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Constructivism in practice or a buzz-word???

Constructivism, with its emphasis on learning as “an individual matter” and learners constructing “reality in terms of their prior experiences, their conceptual knowledge, their procedural schemas, their values, their attitudes, and their preferred ways of knowing” (Jenkins, 2006, para.5), has been increasingly seen by educators and learning theorists as best suiting the on-line learning environment, which “allows learning to be place and time independent” (Huang, 2002, p.28) and thus relies heavily on a learner’s / a group of learners’ autonomy (Beaudoin, 2002; Schunk, 2012).

On-line courses are gaining popularity in the community (Marque, 2010), and a lot of adults “can benefit from this second chance to educate themselves (Huang, 2002, p.28). The flexible, “non linear nature of the internet” affords learners an opportunity to follow their own unique “learning paths” and, in this way, to create “a natural learning environment”, with learners taking responsibility for “actively seeking and focusing on material of interest” (Marque, 2010, para. 6-8). On-line learning has a lot of potential in taking the learning process away from the teacher-centered to learner-centered practices, an objective “which has been seemingly unattainable by traditional linear approaches” (Marque, 2010, para.11).

The operational merits of online learning are numerous: they “can reach a greater number of people more easily and efficiently”, they arguably “provide an avenue to circumvent the financial barriers . . . that have restricted some students access to universities in the past” (Schell & Janicki, 2012, p.27), and “learners can arrange their learning around their everyday lives” (Huang, 2002, p.28). However, as Schell and Janicki claim, these are arguments to “efficiency”, not to “effectiveness” (Schell & Janicki, 2012, p.27). In their view, the effectiveness of an on-line course is determined by the appropriateness of the learning theories that lie at its core.

The constructivist learning model is seen as better serving the purpose of online learning (and ideally all types of adult learning) than the objectivist learning model traditionally employed in formal educational environment. The constructivist approach transforms the teacher’s role from that of “an expert model” to that of “a facilitator/guide”, allows learners to go beyond the textbook and use “a variety of sources / media”, focuses learning on questions rather than facts, and “discovering” rather than “packing” information (Schell & Janicki, 2012). These intrinsic features of constructivism bring learning closer to the environment that the student will encounter after the university experience, when “there will not be a professor to guide him/her through a problem” (Schell & Janicki, 2012, p.34), in other words, providing “value beyond school” (Jenkins, 2006, para.25).

However, developing an online course that promotes constructivist learning is fraught with a number of problems, such as organizing the course in compliance with the security and copyright regulations, appropriate use of information technology, and the true cost of course delivery (Schell & Janicki, 2012).

Moreover, on-line learning, however constructivism-friendly it may seem and be claimed to be by universities offering on-line courses to the community, is currently far from being truly constructivist. Shalni Gulati (2004) insists that the “normative” linear objectivist learning model that formal education has traditionally relied on is being transferred onto on-line education, allowing “limited recognition to diverse preferences of learning” (Gulati, 2004, para.2-3). Gulati further argues that the highest-achieving on-line learners are objective teaching oriented.

Among the greatest drawbacks of current on-line education, Gulati (2004) identifies “observable participation” in discussions on “teacher-identified topics”, which, in her view, promotes behaviorist practices. Gulati claims that “the requirement to make . . . learning explicit and externalise [sic] . . . . enforcing requirements over participation by defining what is to be discussed and by controlling the time-scale of discussion, formal education remains situated in the objectivist worldview”, it rewards participatory behavior [sic]” and punishes “silent online behavior” by deduction of the final mark (para.33). Gulati insists that educators should review their attitude to the rate of participation if the constructivist assumption of individual learning is to be observed. Low-profile participation, or “lurking”, does not mean that the learner “is less engaged in meaningful learning”, moreover, “it could be argued that the ‘overactive’ online students (i.e., those who are constantly inputting words) do so at the expense of a more reflective, but less visible learning process in which their silent peers are actually more fully engaged” (Beaudoin, 2002, p.8). Gulati (2004) cites Nonnecke and Preece, who found that one of the greatest contributors to “lurking activities” was “the surveillance and disciplinary power of the teacher” (para.49).

