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (1984, p. 297). Online experiences are a fundamental component to the overall academic success of college students.


In 1967, Nevitt Sanford “characterized learning as a process of challenge and response” (as cited in Terenzini, 1999, p. 34). Sanford (1967) posited that the developing individual “grows” and learns when a challenging situation is presented (p. 44). Several authors have modified Sanford’s concept from the framework of challenge/response to a more balanced model of challenge and support. According to Chickering, “Environments that provide a combination of challenge and support tailored to students’ level of development are recommended to assist students in adapting appropriately to the challenges they encounter” (as cited in Zhao and Kuh, 2004, p. 117). It is highly controversial to suggest that websites can be seen as both challenging and supporting but it does seem that if appropriately constructed, students would benefit.


It would seem reasonable to state that most UUs are dualistic. According to Wilson, dualists as defined by Perry, believe that there is always one right answer and one wrong answer for a situation. Most UUs are going to have difficulty when confronted with troubleshooting an online problem. I use Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development to showcase a flaw amongst most UUs (Evans et al., 1998). Most UUs will never move past dualism. Those few UUs who do move into multiplicity or relativism will be constantly utilized for their abilities.

Online Development Theory

There is something very ironic in trying to develop a theory which relates to the virtual world. The theorists from whom I draw extensive “material” from were able to conduct research on physical environments that have existed for over 200 years. The web is still in its infancy. My theory is based on a model which uses Astin as the core of a three dimensional, circular helix which is housed in a sleeve-like framework consisting of Chickering’s vectors and Perry’s Cognitive Positions (Figure 1). Circling this structure is a multi-directional challenge and support construct which incorporates challenge as its initial starting place (Evan’s et al., 1998; Wilson, 1996; Sanford, 1967). It is my belief that student or UU online development occurs within the helix and that development is linear going from top to bottom. However, there are multiple angles and paths to the top of the helix.

Figure 1:online development model

Online development is seen as students move up the helix while developing their cognitive abilities and establishing their proficiency with Chickering’s vectors. The unique aspects of online development theory are represented by the meshing of multiple theories into a model which utilizes challenge and support. While students are developing their identity and their cognitive abilities in an upward progression, challenge and support is taking place in a circular rotation while the UU rises to the top. The key tenets of the challenge and support structure are the creation of either a state of web disequilibrium or understanding. Disequilibrium is defined as anything which causes a student to become frustrated and out of touch with their online environment. Understanding is defined as alternative to disequilibrium with UUs having the ability to float between these two states. Support is given to students who are encountering disequilibrium and/or understanding in an effort to foster online engagement. In the near future, stages will be created which will identify positions for developmental research followed by a qualitative study designed to shed some light on the validity of the model.


Online development theory can be used in most student affairs disciplines. Since all students are part of the online environment, they all fall somewhere within the helix.

Application Examples:

  • Admissions counselors can direct students to blogs and online communities to foster the initial engagement with a university. Students would be challenged with new opportunities for growth via new opinions and ideas.
  • Career services counselors can measure a student’s online development to determine whether or not a student requires specific job skills.
  • Academic success center staffers could offer a weekly online challenge which would provide unique support information for student. The challenge would come in the form of an e-mail asking students to engage with an online service.
  • Disability services staffers can qualitatively measure accessibility issues for students with disabilities to ensure that challenge is matched with equal amounts of support.
  • First Year Success Courses instructors can utilize the model to gain understanding about their students and their online behaviors.
  • Educational technology personnel can utilize web statistics to measure student access including: amount of time spent per page, discussion activity levels, and popular pages/sites.

The application possibilities for online development and the helix model are numerous. I hope to continue my reflection and synthesis of the concepts that I have outlined. Technology is constantly changing and thus the online development theory will have to adapt accordingly.



Astin, A. (1984). Student involvement: a developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(4), 297-308.

Evans, N., Forney, D., & Guide-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development in college: theory, research, and practice . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Sanford, N. (1967). Self & society: social change and individual development. New York, NY: Atherton Press.

Terenzini, P. T. (1999). Research and practice in undergraduate education: And never the twain shall meet?. Journal of Higher Education, 38, 33-48.

Wilson, B. A. (1996). A descriptive study: The intellectual development of business administration students. The Delta Pi Epsilon Journal, 38, 209-221.

Zhao, C.-M., Kuh, G.D. (2004). Adding value: learning communities and student engagement. Research in Higher Education. 45(2), 115-138.

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