Further, Gulati (2004) challenges a pre-set syllabus providing “a chain-line sequence of learning events” prescribing learning materials and focusing on “predicting results” (para.19) as going counter to the constructivist assumptions of learning revolving around and relying upon a learner’s prior knowledge and individual experience, as well as letting a learner take control of how and what he / she learns. Moreover, Gulati (2004) argues that “in a constructivist paradigm, errors are a positive part of learning”, and calls for on-line instructors “to enable informal and trustworthy learning spaces, where learners feel confident and supported” (para.63).

Thus, critics of current online education generally recommend that formal education take on a more informal character to enable true constructivism.

As for my own experience, I need and feel comfortable with the instructor’s supervision. I fully understand that an educational degree must meet state standards and be completed in a certain period of time. Instructors’ guidance spares me a lot of trouble I would be in for trying to find my own individual idiosyncratic learning path. I do not think a purely constructivist approach can be implemented in formal education, it is rather a viable option for non-degree learning, which has no (or flexible) standards to comply with and does not involve many people who are supposed to keep common pace in order to interact productively and efficiently in the course of learning.

References

Beaudoin, M. (2002) Learning or lurking? Tracking the “invisible” online student”. The Internet and Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.c3l.uni-oldenburg.de/cde/series/mbfin.pdf

Gulati, S. (2004). Constructivism and emerging online learning pedagogy: a discussion for formal to acknowledge and promote the informal. Retrieved from http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003562.htm

Huang, H.-M. (2002). Towards constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology. 33(1), 27-37. Retrieved from http://www.umsl.edu/~wilmarthp/modla-links-2011/Toward-a-constructivism-for-adult-learners–in-online-learning-environments.pdf

Jenkins, J. (2006). Constructivism. Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration. Retrieved from http://knowledge.sagepub.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/view/edleadership/n121.xml

Marque. S. (2010, March 20). Constructivist learning in online courses. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.brighthub.com/education/online-learning/articles/38850.aspx

Schell, G., & Janicki, T. (2012). Online course pedagogy and the constructivist learning model. Journal of the Southern Association for Information Systems. 1(1). 26-36. Retrieved from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jsais/11880084.0001.104?view=text;rgn=main

Schunk, D.H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective. (6th ed.). Pearson education, Inc.

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3 Comments

  1. Bonnie Held

    Marina,
    I appreciate your point of view, and it seems like you attacked from a true constructivist platform. I didn’t even think about the teacher-led activities wouldn’t really be true constructivism. Frankly, though, some of the arguments put forth by Gulati (2004) were petty. She mentions a group of nursing students who spent the bulk of their time researching and responding to the arguments they had personally started (Gulati, 2004). I get that perhaps they aren’t “branching out” enough, but isn’t this the point of constructivism? That we socially engage and make meaning for ourselves?
    In my opinon, the biggest obstacles in creating a true online constructivist classroom are time and assessment/evaluation, both of which you mentioned. One of the ways in which we can lean more constructivist is through the use of “authentic assessment,” something we spent a great deal on in my elementary education coursework. Grant Wiggins defines authentic assessment as “…engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field” (Mueller, 2014).
    Authentic assessment allows for the concept of backwards planning, where educators first decide what competencies the learner will need, and create a learning plan that develops these competencies. Authentic assessment will not always be constructivist in nature. Take these two examples:

    Subject: Bridges
    Instruction A: Students are given specific materials, taught how those materials work synergistically, and given a picture of a completed bridge (which they would presumably model theirs after.)
    Instruction B: In a room sits a table with several books on bridges and other construction– non-fiction, stories, coffee-table-type books. Students are given 5 days to complete their bridge using any materials that they find or request. Students are allowed to perform trial-and-error experiments as many times as they would like. After the five days, students compare and contrast their bridges to discover how they are different, and why some were more effective than others. After this project, students will work in groups to create a bridge for their toy train set.
    Authentic assessments could include: teacher observation, oral assessment questions, discussions throughout the week, effectiveness of group efforts, etc.
    I believe our Walden courses provide authentic assessment. Our competency is that we will be prepared for the field of instructional design. As instructional designers we are required to work both independently and in groups, and manage our own projects. The rubrics for our courses are designed so that we are not necessarily required to master any specific content, but rather show that we have made efforts to seek out a variety of sources and form our own conclusions. To me, this is authentic; and to me, this is constructivist.
    References
    Gulati, S. (2004). Constructivism and emerging online learning pedagogy: a discussion for formal to acknowledge and promote the informal. Retrieved from http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003562.htm
    Mueller, Jon. (2014). What is Authentic Assessment? Authentic Assessment Toolbox. Retrieved from http://jfmueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox/whatisit.htm

    • Bonnie,
      You are more than right. Believe me, I thrive on the Walden-provided learning environment, and Walden’s approach is a lot more beneficial for my personal development as a professional than the distance learning course I previously took in Russia. The Russian course was a lot more prescriptive, with the from-A-to-Z list of topics a student was supposed to be able to reproduce (not discuss). The outcome was pitiful indeed, the students’ heads were crammed with academic knowledge which none could really apply. In fact, a great academic slant it has always been a great drawback of Russian higher education. Even now that the bachelor’s and master’s degrees have been introduced to replace the previously granted Specialist’s degree, applicant are now given a choice whether to work for the academic bachelor’s or the application bachelors within the same field of knowledge.
      I quoted Gulati’s paper not because I fully side with the author, but to show that there are voices of dissent, and there is some truth to what they say. Moreover, Gulati’s criticism just shows us that some of the best learning options that online courses offer cannot and should not be designed to be purely constructivist. An effective online course is a synergy of all (or almost all) the learning theories identified by educators and psychologists. Learning should appeal to and cater for the needs and the potential of very diverse groups, therefore, no single approach would ever meet the purpose.
      I might suggest, though, that the low-profile discussion participants could be persuaded to participate more actively if there were an option for them to initiate a discussion on an other-than-prescribed topic within the broad scope of the Week’s material, if they could contribute the knowledge they acquired from their reading-up. According to Beaudoin (2002), some learners feel shy to participate because they do not think their contributions to be valuable, because they are convinced they have nothing to say to add to what others have already come up with. Further, social constructivism could be hindered by the differences in the cultural backgrounds of the participants, some cultures tend to produce silent learners.
      I also feel it extremely beneficial that we are occasionally engaged in peer assessment, which, as I understand, is part and parcel of authentic assessment.
      Beaudoin, M. (2002) Learning or lurking? Tracking the “invisible” online student”. The Internet and Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.c3l.uni-oldenburg.de/cde/series/mbfin.pdf
      Mueller, J. (2014). What is Authentic Assessment? Authentic Assessment Toolbox. Retrieved from http://jfmueller.faculty.noctrl.edu/toolbox/whatisit.htm

  2. In you blog you wrote about the discussion group process, “it could be argued that the ‘overactive’ online students (i.e., those who are constantly inputting words) do so at the expense of a more reflective, but less visible learning process in which their silent peers are actually more fully engaged” (Beaudoin, 2002, p.8).

    I find that situation in a face to face (F2F) classroom, or in an online learning discussion.

    This overactive student is very present F2F and will dominate the interactive exchange of ideas and views and those silent students that do co-construct meaning and build a more in-depth understanding of the topic are still present, but still, less visible in the learning process in which they are fully engaged. This is the bottom line of using discussion – it has its roots in principles of constructive learning. I am not sure due to individual personalities this could be eliminated in discussion.
    I do agree with you that the Instructors’ guidance and facilitation is needed. The instructor plays a crucial part in aiding the discussion process because he or she must engage the students in conversation and manage the flow of the discussion.

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